This story starts in August 2012.
My bestie Sarah treated me to Rockpool on George for my birthday. She insisted on taking me there, even though I insisted it was too much. I knew how much the a la carte would be at Rockpool, and I was worried that she was spending too much on me.
Not for her sake, for my own. As much as I wanted to spoil her too, as a newlywed and a mortgagor, I knew it was going to be a struggle to maintain the standard for her birthday.
But the night ended up being so wonderful, and even finished with a complimentary birthday chocolate cake with a spun sugar candle. Overwhelmed with happiness and love, I made a somewhat foolish promise “I don’t care what you say, I’m taking you to QUAY next year!”
I’ve heard that you have to book Quay 6 months in advance, but for some odd reason, I figured that was an out-dated timeframe from like 10 years ago. I mean, this is Sydney, not New York, as if you would ever need to book any restaurant (even Quay) more than a month in advance. In fact, I’ve never made a booking, even with a 3-hatter, more than 2 weeks in advance.
I let the time pass and at the beginning of May, about a month before Sarah’s birthday I was casually browsing the Quay website which told me that “Our next available booking for 2 or 4 on a Friday or Saturday evening is in November 2013”
Best friend FAIL. I felt terrible. Where else could I possibly book that would even compare to Quay in terms of food, location… and just, that unmatchable “I’m dining at Quay” experience?
After researching every 3 and 2 hatted restaurant in Sydney I finally decided on Guillaume. A French restaurant with harbour views in the country’s most iconic landmark – it is the classic Sydney fine dining experience. Quay may have great views of the Opera House, but we’d be eating under the sails, which I thought was a pretty decent consolation.
A few weeks after I made the booking, I realised that Vivid Festival would be happening at the same time which meant we’d be dining inside the main attraction with a great view of the harbour lights. I texted Sarah: “Just letting you know. Saturday may be the greatest date anyone ever takes you on“. Clearly, I was feeling pretty confident.
I managed to keep the venue a secret from Sarah and just led drove her into the city and walked her all the way across Circular Quay into the Opera House. When she realised there was only one place we could going, she burst into tears of happiness. Well, not actually, but I’m sure she wanted to.
I said: “See? Who needs a boyfriend or a husband or a French lover when you have me?”
Bennelong is truly impressive – we were seated at one of the white tables lined against the long window with panoramic views of the harbour and city lights (and tourists on the Opera House steps who stare at diners like we’re zoo animals). Overhead are lofty bows of concrete meeting at a peak that makes the place seem almost cathedral-like.
The Vivid lights on the sails in the background created a pretty stained-glass effect on the window.
I can’t imagine this sacred site being occupied by a restaurant any less fine than Guillaume – but sadly it looks like a bistro or bar might move in now that the venue has gone out to public tender.
We arrived at 5:30pm for the pre-theatre menu and enjoyed our warm sourdough bread in a near-empty restaurant.
I chose the Frenchiest entree – the steak tartare with pommes gaufrettes.
My first time trying steak tartare – I’ve never ordered it because I always thought the texture of raw beef would be hard to stomach after a few bites. But it was completely different to what I expected – it didn’t have a big golden egg-yolk in the middle but it was really well seasoned with strong acidic and sweet flavours which soaked through the beef and made it very easy to eat. And the pommes gaufrettes! The fanciest potato chips I will ever eat.
Sarah chose the beautiful local rockfish soup with mussels, crab, scallop, croutons and saffron aioli.
The evening was going really well. We were sipping on wine, enjoying our entrees and happily chatting about Sarah’s recent adventures in Europe.
Then, the lady sitting at the table next to us leaned over, tapped Sarah on the arm and said:
(like starting with “darling” makes what you’re about to say totally fine and acceptable)
I can hear every word you’re saying and I do not want to hear every word you’re saying”
And then felt the following emotions, all at once.
This made me so angry.
Since WHEN is it okay to ask fellow diners to “keep it down”?! I totally accept that there are certain limited contexts in life where you have are entitled to quiet – eg. a library or when a baby is sleeping in the same room. I also understand there are places where you may not be entitled to quiet, but get annoyed when people are really loud – eg. public transport or in the office. But a restaurant is an inherently social setting. Even the fanciest of restaurants. There is no such thing as a right to quiet in a restaurant.
And I’ll be the first to admit that I can have issues with volume control, but I swear hand-on-heart say that we were definitely not being obnoxiously loud. At most, our volume was “lively and conversational”. The restaurant was very quiet given that it was early in the evening, and I get that it may be annoying to unintentionally over-hear the conversation of neighbouring diners, but does that mean we need to adjust our speaking volume to a whisper?
I have SCOURED the internet for rules on restaurant etiquette and there is NOTHING out there about keeping your voice down. In fact, the behaviour that is problematic here is interrupting someone else’s dinner to tell them to be quiet. I mean, did she think we just ducked into Guillaume to get out of the rainy weather? We’re two young girls at an expensive restaurant, it was obviously a special occasion. I did not appreciate her “shushing” my friend whose birthday, graduation, return from overseas AND new job we were celebrating, making us both feel embarrassed and uncomfortable. Why put an ugly stain on an otherwise perfect night? That is the very definition of NOT COOL.
End of rant. I wanted to get that out of my system because on the night we just brushed it off, and tried not to let it affect our evening.
BACK TO THE FOOD.
My beef with potato galette. The beef was juicy and generous, but the highlight was the perfectly crispy and wafer thin galette.
Deboned Pyrenees lam rack with parsnip, spinach and black olives. Lamb is rarely my meat of choice but I took one bit of this and liked it better than my beef. Just perfectly, perfectly cooked.
And Guillaume’s famous Parish mash. Let’s not even think about how much butter is in this.
The portion sizes were surprisingly large, so at this point our stomaches were exploding. Times like these you’re especially thankful for being born with a separate dessert stomach.
Vanilla bean creme brulee with passionfruit sorbet. Low-risk choice for a French restaurant right?
Apparently not. When it came out ramekin-free on a plate, I knew this wasn’t going to end well. Lots of creme, not enough brulee. There was no glassy layer of hard toffee to crack – which is kind of unacceptable for a restaurant of this calibre. I mean no one orders creme brulee because they just want to eat a pot of custard – they order it because they want to get their spoon and shatter that crunchy brunt caramel. And the tartness of the passionfruit mousse and sorbet overpowered, rather than counterbalanced, the supersweet custard.
Disappointing. But then, all was redeemed.
Nougat Glace with peanuts, caramel ice cream, banana. Easily the hero dish of the evening. This was Sarah’s dessert choice but I decided for her that it was too amazing to not share with me.
One of the most perfect desserts I’ve ever eaten. On the surface, it’s just two types of ice cream and a grilled banana on a plate – the genius of it all isn’t revealed until you taste it. Once you’ve dug your spoon in a few times, you realise that this dish brings together some of the greatest flavour/texture combinations of the dessert world:
1. Banana + ice cream (eg. banana split, banana smoothie, banana-topped froyo)
2. Salt + caramel (eg. salted caramel, probably the biggest flavour sensation of the last decade)
3. Peanuts + nougat (eg. Snickers bar)
I also discovered the loveliness of nougat glace, which is a French frozen mousse made from meringue and whipped cream – it has a much softer, fluffier texture than ice cream and can be made without an ice-cream maker! Which means, when I’m feeling particularly ambitious, I could give it a go at home.
The three-course pre-theatre menu at Guillaume is a very reasonable $89. But there are no trimmings here – no amuse bouche, no palate cleanser, no petite fours. Service is polite and efficient, but I did get the impression that they saw pre-theatre diners as very low priority. No friendly French waiter telling us his name and that he would be taking care of us that evening, plates were simply placed on the table without explanation and though we knew we had to vacate by 7:45pm, we started getting very clear vibes that they wanted us to clear out from about a quarter past.
But in such a beautiful setting, service (or lack thereof) doesn’t really matter much. The only thing that could have made the night more perfect was if we were able to meet Mr Brahimi himself. I actually thought we’d bump into him somehow – as if celebrity chefs hang out with front of house at their restaurants to sign autographs and take photos with food nerds. Yeah, apparently that doesn’t happen in real life.
And to finish, some photos of pretty lights.