Just as we take our table, with the breeze in the eucalypts and ripples on the water before us, a bloke walks across the terrace with a burlap sack slung over his shoulders: oysters. At our backs are the gnarled roots of a fig clinging to worn sandstone; in front is Cowan Creek, which meets the Hawkesbury River in Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park near Broken Bay. "Cue the kookaburra," comes the unheard prompt from the unseen director, and down swoops the bird, to be fed scraps of meat by a waiter moments afterwards. Any minute now, I'm thinking, a wallaby is going to hop past and offer to grill us its own tail. When it speaks it'll sound just like Paul Hogan. Or possibly Bruce Spence.
But as wonderfully go-Aussie as Cottage Point Inn's setting is, we're not in shrimp-on-barbie territory. In fact, we're here because of an introduced species. Guillaume Zika might be the hottest Sydney cooking property you've never heard of. Born in Paris, 29-year-old Zika has clocked serious time at the pointy end of the business: Le Moulin de Mougins in Provence, Paris's gilded Le Grand Véfour, back in its three-star days. He was a chef de partie under Thomas Keller at Per Se in New York, and spent four years working for the famously exacting Claude Bosi at Hibiscus in London, 15 months of that time as head chef.
But what does all that mean, really? That he has learnt to take orders like a Trojan and respect a hierarchy like a marine? That he has a borderline-masochistic tolerance for abuse and his body has become a machine controlled utterly by his brain? That he can gut and fillet a fish blindfolded, if not standing on his head? Work in those boiler-room kitchens teaches you to obsess over precision and develop deep reserves of self-reliance, Zika says. Paris haute cuisine is tough because everyone in the kitchen "is trying to kill everyone else", while working at Hibiscus, he found, presented its own set of challenges. "I've never worked for a chef who was as skilled in the kitchen as Claude Bosi, and he held us all to his own standard."
Perfectly cut brunoise only holds a diner's attention so long, though. One thing I've found common to graduates of the best kitchens is the capacity to present their ingredients at their most flavoursome best. The steak at Cottage Point Inn is a good example.
You've had onglet before, perhaps sold as hanger steak, but there's a profound beefiness, a stockyard taste to the version Zika serves that's striking. I wonder if the inclusion of eel on the menu description is a deal-breaker for a lot of diners who just want a damned steak. As far as the eye can see it's actually just a shred of smoked eel that makes it onto the plate, a tiny note compared with the wall-of-sound that is that massive beef flavour. But the massive beef flavour has been rigged: Zika makes a sort of hybrid barbecue sauce-marinade with the head, skin and bones of the eel and some smoked paprika, and the steak sits in this for at least a day, becoming more tender and also way more flavoursome. The flavour of the eel itself melds into it, a bit like the way an anchovy dropped into a lamb braise surrenders its innate anchoviness to the greater good of the taste of the meat.
There's some other kooky stuff happening on the plate: the "salad" of cos is just a plume of the lettuce's heart poking out from the middle; some bits of beach banana; and the char-grilledmeat is adorned with dabs of lemon and garlic purée that look a bit like glue. The real co-star, though, is the clutch of confit cherry tomatoes clustered around the meat; they've got a meaty flavour all their own, little bombs of umami. The trick here, Zika says, is to confit the peeled tomatoes in salted butter in a low oven for six hours. It's by no means a set-and-forget job - the temperature has to be monitored carefully lest you end up with sun-dried tomatoes on the one hand or nap sauce on the other - but it pays off. The result is a dish that tickles the palate just as it provides steaky satisfactions.
The building might not have the Glenn Murcutt grandeur of Berowra Waters Inn, but its casual feel is appealing. The seating is split between a marquee-sheltered carpeted deck and a room with a large timber rowboat slung from the ceiling. The tables are clothed, each decorated with a single frangipani bloom in a glass.
The service is mostly on point. But even allowing for the more laid-back pace on the water, for this kind of money the gaps between the courses and the coordination on the floor need tightening. A recent lunch at Cottage Point has also been one of the very, very few times in my life I've had a waiter in a restaurant try to talk me into buying a more expensive wine than the bottle I've already chosen. Trying to upsell someone already spending $105 on rosé (rosé!) to buy another Bandol for $135 struck me as the height of chutzpah, but I thought I'd give him the benefit of the doubt. I can say now that I won't again.
But these are stray observations. Over three courses (or, if you don't have a sea plane or ferry to catch, or have had the sense to book one of the Inn's two apartments, over the three hours of the dégustation), the food impresses time and time again, and whatever cares you happen to have brought with you are slowly but surely borne away by the water.
Zika pitches his menus towards that sweet spot between the familiar (grilled salmon) and the interesting (the toasted hazelnuts, brown butter and pink grapefruit gel that accompany it). You get the sense he could push the boat out a fair bit further if he wanted to, but by the same token there's nothing lazy or jaded on this carte. There's as much rigour put into the conception of the vegetarian main-course option (orso pasta cooked pipérade-style with crisp rice, basil and parmesan), for instance, as there is the sexier likes of roast scampi with radishes, and oyster and tarragon sauce.
For his salad of baby golden and target beetroot, too, Zika isn't content to go down the goat's-cheese road more travelled, opting instead for the lush contrast of persimmon. A purée of pickled beetroot underneath brings acid to the party, feathery tufts of coriander sponge and a crumble of pine nuts supply textural intrigue. Did I mention this guy can really cook?
Zika's gift for putting just the right amount of spin on the ball holds true through dessert. Caramelised oat crumble is the foil for a very fine poached white peach, paired with basil sorbet; hunks of honeycomb and an almond-milk ice-cream accompany chopped raspberries and strawberries. Mostly, though, I'm here for the soufflé: black olives and mango. (Not black olives and mango again, you moan.) Hey, it works.
In Cottage Point Inn circa 2014 we find the meeting of a unique site and an unusual talent. Guillaume Zika cooks with all the vigour you'd expect of a man who suddenly finds himself in the sunshine after a decade spent cooking underground. He couldn't unlearn his fine-dining training even if he wanted to, but here his cooking is animated by an exuberance I'd like to think is drawn from his new home. Cue the kookaburras: the good times are here.