The easiest way to get your head around Barangaroo House is to think of it as a big pub. A big, fancy spaceship-shaped pub, yes, but a pub just the same. Walk past on a Saturday afternoon and it's schooners and buckets of prawns in the sun, Pure Blonde and Carlton Draught, chips and chicken salt. Then again, this is the first pub I've been to that acknowledges the Gadigal people of the Eora nation as the traditional owners of the land where it stands. Probably a tactful move for a venue named for one of the women who figures most prominently in the colonial history of Aboriginal Australia. Step up to the taps and you'll find a Kolsch from Four Pines in Manly and a Real Ale from Young Henry's in Newtown alongside the macrobrews and low-carb lager. Flip open the wine list and there are three rosés by the glass, and another sold by the magnum. "Reward Every Taste" reads the cover of the booze list, and they've given it a red-hot go.
"I think the music might be Justin Bieber's lost Ibiza album," texts a friend who gets to the ground-floor bar ahead of me one hot Friday evening. Maybe not every taste is going to be rewarded. The inspiration for the architecture of this Pub of the Future was three stacked bowls. If that sounds thuddingly banal, the look of the finished structure, which sits on the waterfront between the Boschian nightmare of King Street Wharf and the windblown canyons of Barangaroo proper, is anything but.
Consistency of messaging is not a strong suit here. Come on a Saturday arvo and there might be a bloke behind the decks fiddling the pots and faders needlessly as Jamiroquai segues into Arrested Development, keeping the vibe inside dialled firmly to anywhere between 1992 and 2004.
Negroni Fragola at Smoke
If living in 2018 is more your flavour, run the ear-pieced gauntlet of security and clipboard-types around the back and up the stairs to the first floor. Here the restaurant is revealed in all its splendour. In Bea, Barangaroo gets a thoroughly grand and impressive dining room that draws together threads of Deco and classic pub lines in copper, leather, timber and tile. There's tactile pleasure in the coarse weave of the napkins, the quality of the glass and the rich lustre of the timber tabletops. It's a beautiful space, and at sundown it is nothing short of magnificent.
It's here that Cory Campbell, who does the food across all three levels of the venue, most successfully reconciles a fine-dining background (he did serious time at Noma and has been chef de cuisine at Vue de Monde) with the demands of servicing the hunger of 850 punters.
Tomato, rockmelon and native tea at Bea
The menu is large and littered with indigenous ingredients. There's apparently a tea of native fruits flavouring a plate of tomatoes, while munthari (aka muntries) accompany kangaroo with blueberry. The popcorn served as a snack ahead of the meal is bright with lemon myrtle.
Campbell's food will be polarising. He has a light hand with the salt, but frequently brings the sweetness of spice or fruit into the equation. Riberry gives a nicely charred spatchcock served with a nest of herbs and an aggressive preserved-lemon sauce a welcome twist, but a rub rich in cinnamon does few favours for a grilled Scotch fillet. The cinnamon is even harder to understand when that steak comes with both a tarragon-driven sauce and a butter flavoured with crickets. The meat is served otherwise nude, so you'll want a side - go for the wrinkly and sweet blistered, twice-cooked carrots over the roasted spuds with whipped brown butter, which look better on the page than they do on the plate.
Roasted Southern Highlands duck
The ants, though, are a different story. Sprinkled like fine peppercorns over spears of smoked asparagus, they bring not just the citric sparkle of formic acid, but a beef-jerky bass note. It's easy to find insect dishes that have novelty value or admirable environmental intentions, but here's the rare bug-out that succeeds on eating quality rather than stunt-casting. Smart stuff.
The marron gratin is another win for fans of indigenous ingredients. Split and grilled, the marron is sweet and juicy under its fluffy blanket of mustard foam and spiced butter. It's a signature in the making.
Desserts are likeable. Is making a dessert in the shape of the building a little twee? Hey, it works for Peter Gilmore at the Opera House, and the squishy layers of chocolate and gooey caramel it's rendered in make for an easier surrender. The lime custard, set under a toffee crust scattered with zest and topped with sour cream ice-cream, is better still.
Asparagus and tyrant ants at Bea
There are many moving parts here and not all of them are working in sync. Service runs hot and cold. Security is heavy-handed and unwelcoming. Servings vary wildly in size and value, some small plates being better thought of as saucers. Even though it's 2018 there still aren't enough women's toilets to fairly cater for the number of women in the building. The fine-tuned graphic design is almost brought undone by the insulting working-title blahness of the names. Bea? House Bar? Really? Smoke, which is billed as a rooftop bar, isn't on the rooftop, and many of its lower seats are too low to offer much of a view of anything except people better placed to see the view.
But Smoke's bar menu is frequently interesting and often delicious. There's sea urchin and orange jam on fingers of brioche, and sea-urchin brine lends its unmistakable tang to a surprisingly successful Martini variant garnished with a pickled onion. Chicken skin on skewers is crisp and salty, and the offer of anchovies, condiments and toast is inspired, even if the two slivers of bread that make up the "toast" part of the deal are laughably inadequate.
Sea urchin and orange jam toastie at Smoke
The cocktails list has been designed with more ambition than the teams producing them can always deliver on. The House Bar plays it smarter and simpler - a Negroni leavened with rosé, say. At Bea the drinks have things in them like salted agave, shaved truffle and, Jesus wept, "wagyu dry aged infused bourbon". The Bloody Mary comes with "cold-pressed vegetables", something which in a gentler era may have simply been called juice. The "caviar tincture", part of the $22 Caviar Martini, sounds like something an oligarch might apply to a wound.
All the more reason to drink wine. And golly the wine is good. At Aria, Chiswick and anywhere else Matt Dunne has had a hand in the list you can pretty much close your eyes and point anywhere, confident you'll come up trumps. Here, with the help of John Paul Wilkinson, a quietly accomplished and highly personable alumnus of Manhattan wine bar Rouge Tomate, Dunne has produced a wine list that is a reason to visit Barangaroo in itself, whether it's for gulpable Petit Chablis by the glass in the public bar, something from emerging producers from the wilds of Chile or Clunes at Bea, or a deep-dive into a wealth of Champagnes from exemplary vintages and cult producers at Smoke. Hell, maybe the Pub of the Future is more about wine than beer.
A chocolate and caramel dessert in the shape of Barangaroo House. Ish.
And while The Pub of the Future says yes to great wine, sharp design and a sense of progressiveness in its food and politics, there's one thing to which it says a conspicuous no: poker machines. Could it be that the business models of the pubs of the future will be built around conviviality, refreshment, quality over quantity and tasty things cooked and poured by smart people rather than the toxic, repulsive, puerile, family-wrecking gambling gadgets that we should by rights have left in the last century?
Great booze, some good food, elegant design and good times - Barangaroo House has nailed its colours to the mast. Are you up for it, Sydney?
Published on 15 January 2018