Okay, so maybe not. The weather is absolutely miserable on this Labour Day long weekend in Sydney. But that's fine, eating out still counts as eating in, right? The start of this month marks my mum's birthday, which is the perfect excuse to visit yet another restaurant that's sprung up in recent times.
Gastro Park has been getting a lot of favourable press lately, Monsieur Durack awarded it 16/20 which is as good as it gets from him (short of being Sepia). At the helm of this new venture is Grant King, previously head chef of Pier restaurant. These days who you work for is critical. Your reputation and resume precede you...if you are the protegee/chef spawn/chefling (yes, i'm talking about grown men here) of so and so with more hats than you are years old - you must be good.
What's your type? The logo reminds me of an ink political cartoonist - who exactly i couldn't tell you.
The location however is another story. Two years back, the Potts Point site was home to Blanco, a casual diner owned by the crew of Bistro Moncur. Funnily enough, the family and I made the pilgrimage (all 400m away) to Blanco when it existed, at this time of year for the very same occasion! It was a'ight - i remember ordering a soft shelled crab club sandwich (so predictable). Since then, the restaurant had been reincarnated as Steak Haus (why Haus is better than House, I don't know), yet another specialty steak place in a niche that is already saturated. Basically, this place has been changing hands too frequently to bode well.
The original group that did the refurbishment did the bulk of the work to convert the space into a restaurant. The work done by Debra Cronin Design for Gastro Park was largely cosmetic. A lot of vintage pieces have been thrown in to house weirdly growing plant life and the restaurant is dotted by wartime-esque lamps that are more for show than function. I half expected them to flicker on/off and sway in the breeze that was blowing outside. I'm sure i've complained about the low lighting in restaurants these days, my eyes were going bad just fine anyway. Just when I thought, "Could they possibly make it dimmer?" Yes, they can! (Not the most inventive political slogan was it) The restaurant was made darker in the middle of our sitting...just what we needed.
Interiors by Debra Cronin Design. This is place is dark even during the middle of the day! I guess the black on black doesn't help too much. Photo credit: The Australian
The restaurant management team consists of a Francophile and a Scandinavian (methinks), one the consummate professional, the other a bit of a joker. At one time, the waiter was 'steering' my brother's dessert plate at the table and pouring water into his glass from half a metre away. We had a bit of entertainment both in and outside the restaurant. There was a shindig going down in the alleyway neighbouring. A red carpet into a club was walked by a group of old(er) ladies arriving in a stretch hummer (gross @ the car), a cross dressing man (those ain't no lady's legs) and a fire-twirling stilt walker. Am i hallucinating here? It was absolutely mind boggling! Apparently weird stuff happens in this neck of the woods.
Exhibits A, B and C: the cheese selection sitting pretty under glass domes. Photo credit: Debra Cronin Design
Now, to the main event!
As you all well know, my philosophy is always to try something that I wouldn't normally have at home, and boy oh boy did i pick right. For his first solo venture, King has really let the creative juices flow. Dappling into molecular gastronomy and erring between the weird and wonderful, the technicality and sheer involvement of each dish is astounding. The waiters lost me after liquid nitrogen, my foodie brain exploded.
To prove or disprove the critics, I had to order the dish that everyone was talking about. My fellow diners and I decided to be diplomatic and order one of the four mains each. I chose the snapper and was pleasantly surprised by the fantasticality of the textures on the plate. Namely, the bubbly black calamari squid skin that reminds me of a posh prawn cracker. The snapper fillet was generous and cooked well, and crowned by its own crispy fish scales. This was a rather brave choice but i admire the adventurous spirit, especially when catering for a largely anglo (i.e. not Asian-willing-to-eat-or-try-everything) demographic. The 'crunch factor' of the scales was fine although they did tend to scratch on the way down...let's hope they didn't cause any permanent damage (that would suck). The other elements did a fine job of supporting the lead. The squid ink sauce was silky smooth, and was pleasantly reminiscent of the sea (with a subtle tinge of salt) and the calamari strips were delicate and chewy. All in all, a real beauty.
Oh la la: crispy scaled snapper, smoked potato puree quinelle, calamari crackling, ink sauce. Talk about wow factor!
The other mains on the night were a lamb loin, beef fillet and groper (misspelt 'grouper' on the menu - tut). I must say that the latter dish was a bit too stingy in terms of portion size (my mother needs the protein, if anything). As they say, we eat with our eyes and the plating of the beef fillet was a little clumsy, it tended towards a home style-look. Call it rustic if you will, but it won't fly in a two-hatter. These are relatively minor notes however, on dishes in which the flavours soared.
Pretty as a picture: Loin of lamb, cauliflower couscous, wild french mushrooms, jus gras. Aren't the baby chanterelles just lovely?
The sides of potato mash and green leaf salad were more than acceptable. The salad ignited a new interest of witlof for me. This has previously been an 'occasion' vegetable, with each piece costing ~$1, last i checked. It's sort of like the vegetable cousin of pear. The bread we received was a sour rye (it tasted of health), served on a black slate tile with a smear of freshly churned butter and sea salt. It was a bit unorthodox, having two tiles in the centre instead of individual plates (conducive to a crumb trail falling across the table) but we managed to deal.
The highlight of the night was definitely the dessert course. I ordered the Nitro pav (that must be liquid nitrogen right...?)
which was a dead-set winner. It left the meringues of supermarket ill-fame for dead. I was amazed at the soft mallowy texture and utter lack of sweetness (hooray!). And hidden from view is the guava sorbet, that is tucked in the centre - a nice touch. This tropical treat was worth the wait, and the crystal plates are utterly gorgeous. The chocolate dessert and pain perdu were also polished off quite nicely (not a skerrick was left)! The cracking of the chocolate orb with a spoon was very reminiscent of the Quay snow-egg (one day, you will be mine...)
Looks can be deceiving: okay, so it looks like a drowning fish...(exactly). Nitro pavlova filled with guava sorbet, pineapple pieces at the base and coconut foam
|Other worldly: this dessert looks like a solar system model. White chocolate shell with molten white and milk chocolate inside, honeycomb cubes, mandarin sphere, cookies & cream|
With any luck, Gastro Park will be able to outlive its predecessors at the Potts Point address. It's all guns blazing as SMH's Good Food Guide 2012 awarded the restaurant 2 chef's hats on debut. In its first year of existence, Gastro Park has striven(?) to break the mould of the table-clothed institutions of Sydney dining. What we needed was a bit of spice and excitement and I think we've been rewarded handsomely. Thanks for reading.