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Woods for all seasons

If you go down to The Woods today, you’ll find the Four Seasons has recaptured its culinary mojo thanks to an infusion of new blood from a surprising quarter, writes Pat Nourse.

It's in the manual, I'm sure of it. Somewhere in the great, grand, gilt-edged Standard Operating Procedures for all the very big hotel groups is the edict that just having good food and wine isn't enough for a flagship restaurant. No. There has to be The Gimmick. Maybe it's having all the parts of the meal served at different stations around the room, like a bizarre culinary Passion play. The ruse of serving a ridiculously expensive version of something not usually ridiculously expensive - the $50 burger, the thousand-dollar omelette, the $10,000 Martini and other such rube-bait - has come and gone. Mercifully, The Woods ducks the bullet, selling itself almost entirely on - wait for it - the quality of its food and drink. It's crazy, but it might just work.

When I say almost, I'm thinking of the woods angle. It's hard to see the headnote on the menu which lists the woods being burnt in the restaurant's brick oven that day and firing its grills as anything but a little gimmicky, but if this is as far as it goes, I reckon we'll take our lumps. The Woods is a good restaurant, and Four Seasons needs to be given credit for taking a chance on a smaller operator. Hamish Ingham and Rebecca Lines make for a very talented chef-and-manager, husband-and-wife team, but while their Surry Hills restaurant, Bar H, is busy and well-liked, they're not the first people you'd think to call for this job, and nor would a restaurant in an international hotel chain seem like a move you'd bet on them making.

Anyway, from the embers of today's Mallee root and olive and apple logs springs a largish, mostly fresh-ish range of things to eat. I'd say the two key influences in Ingham's cooking to date have been Kylie Kwong, owner of Billy Kwong, the restaurant where Ingham headed the kitchen for many a year, and Alice Waters, the owner of Chez Panisse, the Berkeley restaurant where he worked as a stagiaire. The current incarnation of Bar H sees a ratio of something like three parts Kwong to one part Waters in the food, whereas this new restaurant mostly leans Western in its inspiration, with a Californian zeal for putting produce ahead of technique.

Take the radishes. They're almost more shopping (or styling) than cooking - the chef winning points for what he's not doing to them more than for what he does. Skinny firestick and regular bulbs are carefully washed (any gardener will tell you the buggers are devils for hanging onto dirt) and put on a plate, leaves and all, with some pretty damned impressive butter they churn in the kitchen themselves, flaky sea salt and good bread. Wham, bam, thank you Elizabeth David. If you've ever struggled to find anything fresh and clean to eat in a hotel on a business trip, it's a dish that'll seem a lot like the best thing since sliced Toblerone. That goes double if it's teamed with a bowl of mixed wood-roasted peppers from Noosa chilli-whisperer Richard Mohan, and a few rounds of Steve Feletti's outstanding Moonlight Flat oysters.

At this stage Clint Hillery, the talented sommelier you'd have seen most recently fronting Time to Vino in Darlinghurst and the Cross, might wander over and suggest something like a glass of superbly dry and nutty Equipo Navazos manzanilla. Hillery stands out (along with a couple of other key members of staff) thanks to the fact that he's clearly a restaurants man, not someone hotel-trained. Take his suggestion (and any other advice he may proffer) but do take the time to leaf through the list. It's a pleasant read, even if you happen to be a committed beer-drinker.

All this fire-and-smoke talk seems to foreshadow some serious meat. And meat there is, but to the Woods team's credit, they use their open flames with imagination. A lick of fire adds flavour (though not, alas, tenderness) to calamari inventively served with both pork-cheek bacon and the tang of pickled muntries, the Australian native food world's answer to cranberries. Ash is used as seasoning for the barely cured ocean trout, smoked roe and parsley salad, and the grill again supplies the heat to cook the sea urchin that goes into the salad of cucumber and yoghurt. The kitchen, we're told, chooses apple wood to grill its whole fish for two, olive branches for the roast Milly Hill lamb saddle (love that celtuce and sorrel accompaniment), and Mallee root for the spatchcock with a Sicilian-leaning arrangement of radicchio, pine nuts and currants. Wood-roasted crab sounds to this writer, a confirmed crab addict of some years' standing, like a great idea, but fresher blue swimmer crabs than I saw would need to be in evidence before I'd order it again, even if the pepperberry and garlic flavours are a fine idea. It's the sort of thing you shouldn't see in a boldly produce-first restaurant, that's for sure.

The highlights for me have mostly been the quieter moments: scallops sold singly on the shell dressed with puffed rice, jewels of citrus and tiny summer purslane leaves. Or pigeon "with all its parts", an eye-catching still-life of the segmented, burnished bird with crisp roast chickpeas, chickpea chips, a really splendid grilled white peach and some bitter leaves.

The steaks, it turns out, are among the better bets. They come with some interesting accents - grilled onions soured with whey in the case of the Greenstone Creek Scotch, black garlic butter with the Coorong sirloin on the bone - and they're cooked well. They don't come with much else, though. A dip into the likes of the green beans with a gluey almond sauce or the (excellent) Hasselback potatoes is de rigueur. Can you tell the tang of one wood from another? Maybe my palate isn't up to the job. In fact, the only dish where I thought you got a real hit of woodfired intensity was one of the pizzette offered at lunch, a little number of "wild" weeds (the day's weeds were kale, kale and kale).

Dreamtime Australia's Michael McCann, the Jerry Bruckheimer of Australian restaurant design, has done a mostly admirable job with the fit-out. Here he steers clear of the seemingly pointless excess that I fear has marred some of his other projects (I'm looking at you, Concrete Blonde) to create a dining room with a bit of sparkle that doesn't devolve into outright silliness. I can take or leave the graffiti scrawl on the ceiling (I didn't love it the first time around in the Starck-designed restaurant at Paris's Mama Shelter, either), but the three-storey dangle of the miners' lamps at the entrance is an appealingly theatrical gesture.

The Woods is, however, inescapably a capital-H hotel restaurant, despite the best efforts of the cooks. It's not the plethora of solo diners or the barely rebadged Four Seasons staff on the floor that give it away so much as the fact that it's smack-bang in the Four Seasons' lobby. Sit at one of the tables near the entrance and you can catch the newspaper preferences of the guests at reception, or the flash-bulb explosion of one mass of lanyarded conventioneers colliding with another. It's not really date-night material, a fact that's underscored very clearly by the loud hotel-lobby soundtrack. But it's a damned fine place to eat nonetheless, and a winning addition to the Circular Quay end of the CBD, especially for pre-theatre diners.

Desserts conjure little oases of transcendence. They manage this not through showiness, but through quiet elegance. Fruit drives most of them. Rose-geranium ice-cream is pure prettiness with toasty brioche and white peach caramel, while a slice of tart, adorned with sweet little plums, is rustic and gutsy. Goat's curd, in a finely textured little ball that suggests it's been hung in cheesecloth to firm up, looks like a cross between cheesecake and a free-form coeur à la crème, plated up with a smart complement of bursting blackberries and a fine powder that's more a dried sugarcane juice than a brown sugar. It all but makes its own sweet music.


THE WOODS

Four Seasons Hotel, 199 George St, Sydney, (02) 9250 3160, thewoodsrestaurant.com.au
Licensed.
Open Lunch Mon-Fri noon-2.30pm; dinner Mon-Sat 5.30pm-10.30pm.
Cards AE D MC V.
Prices Entrées $16-$30, main courses $29-$44, desserts $14-$18.
Wheelchair access Yes.
Vegetarian Separate menu of five dishes.
Noise Much like a hotel lobby; terrible music.
Plus A fresh take on hotel dining.
Minus In a hotel lobby.

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THE WOODS

Four Seasons Hotel, 199 George St, Sydney, (02) 9250 3160, thewoodsrestaurant.com.au
Licensed.
Open Lunch Mon-Fri noon-2.30pm; dinner Mon-Sat 5.30pm-10.30pm.
Cards AE D MC V.
Prices Entrées $16-$30, main courses $29-$44, desserts $14-$18.
Wheelchair access Yes.
Vegetarian Separate menu of five dishes.
Noise Much like a hotel lobby; terrible music.
Plus A fresh take on hotel dining.
Minus In a hotel lobby.

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