Michelle Rowe checks out the new venture of a talented Sydney hotel chef
HARU Inukai bustles about the floor of Blancharu, his new restaurant in Sydney’s Elizabeth Bay, offering madeleines, still warm from the oven, to diners who linger over their coffee. It’s not our first sighting of the Japanese-born chef in the dining room: he’s been pressing the flesh more than John McCain in the final throes of the US presidential campaign. He rushes to usher an old friend to a table, checks that a large group from a Japanese airline are enjoying themselves and answers the phone to take another dinner reservation.
The former Joel Robuchon protege, who recently left his position as executive chef at Galileo restaurant in Sydney’s five-star Observatory Hotel to open his own restaurant, has taken to his new role as host like a duck to water.
Tonight we could be in a bustling restaurant in downtown Tokyo. Blancharu is packed with Japanese diners, who presumably have followed the chef to his new inner-city digs, and the place is buzzing.
Opened in August, Blancharu’s atmosphere is much less formal than the exquisite Parisian salon-style dining room Inukai used to command at the Observatory. But it is nevertheless stylish and sleek, with a suede banquette running the length of the expansive front window, light-wood floors contrasting with dark chairs, and white-clothed tables accented with orange fabric runners. A bar attached to Blancharu’s front counter offers a more casual dining space for two or three customers, with the bonus of views into the kitchen.
While his new surrounds may be different, Osakatrained Inukai — who also worked at Tony Bilson’s Ampersand and Bilson’s earlier in his career — has retained the signature Japanese-French flair he developed while working as commis chef under Maurice Guillouet at Sydney’s then Hotel Nikko.
We start light with a gravlax of salmon with yuzu cream sauce ($14) and a yellowfin tuna tataki with sauce gribiche ($16). Both dishes are light and fresh, although there is no big hit of flavour. But the next course of handmade pasta with blue swimmer crab ($18) brings some of the most delicate and beautifully textured pasta I have eaten in a long time, mixed through with a generous amount of crab meat. My only complaint is that there could have been a lighter touch with the dill, a herb that overpowers other flavours if not used sparingly. Handmade fettucine with truffle butter ($20), on the other hand, is perfectly balanced and textured.
Main courses are difficult to choose from. Grass-fed beef tenderloin with green pea ragout and red wine jus ($32) and 300g Tajima wagyu beef with potato fondant and wasabi butter ($80) are frontrunners until they are pipped at the post by a blanquette de veau in pastry served with winter vegetables ($24) and a roasted duck breast with baby spinach and cardamom sauce ($26).
My husband’s duck breast is not a patch on the blanquette de veau, which is presented as a pie in a large, white pie bowl. I break through the crisp puff pastry shell and find generous chunks of veal and vegetables in a delicately flavoured white sauce. It’s the dish of the night.
A small but perfectly formed dessert list is almost redundant as I have seen, earlier in the evening, a raspberry souffle ($14) being delivered to a neighbouring table. It has my name on it. My husband chooses a coconut and champagne soup with panna cotta ($12).
The menu says to allow 20 minutes for the souffle to arrive, but either we’ve had too much pinot or the kitchen’s working well ahead of schedule. The proudly standing pink confection arrives in less than 10 minutes, accompanied by a scoop of vanilla ice cream. It’s perfectly light, airy, beautifully flavoured and complemented well by the ice cream. The coconut and champagne soup with panna cotta is good, if unusual, but the souffle is definitely the dessert to go back for.
The service on the night we visit is a little patchy. Our waitress, while pleasant and helpful, seems shaky at times, but this can probably be put down to nerves and is surely something that can be ironed out as this restaurant hits its stride.
Service glitches aside, one of Blancharu’s biggest strengths is its owner. Inukai, now the master of his own home, bustles happily about the floor, madeleine tray in hand, chatting to diners and playing the perfect host. He talks excitedly of early-morning visits to the fish
Blancharu Shop 1, 21 Elizabeth Bay Rd, Elizabeth Bay. (02) 9360 3555; www.blancharu.com.au. Open: Dinner, Tuesday-Sunday, 6.30pm-10pm; brunch Saturday-Sunday, 10am-3pm. Cost: About $175 for two for three courses and wine, or four-course dinner degustation, $65 a person. Drink: An eclectic list comprising predominantly Australian, New Zealand and French bottles, and the occasional oddity such as a Lebanese cabernet sauvignon. Several wines available by the glass and BYO charged at $10 corkage a bottle. Reason to return: To watch a chef-owner in his element.
A change of scene: Diners enjoy weekend brunch at new French-Japanese bistro Blancharu in Sydney’s Elizabeth Bay
Home, sweet home: Blancharu’s head chef, owner and genial host Haru Inukai