If you're going to eat seafood anywhere in the country, Sydney's the place to do it. Oysters at the co-op down the south coast? Love 'em. Crabbing up north? A great way to spend a day. The weirdness that is scallop pies in Tassie? The joy of South Australian whiting? Beautiful things all. But if you want it all in one place and cooked as well as it can be, Sydney is where you want to be. It's where most of the best of the catch gets sent, wherever it's caught. It lands in better nick, and between the locals being demanding and the chefs having had plenty of practice, the way it's cooked here is, on average, that bit better than the rest of the country.
But where in Sydney? Cirrus is as close to a sure bet as you're going to find in the seafood game in Sydney circa summer 2017. Let's check the specs. Water views? Tick. Oysters? Tick. Fish? Tick. Chips? Tick. Crabs and lobsters and prawns? Tick, tick and tick.
And a seafood platter that doesn't suck. Often times the old platter is better in theory than in practice, a place to dump the average stock, tizz it up with sauces and lemons and parsley and jack up the price. Cirrus bucks the trend. Here the platter is a two-tier thing laden up top with split and grilled honey bugs (a subspecies of Balmain bug rich in sweet meat), big, meaty tiger prawns and strawberry clams on the shell. On the ground floor it's oysters and mussels on the half-shell. Slices of raw cobia - a white-fleshed fish, a bit like kingfish's rock-star cousin - are a nice addition. Fresh, fresh, fresh and no filler. It's $120, but is in and of itself a perfect motive to sneak out of the office on a Friday afternoon, slip down to Barangaroo and salute the sunset with a bottle of something cold, white and excellent.
Smoked ocean trout parfait with fennel pollen and pickled onions.
Cold, white and excellent is not in short supply in the Cirrus cellar. There are other good wine lists among Barangaroo's many new eateries. Jon Osbeiston, the bloke who ran the Ultimo Wine Centre for years, does the list at Bel & Brio, and it's a cracker. Rebecca Lines does a great edit at Bar H, and her work at Banksii, the restaurant she has opened here with her chef-partner Hamish Ingham is also very fine. The new tapas place from the Tapavino gang, Born, offers the list with easily the most needlessly convoluted graphic design in our fair city, but if you can crack the code it holds some excellent sherry. And Belles Hot Chicken continues its mission to pair interesting natural wines from Australia and abroad with fried chicken that's so spicy, at its hottest it could nuke away the subtleties from even a cold, fresh bottle of Jif.
But Cirrus has the one true list to rule them all. Tonnes of great chardonnay from the New and Old Worlds (the Chablis selection is a masterclass in itself), an impeccable Champagne list and a clever smattering of lesser-known grapes from France and Australia to keep things interesting. There's a love-letter to Hunter sémillon in there, a rosé offer that puts even Bar Brosé on notice, and a tour de force of light, seafood-friendly red wines. You want premier cru white Burgundy or 19-year-old Mount Mary Triolet sem-sauv blanc by the glass or 60ml taste? You got it.
The people behind this remarkable offer are Nick Hildebrandt and Brent Savage. Hildebrandt's the wine guy, famed for having unerring instincts and the palate to back them, always ahead of the curve, but never chasing novelty for novelty's sake, and never afraid to list the classics. If it's good, his rationale goes, it's good. Fashion doesn't enter into it. Savage has likewise followed his own star to emerge quietly as one of the country's most consistently original chefs. Level-headed, and far milder than his surname may suggest, he creates dishes that, on a good day, fit together like clockwork. The precision-honing he demands of their elements has given the kitchens at Bentley, Monopole and Yellow a reputation for being among the most demanding workplaces in Sydney hospitality.
Cobia with black garlic, celtuce and mustard flowers.
Having said that, the food at Cirrus might be the most relaxed of the lot. "Relaxed" is a relative term, of course. The texture of the smoked ocean trout parfait must be a bugger of a thing to nail; lord knows how many poor commis chefs have been reduced to nervous exhaustion coaxing it to just the right amount of silky bounce. It sighs when you lean a butter knife on it, lolling onto the rounds of crisp charred bread, which are dutifully replenished by the waiters. Its creamy elegance is accented by beads of trout roe, fennel pollen, a scant few fronds of dill, and a dollop of herby sauce rich in basil. It might be tough to make, but it's damnably easy to eat.
You could call the grilled cos a Caesar salad for 2017. It's half a lettuce that's brined, given a quick how-do-you-do over the coals, then carpeted with shavings of egg yolk, chopped chives and rounds of pickled shallot. Slivers of Ortiz anchovy and dots of whipped mullet roe (what you might call taramasalata in the old money) bring flashes of saltiness to the picture. Lettuce and eggs make for sexy bedfellows; you read it here first, folks.
About the fish and chips. It's flathead, which is the species of choice for most upmarket takes on the dish, but rather than a classic batter, it's fried with a crust of quinoa, rice and spice, bones out but head on. The chips are cooked with a careful hand, and none of that triple-cooked nonsense, thanks very much.
Fillets are done with equal measures of careful cooking and inspired complements: the brightness of mustard flowers and rounds of celtuce (a crunchy lettuce root) splashed with an inky sauce of black garlic with cobia. The texture of pickled king brown mushrooms cut into fat lozenges and crunchy green leaves of a succulent called sunrose makes a nice foil for long, thin pieces of flounder, a fish I'd always thought best cooked on the bone.
The portioning is something to consider when ordering (and weighing your purse). These are not big pieces of fish, so plan for three courses with sides and a good helping of wine if you're thinking of going back to labouring in the fields or toiling on the docks after lunch.
Cirrus manages a light, breezy quality but it still has a feeling of substance. It has the most open and outward-looking of the designs PascaleGomes-McNabb has done for Savage and Hildebrandt. The floor-to-ceiling glass has a fishbowl quality, but it's not entirely unwelcome. Rods of timber dowel lining the windows recall the sort of fencing you might see wending your way through sand dunes; more of them strung by the hundred in a variety of lengths from the ceiling undulate in a manner that echoes the curves of the building - and the swell of the sea. A jaunty little 1950s wooden boat, Alvin, moored among them brings a welcome touch of whimsy.
Vermouth custard with blackberry and yoghurt sorbet.
This space was the dining room for Noma in its pop-up last year, but gone are the curtains, the sinuous lines of the concrete-floored room and its blonde wooden tables now washed with light, making it a particularly good choice for lunch. Bentley veteran manager David Myers runs the floor with a sure hand. The confident, informed quality of the service, not least when it comes to wine, makes it that rare venue that caters as readily to work as it does play.
The simple fact of its location at Barangaroo, overlooking Cockle Bay, makes it feel a more populist proposition than Savage and Hildebrandt's other venues, too. (Not always in a good way. To access the restrooms diners have to walk past the other Barangaroo eateries that share them. It's something of an off-note in an otherwise premium - and unmistakably premium-priced - outing.)
This is thus far the peak Barangaroo dining experience. There's plenty more on the Cirrus carte that you won't see on anyone else's menus: cheeks of leatherjacket and pieces of Lebanese cress and telegraph cucumber dressed in a nicely acidic mixture of buttermilk, and yuzukosho, the Japanese citrus-chilli condiment. To accompany fish fillets roasted in an envelope of paperbark, Savage conjures an appealingly murky sort of sweet-sour broth made from native ingredients, while salad burnet (a feathery leaf you could think of as a cucumbery relative of chervil) elevates a side of yellow beans to star status.
Cirrus, in the Anadara building.
Desserts are tight and potent. Flavouring a custard with a sweet vermouth makes for a pudding that's rich and adult, the creaminess and the herby notes of the vermouth cut with a shiny blackberry glaze, freeze-dried berries and yoghurt.
It's a new step for the Bentley fellas - more fun, more approachable than their other outings, but with all the attention to detail across the board that has kept them at the top of their game. The flavours are bright, too - pop and zest in the wine, citrus and twang on the plate. There are other restaurants offering seafood cooking that's this inspired (Saint Peter being the most notable), but it comes packaged with unflappably smooth service, sunshine and water views, and a wine list that is absolutely a drawcard in itself. A seafood restaurant for the now is how Hildebrandt describes the restaurant, "and beyond". It's a lofty call for a place that sells fish and chips, but for Cirrus, the sky may well be the limit.