This restaurant has closed.
Did you make it to Berowra the first time round? Not me. And like any other restaurant lover who was too far away, poor, young or otherwise unable to visit the restaurant in its glory days, it's the one I most regret having missed. Regarded by most to be one of the brightest lights in a dark period of Australian dining, it's talked about in as reverent tones as you're likely to hear used regarding a restaurant in this country. I get the impression it was pretty damned good, even if you weren't allowed to drink beer there. Any thought of how silly that sort of austerity seems in retrospect fades when you look at the menus Tony and Gay Bilson and then Gay and Janni Kyritsis wrote between 1976 and 1995. Being the kind of restaurant nerd that I am, I have a few of them to hand and, glancing at the sheaf of hand-written pages, everywhere I cast my eye I see things I want to eat: scallops poached with carrots and black fungus or artichoke hearts steamed with yabbies on a Sunday in October in 1981; a salad of squid, black noodles and pancetta or snapper baked in a chickpea crust from many years later.
You don't need any of this history, though, to enjoy the restaurant today, rehabilitated as it is after some years in the wilderness. Looking across the Hawkesbury to the Inn, it's impossible to deny the allure of being taken over the river in a flat-bottomed skiff by its boatman, even if you've got the good hour or so drive from the city or beyond at your back. Then there's the restaurant itself. Built on the foundations of the original Inn, founded in the 1920s, Glenn Murcutt's design makes for what is probably our most stunning place to dine. Ascending a short flight of stairs from the jetty, you step into a room of a length that accentuates the fact the Inn is perched between a sheer rock face and the water, with no land access. The kitchen runs down the rear wall and each end is bookended by a fireplace, one side extending to a deck, the other a private room. The most brilliant aspect of Murcutt's original plan (and there have been alterations to it since) are the louvred floor-to-ceiling windows which go a long way to fostering the illusion that you're sitting on a particularly nice verandah on the river.
It's about as far from Forty One as you can imagine. That city restaurant, often reached by shouldering past office dolly birds and junior lawyers in the lift ride up to the 42nd (yes, 42nd) floor of the Chifley Tower, affords brilliant views of its own. It's hermetically sealed, airconditioned and mood-lit to a fault and the décor is corporate-hotel dated. How refreshing it must be for chef Dietmar Sawyere to leave it and make his way on weekends to this very different place.
Despite the fact that it means essentially working two jobs, Berowra Waters Inn seems to have reinvigorated Sawyere. At least that's the impression you get when you see him lending a hand pushing a seaplane off the jetty to launch as it collects guests after a Sunday lunch. More to the point, it's the impression you get not only looking at the menu but eating the food here. The connection to Forty One is clear, with elements from one menu appearing on the other, but Berowra is simpler, with fewer of the baroque frills and trills that can make Forty One's carte cumbersome.
You're presented with a list of 14 savoury courses, listed in order of weight, and followed by cheese and a one-size-fits-all dessert platter. Dishes are all about the size of a small entrée, the idea being that you pick between four and six courses and construct your own tasting menu. You can order additional courses for $25 a pop, but five works out pretty nicely without scrimping on the wine or the quite excellent bread, which is presented with a generous helping of Echiré, an exceptionally good French butter.
The vichyssoise is a little espresso cup of foamed soup that, unlike a thousand pale imitations, tastes beautifully of potatoes and leeks rather than cream, with a good spoonful of Sterling caviar through it. Toast-like triangles of buckwheat blini, and fat, creamy Pacific oysters daubed with more caviar flank it. It would be unfair to say the salad of seared tuna belly is brought undone by the sinews of the tuna; with its gooey halved quail's eggs, black olive fragments and tomato confit, it's a pleasant riff on the Niçoise, if a little sweetly sauced. The grilled scallops, while sizeable, beautifully cooked and paired interestingly with a little jamón Iberico and green apple reduction on a splash of cauliflower purée, don't match the excitement of, say, the goat's cheese ravioli with pumpkin broth and amaretti crumbs - the latter something of a culinary cliché in its ingredients but rendered fresh through its lightness and clarity of flavour.
Tasmanian lobster 'cooked liked a paella' might be the prettiest dish on offer - a cross-section of tail in its shell, set on al dente rice stained yellow with saffron and spiced up with tiny uniform dice of chorizo. Roasted baby snapper fillet looks like a wallflower in comparison, but the quality of the half-moon pasta parcel of peppered crab meat suggests there's some truth to the idea that you oughtn't underestimate the quiet ones.
There's no faulting the meaty finale of small hunks of seared wagyu, their flavour rolling on and on over pancetta-enriched cavolo nero and truffled potato butter, but for me the real winner is the quail. The menu describes it as 'saltwater-soaked', which I suppose is a fancy way of saying it's been brined. Either way, the roasted breast has a distinctive savour, topped with a picket fence of tiny white asparagus tips and set on spinach shot through with balls of giant couscous and raunchily earthy snippets of morel mushroom.
Dessert is perhaps the one serious throwback to the old-school Forty One style. You get a 'dessert variation' of four mini-desserts and, with appearances from such retro standbys as a conical parfait, a shot glass, a chocolate-covered carrot and mint sprigs, it seems dated when compared with the plating of the pioneers at Quay, Bentley, Rockpool (fish) and Pier, yet fussy when compared with Lorraine Godsmark's work at Yellow or the desserts at Sean's Panaroma. But that carrot was poached with cardamom before being enrobed in chocolate, so thought and care still translate to flavour and texture, even if the look and feel are out of step with contemporary mores.
The service wasn't quite Swiss-watch on first visit, but was so professional and personable that any slight lapses didn't jar. And while Sawyere's food isn't as cutting edge as it once was, it's not trying to be. He has settled into a comfortable and accomplished style that is attuned to the surroundings and produces marvels enough to see any meal - inevitably long and languid here - close with plans to make a return visit.
With any luck, this incarnation will be around at least as long as its more famous predecessor. Make sure you don't let this one pass you by. To have missed it once may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose out twice would suggest carelessness.