Bentley isn't the one with the views. That's Cirrus, the fish place. And it's not the wild one. That's the wine bar, Monopole. And it isn't the one that's all about vegetables. That's Yellow. Bentley is the one that started it all.
Word on the street is that Bentley has the hardest-working kitchen in town. If you're an ambitious chef looking to test your mettle in Sydney, this place will take everything you can throw at it and more. Brent Savage has his people fermenting saltbush and pickling muntries to garnish slow-cooked beef tongue. They make curd from camel's milk (yes, the milk of camels) to complement watermelon radish, and place tiny Mexican cucamelons on pistachio butter and linseed crackers for a bar snack. Figs on a plate it ain't.
Why settle for regular butter, they reason, when you can spread your house-baked rye with a glossy ebony mixture of butter and black sesame? Why merely savour the textural rhyme of blacklip abalone and hen-of-the-woods mushrooms when you could get the SEAL Team Six of Sydney kitchens to make you a mayonnaise flavoured with roast-chicken juices to take things up a notch?
But this isn't one of those restaurants that's just about the food. From day one Bentley has been a partnership between a sommelier and a chef, both co-owners. That means it's about what's in the glass as much as what's on the plate, what happens on the floor as much as in the kitchen. Lots of chef-driven restaurants are great places to eat, but at Bentley you can dine.
It's also not one of those places where you'll have a dud night if those co-owners, Brent Savage and Nick Hildebrandt, aren't there shaking the pans and pulling the corks in person. The talent here (and at all their restaurants for that matter) runs several layers deep. The place has substance on its side.
The darkly glamorous room has a sort of punk-luxe glow. It was renovated earlier this year, but the essence of Pascale Gomes-McNabb's design remains the same, the classical lines of the 1920s sandstone building contrasted with crazy brushstrokes of paint and a wild jangle of jutting steel rods that delineate the mezzanine dining room from the superb bar.
Despite the focus on service and the unfailingly polite and informed staff, I wouldn't call Bentley entirely customer-focused. The menu isn't a dare, but nor is uncomplicated delight Savage's goal. He likes to zig where others zag, to weave where other chefs might duck.
Under his watch, tomatillo and a curl of guanciale enjoy a rare meeting as the contrasts in an airy one-bite parmesan tart, while leaves of celtuce – usually used for its stem – make a pretty foil for pork neck with miso.
There's beef on the dégustation, but it's chuck-tail flap. It's a flavoursome cut, but definitely a cult B-side of a piece of meat rather than one of the steak world's greatest hits. Pairing it with celeriac and a matt smear of pickled walnut sauce, and serving it in wide swatches that give the diner a great deal of the rare inside of the meat and very little of the caramelised cooked crust isn't the easy path. Savage wants the food to taste great, but he's not happy with it just tasting great. I'd love to see him interrogate that more closely.
I don't think I've seen Savage go out of his way to make his food particularly wine friendly, either. This makes Bentley a rarity among restaurants with so great a commitment to the grape. My theory is that Nick Hildebrandt is so fine a sommelier and so good at what he does that he'd get bored without the extra challenge. What's the natural pairing with whipped cod roe, pickled onion and bush tomato? With diced and sliced Spencer Gulf kingfish spiked with Cape gooseberries and pink pepper? With the finger lime that brightens a rock oyster dolloped with electric-blue scampi roe? What about when they all come at once?
Turns out the answer is a blend of tamjanika and other white grapes from Serbia, bottled by Les Bongiraud. But perhaps that makes Hildebrandt sound more a contrarian than he really is. Stunt-casting and chasing trends aren't his thing: good wine is. Pulling bottles from a list that is deep, wide and full of personality, he and his team pick the hits time and time again, pushing what's on the plate to another level.
If this is the new establishment, the future of food in Sydney rests in bold hands.