Neil Perry has nailed a few restaurant names in his day. Rockpool? Solid. Slightly weird now that it's mostly seen at restaurants specialising in steak rather than seafood or tidal pools, but solid. XO? Great, way ahead of the curve. Spice Temple? A touch of the day-spa disco, but definitely bankable. Rosetta? Tight, likeable. Burger Project? Does what it says on the tin. But Rockpool became a problem. Or rather, Rockpool Bar & Grill got so successful that it overshadowed its parent restaurant. Diners got the two places mixed up. Showed up at the wrong restaurant. Distinct absence of mac and cheese on Bridge Street. Tears were shed. Executive assistants were spoken to sternly. Something had to be done.
Which brings us to Eleven Bridge. Very little danger of getting the wrong address here - you muck this one up, there's no blaming Neil Perry. The team in the kitchen is the same, though, and so is the team on the floor. It's the same site, with the same room and the same fittings, the same typefaces. Silvio Brentan still greets you at the door and runs the show, Phil Wood still cooks the dinner. Perry called it "the end of an era" when he said he was closing Rockpool earlier this year, but the room feels much like it did six months ago, albeit busier. This is no bad thing - it was a three-star restaurant, and a three-star restaurant it remains.
Partridge topped with a dashi broth.
So what's new apart from the name? The menu structure is the big thing. When Rockpool first moved to 11 Bridge Street in 2013 from the site it had occupied on George Street in The Rocks since 1989, it offered an interesting hybrid service that opened with a salvo of snacks from the kitchen ("beginning the menu", as it was dubbed rather gratuitously), after which you'd choose to follow with another course or three. That seemed like a good idea and worked until it didn't. Then they went to a straight tasting menu. Now it's à la carte. Cue sighs of relief.
Sustaining us diners through all this, keeping us barracking for Team Perry all along, has been the simple fact of Rockpool's tasty, tasty food. Whatever else you say about a Neil Perry restaurant, it's not going to be bland. Surveying the loftier heights of the Sydney dining landscape today, it looks like Rockpool got more right over the years than it got wrong. Its full-flavoured, seafood-focused and richly Asian-inspired style has become an essential strand in the restaurant DNA of this city.
Mudcrab salad with salted duck-egg mayonnaise
The roast duck and scallops with pickled cucumbers, the tea-smoked ocean trout with shiitake sauce, the salad of lobster, poached chicken and fine egg noodles flavoured with soy, tamarind and white pepper - these things and a full chorus of pandanus leaf, fermented bean paste, jellyfish and pomelo graced the Rockpool menu a decade before Peter Gilmore dished up crab congee at Quay, or Martin Benn jellied his first sake. Eleven Bridge might be about a bold new era, and this might be Phil Wood's kitchen now, but it hews closely to its history, recent and otherwise, with ideas, ingredients and flavours that are very Perry: Chinese-style roast pigeon, abalone, grouper with Indian pastry - even the date tart is here, a dish that outdates Rockpool itself.
As seasoned campaigners in the Sydney dining trenches we've learnt not to blanch at tasting menus clocking in at $180 a head and more. But for some reason that sort of pricing translated into à la carte terms still prompts a double-take: $36 entrées, main courses landing mostly between the $49 and $59 mark. It's a lot of money. But take a look at a menu from Rockpool from a decade or so ago, just before they stopped doing à la carte, and there they are: $36 entrées, $54 main courses. Hell, the oscietra caviar tart was $60 back in the day, and among the main courses there was a $70 lobster tagine.
Here in 2016, the $54 entrée that has the internet squawking in would-be outrage is a pretty and simple salad of mudcrab. Some poor individual in the kitchen has picked the meat from the still-hot crab shell and then dressed it with a mayonnaise rather ingeniously made with the inclusion of the yolks of salted duck eggs.
Here's my pro tip: skip it. It's really tasty, and the one I ate had almost no shell in it at all, but it's mostly the mayonnaise that's dominant. (It'd be a ripper with prawns.) And here's the thing: you get your crab fix regardless with an impressive little amuse-bouche that daintily sandwiches the very same crab meat between two postage stamp-sized crisps of lacquered nori. More mayo binds the crab here; this time it's flavoured with a splash of Tabasco. A nicely judged and elegant one-bite introduction to Eleven Bridge.
The interior dining space
Let's pause here and take a mindfulness moment. Breathe in, breathe out. What do you see? What do you hear? Light gleams from the black tile behind the black marble bar and off the narrow dark floorboards, only to be absorbed by the matte columns, the drapes cascading from the double-height ceiling, the sound-baffles, and the rich pale cloths layered two deep on the tables. Water comes in cut-glass tumblers, wine is poured into crystal, while Thiers knives glide through red meat. The Mickey Mouse-eared pepper mills Michael Graves designed for Alessi in 1988 still adorn each setting, as they have for more than 20 years. Best of all, the chicken wing, boned and fried and topped with kombu butter and caviar, a chicken nugget for the Rich Kids of Instagram generation, has not only survived the transition but is now on the menu as an à la carte option.
Eleven Bridge is a deluxe ride with all the optional extras. The flour for the bread, which tastes of honey and spelt, is milled in-house. It comes with a butter that has been whipped and mixed with liquorice and kombu, and with a milk-sweet ricotta dressed with an extra-virgin olive oil that is a beauteous light green in colour.
There's plenty of muscle in the kitchen and most of the time it's put to good use. Heavily worked plates usually mean lukewarm food, but most of what I've eaten at Eleven Bridge, thrillingly enough, has been served hot. The person-hours have been directed to things that count. Luxuriate in spirals of strozzapreti that someone else has taken the trouble to roll out by hand, the pasta coated lovingly in a rich and ruddy crustacean butter, the whole thing crowned with fat morsels of Moreton Bay bug meat, the protein just set. It's a slam-dunk, a hail-Mary and a hallelujah all in one.
Front-of-house manager Silvio Brentan serves the partridge
There's not a lot of presence on the floor. Personality, yes, friendliness, yes, but you get the impression the big-hitters are stationed at Rockpool Bar & Grill these days, all the better to tend to the care and feeding of the city's plutocrats, machers and assorted BSDs.
There's a touch of the keeper-of-the-knowledge to the wine service, but it doesn't quite tip over into full-blown thumb-in-waistcoat mode. The by-the-glass choices lean more Australian than ever. Express an interest in things off the beaten track, though, and you sommelier might pull out a roter veltliner, a white wine made from an Austrian grape that's less related to grüner than you'd think. It shows just the right sort of freshness and taut acidity in the example bottled by Martin Arndorfer to work as a foil for the mudcrab and duck-egg mayo number. Raise the matter of the partridge and out come not one but two very different and very interesting expressions of gamay - a substantial offering from Victoria's Farr Rising, and a thoroughly drinkable Morgon from the Lapierre family.
And what a production that partridge is. The guéridon trolley has been getting a bit of a workout since the move to Bridge Street, and here it's put to good use. At first there's no bird in sight, but rather a football of what appears to be bread hot from the oven. Out comes the carving knife, and then the reveal: the partridge has been baked whole inside the dough, emerging steamed to a state of juicy surrender, redolent of bakery spice. It's sectioned, plated with buttery rounds of turnip and a few celery leaves, and then dressed with a not-strictly-necessary dashi broth. The shards of bread are every bit as good as the partridge itself. Fancy.
Did I say the food comes out hot? The kitchen has an interesting take on lamb. They call it pastrami as a nod to the mix of salts, spice and brown sugar they corn it in, but it's a saddle, rolled into a cylinder wrapped neatly in fat, smoked with tea, and set with a flourish on water spinach in a black-bean sauce. The one I'm served is cold in the middle, though, which is unsettling at a restaurant like this. The piecesof eggplant it's served with, double-cooked in the Chinese style, crisply battered, are exquisite.
The savviest touch of service style at Eleven Bridge is the offer of salad, scooped straight onto your plate, just as you're eating the last bites of your main course. Dressing leaves radicchio-rich with the last drops of lamb and black-bean juices, say, or the version of dan dan sauce that accompanies the grouper is grown-up dining at its most enjoyable, the gesture of a kitchen that has a genuine understanding of the true pleasures of the table.
Persimmon terrine with pear sorbet
There is also joy to be had at dessert. What more heartening words can a diner hope to read at the close of a meal than "persimmon terrine with pear sorbet"? Framed with custard apple, guava cream and a persimmon jelly, it's a perfumed and elegant play of textures that puts fruit flavour before sweetness. When people talk about a move away from the trappings of fine dining, I think a lot of the time they're talking about the bits that don't really work. A step away from dégustation-style dining seems to put the diner back in the driver's seat, and leaves less room for longueurs. The things that make the dining truly fine, that elevate from the everyday, can remain: the restaurant as a frame for bright ideas, a place where civility can sparkle. The restaurant at its best should unite its patrons around a moment of beauty, pleasure and conviviality. Rockpool has ever been that place, and so it remains under a new name.
"But enough of history," reads a small plaque on the mezzanine floor. "Mr Perry has never been one to focus on what happened yesterday, preferring to make today and tomorrow his best efforts yet. It's time now, in this magnificent building, to take this original, enduring and proudly Australian restaurant into the future." These words were written when Rockpool was still intended to be the restaurant of that future. Perhaps Eleven Bridge, Rockpool freed of the baggage of having to be Rockpool, is that restaurant now.