Monday, April 23, 2012

Rockpool: To China and back

Like the mature older sister to the louder but still classy Rockpool Bar & Grill, the original Rockpool on George Street, The Rocks remains the ultimate Sydney restaurant institution. With Neil Perry at the helm, and Phil Wood heading up the kitchen, over 20 years of service with a string of hats says something.

I had booked in to Rockpool without completely knowing how much it had turned towards the Chinese flavours that Perry so loves. I incorrectly figured that with Spice Temple as Perry's outlet for all things Chinese, that Rockpool would have more of a modern Australian path. So it is with these misguided expectations that I dined at Rockpool one weeknight evening.

Bramble cocktail from Rockpool, George Street, The Rocks
There is a lot about Rockpool that makes it well suited to a special occasion: the white-jacketed army of a service crew, the hushed tones and music, or simply even the fact that I’ve peered through the front windows so many times.

Presented with the cocktail and aperitifs list, wine list and 4-course menu (a few days before they started offering 2-, 3,- or 4-course options recently) all at once was a little daunting, but eased by the fact that the restaurant feels old and familiar, although rather quiet this particular night.

We break into white tablecloth territory with cocktails to start: a Bramble of gin, lemon juice and Crème de cassis – a blackcurrant liqueur that contributes the dramatic colours of the cocktail.

Honey spelt sourdough bread and butter
A boule of soft spelt sourdough arrived as we assessed the menu, looking like a lot of bread for two people. Tinged with a faint hint of honey, the fluffy bread disappeared a little too quickly with pretty much all of the creamy butter.

Queensland spanner crab, toast, tabasco mayonnaise, peach leaf jelly
Subtlety was the name of the canapé, inhaled in just a couple of teaspoon-mouthfuls and leaving me wanting more. The sweet spanner crab flesh paired exquisitely with the mild peach leaf jelly although it was almost a shy start, even with the Tabasco mayonnaise.

At this point I still wasn't aware of the oncoming influx of Chinese flavours. We'd made our selections from the three savoury courses and while I'd picked dishes like congee and roast pigeon, I was expecting a modern and western take on these very traditional Chinese dishes.

Blue swimmer crab and corn congee, almond tofu, star anise scented peanuts,
fried bread and chilli oil
Rockpool's congee certainly did not look traditional, but the flavours were another kettle of fish. It seemed like the traditional, if not pimped-up, flavours but ten-times more intense.

There were so many familiar flavours and so much going on: small hits of blue swimmer crab flesh, sweet kernels of corn and very traditional additions of peanuts, shallots and shredded lettuce to the congee.

However, there was an oiliness to the dish, not helped by the yau ja gwai fried bread pieces nor the chilli oil, somewhat overshadowing the delicate crab and almond tofu.

Glazed pig's head, hot and sour gluten, confit sweet potato, vanilla and hazelnut
This was not remotely the presentation we were expecting for the pig's head dish, but we were fine dining after all. This refined looking dish was every bit as rich as anticipated, with probably more fat and skin in the sticky glazed pig's head portion than meat.

The accompaniments of sweet potato balls and crunchy hazelnuts weren't mind blowing, while the stark presentation of cauliflower cross-sections was intriguing.

John dory, scampi, paprika, macadamia and basil pistou
My second savoury course moved out of Asia to somewhere more like France, with a John dory fillet and a couple of scampi somewhere beneath the flood of chlorophyll-heavy basil pistou.

The pistou was more delicate than its hue suggested, though weighted with bits of macadamia nut - a rather full-flavoured and oily nut to pair with the so-delicate-it-almost-wasn't-there John dory. I liked the barely-cooked scampi best, together with the rouille-like sauce on bread that had some serious char flavour to it.

There aren't any wine matches to the dishes as such, but just asking the sommelier for recommendations by the glass worked well for me. The Spanish Paco & Lola Albariño was a superb match for the clean seafood flavours of this dish.

Mao po doufu with hot and numbing beef, nori curd and bone marrow xiao long bao
The ma po doufu dish was a little more in line with my expectations of Rockpool - innovation applied to the traditional. We wondered for a good five seconds or so where the tofu in the dish was. It is in fact the golden, deep fried sail-like piece in the centre of the plate; more a bean curd skin than normal tofu.

The dish was surrounded by a spiced chilli oil, as per the traditional dish, and completed with pieces of meltingly tender beef spiked with Sichuan pepper for the numbing effect. The tiny xiao long bao filled with bone marrow, cute as it was, didn't quite have the usual quiveringly rich, swoony impact of bone marrow.

South Australian lamb, black eyed beans, tea smoked mussels and salted wombok
The array of ingredients that arrived with the lamb third course did little to detract from the square of lamb, which looked like it was topped with a tile of caramel although it was probably just a sauce on the lamb fat.

Cooked to medium-rare, the lamb played second fiddle in flavour terms compared to the tea smoked mussels, which might have been the true feature of the dish.

Chinese roast pigeon, smoked eggplant, black mushrooms and cucumber pickle with
black bean sauce
My final savoury choice was the Chinese roast pigeon, which was just as good if not better than the traditional dish ordered by those in the know at some Chinese restaurants locally.

Served medium-rare (which would never be the case in Chinese restaurants), the dazzling sheen of the burnished skin was the highlight, closely followed by the impressive flavour infused into the bird and black bean sauce and the heavily smoked eggplant puree.

As wings are about my favourite part of a bird, there was no way I was letting it go to waste. It was all fingers on deck (well, two and two thumbs at least), and noticed by the staff as a handtowel made its way to the table shortly after.

The Parker Estate 'Terra Rossa' Cabernet Sauvignon was the recommended wine with my pigeon, which was bold enough to match the slight gaminess of the pigeon.

Passionfruit soufflé with passionfruit ice cream
No more than 15 seconds after our main course plates were cleared, the passionfruit soufflé was before me. So much for the 20-minute preparation time that I was kind of looking forward to for an eating break (apologies later ensued).

I understand that I'm a slow eater and that this dessert was probably prepared way before I'd finished my main, but it was nontheless highly unexpected so soon. But not one to let an early soufflé deflate the experience (although post photos it had already started to sink), I dug in to the centre of the golden top and tasted sweet passionfruit air - close enough to air anyway.

The waiter's recommendation is to make a hole in the centre of the soufflé and add the passionfruit ice cream to it, with amplifies the fruit flavour while melting and melding the two aspects.

Chocolate terrine infused with ginger, almond sorbet
The chocolate terrine consisted of layers of tempered chocolate, a gingery chocolate mousse filling between and something cake-y on the bottom. The sesame snap added to the nuttiness of the almond sorbet but after tasting the passionfruit soufflé, there wasn't much of a competition.

Birthday surprise chocolate slice
As it was a birthday dinner, unbeknownst to us both a stunning spun sugar concoction made its way to our table, with a single candle illuminating the sugary enclosure.

This treat from the kitchen garnered a few stares and slightly embarassed the birthday celebrant who quickly blew out the candle, although not before it started to melt the spun sugar cylinder.

The square of cake within was rich with a creamy, thick chocolate component on a cake base, and I thought it blew the former chocolate dessert out of the water.

Petit fours to take home
With dessert and a half, I couldn't quite contemplate petit fours to finish, so they were gladly packed up for us to take home. The jelly jube was about as much as I could handle later, despite the lovely presentation of the tiny eclairs and the paper-wrapped fudgey truffle.

Rockpool was undoubtedly a special evening out with near impeccable service (I drank too much water simply because it was constantly filled). Some dishes missed the mark for me and it wasn't the atmospheric experience that Rockpool Bar & Grill can be, but Rockpool was a different and unexpected affair that started at a point, veered off towards China then came back rapidly - and all without a passport.

Rockpool on Urbanspoon


Vivian - vxdollface said...

I wasn't a huge fan of Rockpool either, a couple of dishes were a miss for me too.. including the chicken dish with 'strange sauce' which was -.- ... anyway B&G and Spice Temple are my choices of the Rockpool group

joey@FoodiePop said...

Was it your birthday? If so, happy birthday!

I've never felt like going to Rockpool and not sure why, but the food does look impressive as expected. Maybe one day.

chocolatesuze said...

the glazed pigs head sounds incredible! rich and perfect for this shocking weather

Jacq said...

I've always thought that Rockpool was more Modern Australian with an Asian twist as well (or so I was told), so I'm surprised to see that the food has such a heavy Chinese influence. Perhaps things have changed since someone last raved to me about how good it was! It still sounds like the service is absolutely impeccable though which is nice to hear

john@heneedsfood said...

I'm yet to make it to one of Neil Perry's restaurants. The birthday surprise looks like a lantern!

Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

The mapo tofu looks really interesting! It's one of my favourite dishes, especially in winter :)

Dee@foodinhand said...

Hm how interesting...I don't know how to feel about this. It's nice that the hatted restaurants are breaking the stereotype that "fine dining" equates to European influences. On the flip-side there's so much amazing and cheap asian food if there's no unique inventiveness to this then I personally wouldn't see value in paying so much more. Who knew dining could be so philosophical hahaha.

food porn-er @ said...

LOL too cute. You using your fingers to get stuck into the pigeon! I always do that but I can't help it. I simply can't do it with a knife and fork!

Happy Birthday Tina!

SarahKate (Mi Casa-Su Casa) said...

I was taken to Rockpool for my bday about 4 years ago and I found the food didn't have nearly the Asian influence that it has now. In fact, when I went my favourite course was a goat-cheese filled tortellini with golden raisins. And, obviously, the passionfruit souffle was dreamy then... as now!

Jilbert said...

nice review tina!

after seeing this though, i probably wouldnt go along. especially given im more of a traditionalist when it comes to traditional chinese flavours like the congee and mapo dou fu.

nice photo porn though :)

Tina said...

Hi Vivian - I'm yet to visit Spice Temple for a meal (cocktail jug there was good fun though!)

Hi joey - Not my birthday :) Birthday person is a huge fan of Neil Perry so it was only fitting.

Hi suze - Totally a cooler weather dish, so rich.

Hi Jacq - Yeah, I'm not sure where we have these expectations from... Perhaps Neil Perry on TV is more the modern Australian angle than Chinese? Then again, it may just be the dishes we chose.

Hi John - Haha, a sugary melting lantern perhaps!

Hi Lorraine - Bet you've not seen ma po tofu like this dish!

Hi Dee - I think that was the issue I was struggling with in my initial expectations and what I thought at the end of the night.

Hi food porn-er - The wings are pretty small - there was no way I could have done it elegantly with a knofe and fork (and not my birthday, yet) :D

Hi SarahKate - The souffle is definitely a stayer :)

Hi Jilbert - Thanks! Again, I'm not sure if it's fair to judge on just the dishes we ordered. Another visit with different dishes might be a completely different experience.

Corinne @ Gourmantic said...

Agree, the cuisine has changed a lot since we've been. Unfortunately, we were put off on every occasion by the service so we stopped going. Love the "lantern" dessert!

Rita (mademoiselle délicieuse) said...

I've always wondered whether Neil Perry's heavy Chinese influences would work or not on me, especially being a traditionalist regarding Chinese flavours. Like you, I had always pictured the original Rockpool to be mod-Oz, which does include Asian influences but also others as well.

Tina said...

Hi Corinne - I had no issues with service; more a matter of dish choices for me I think.

Hi Rita - Yeah, in hindsight picking some of the more Chinese style dishes didn't really do it for me...

Anonymous said...

Over the Asian invasion in the food industry. Can anyone cook anything else?


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