Robert Marchetti is a chef unbound. After so many years cooking his take on the One True Cuisine at Icebergs, Giuseppe Arnaldo & Sons and North Bondi Italian Food, it seems as though the Greek and Turkish excursions he began taking with Neild Avenue's menu at the end of last year have given him a taste for broader horizons. He's certainly running with it. He's never been shy of a large menu, but his latest gig, overseeing the food at QT Sydney (former Rockpool Bar & Grill Melbourne chef Paul Easson is the one actually in the kitchen day to day), has given Marchetti his biggest canvas ever.
No fewer than 53 dishes marshalled onto a single large page make up the carte served both at lunch and dinner at Gowings Bar & Grill, the flagship. Add on another 24 or so for breakfast, and that's before you get to the food served at Gilt, the hotel's cocktail lounge (a dozen more snacks), and Parlour Lane Roasters, its ground-floor café (another 16). There are entire nations that don't have this much culinary vigour.
Italy isn't lost entirely in the deluge of ideas, but there's not a scrap of spaghetti on the main menu, and barely any pasta anywhere else. Instead it's mostly classics of the sort you'd picture lantern-jawed, pinstripe-bedecked captains of industry ordering in some fantasy of the late 1950s as ballast for their requisite three Martinis. Oysters, tartare, steaks, Burgundy beef. Nothing you have to think too hard about and definitely not the sort of food that comes with instructions on how you're supposed to eat it.
In recent months, the winds of popular culture have carried with them a strong whiff of nostalgia for times of simpler promise, more naïve understandings of geopolitics and more straightforward economics. And after a hard day trying to decode the nuances of fungible assets, mezzanine debt and the vagaries of the latest upgrade to your mobile operating system, who wouldn't want a little reassurance?
It doesn't get more reassuring than the schnitzel. And the $38 they charge for it assures you that they're not mucking around. Its mere cost equates to a built-in "excellent choice, sir", and buys you a foot-wide golden blanket of crunchy-crumbed veal tenderloin, juicy as the day is long, and topped with an audacious combination of Ortiz anchovies and a fried egg in the Holstein style. You'll need to order the potato, gherkin and dill salad to go with it as a side, so really it's a $47 schnitzel (let's just pause a moment to let that sink in… a $47 schnitzel) but there's no doubting that it's the schnitty to beat in this town right now.
The matzo ball soup is similarly - if less expensively - comforting. Is the hilarity of putting it on the menu in a box under the heading "Soup of the moment" intentional? I don't know. But I can tell you that the broth is limpid and full, and the matzo ball dumplings, sorrel and carrots swimming in it are as they should be. The minute steak is likewise a thoroughly correct affair, especially if you like salt. You're offered a choice of pink or well done, and the former is plenty juicy, the thinly cleaved 180-gram rib-eye crosshatched with grill marks, paired with a salty anchovy butter, a salty salad of watercress and shallots, and a small haystack of salty shoestring chips.
There may be a retro thread to the Gowings menu, but it's not followed slavishly. Wasabi finds its way into the prawn cocktail, and the prawns themselves are steamed over beer. In one of the better salads, baby beetroot, which come with ashed goat's cheese and goat's curd and a thicket of garnet leaf and shallot, have been baked in a salt crust to intensify their flavour and sweetness. Warrigal greens and saltbush are the foil for birds from the rotisserie, while river mint is the accent for a side of mixed mushrooms steamed in a paper bag (a flavour pairing I can't say I care for). I don't really see Don Draper going mad for the other entrée salad - grated carrot, cucumber, tomato, beetroot, chickpeas, lemon balm and mint - when it has both the words "organic" and "detox" in its description, but it's a smart move for a kitchen that has to cater to the whims of both city workers and hotel guests.
The Sterling-Cooper-Draper-Pryce team, though, would find much to like in the stockbroker flat omelette. It's a round of thoroughly cooked egg so crammed with ingredients (bacon, pancetta, garlic chives, tilsit cheese and a half-dozen rock oysters) that it's more like a slim frittata. It's a great dish. (Draper and co would also find plenty of joy in the stiffness of the drinks in the bar upstairs, but more on that later.)
In place of the deco classicism that usually frames this sort of eating (think Manhattan's Four Seasons or our own Rockpool Bar & Grill), team QT has gone a little more out there. The bones of the 1920s buildings - the site was once home to the Gowings department store, and flows into the State Theatre - can be glimpsed here and there, but this is no minimal restoration project. Every niche seethes with detail, every nook has its twist.
By the ground-floor entry, glass costume cases display frocks fashioned from rope or scores of stitched-together pairs of underpants. As you step inside the restaurant you pass an open kitchen that's a stage set with a variety of roaring ovens, flat-capped chefs as players, and a whole tuna hanging from its tail under a spotlight. Fabio Ongarato's graphics are repeated on John Derian-esque plates on the walls, not to mention the ceiling. No opportunity has been missed to scream "hey, this place is funky". Combined with the blare of relentlessly upbeat, high-tempo music, this more-more-more-is-more effect can sometimes start to grate like too many exclamation marks, but for the most part it comes off as endearing.
I'd say assistant manager Jacopo Craboledda, who seems to work as Gowings' ad-hoc sommelier, is about the only person I've met on the floor who left me with the really distinct impression that he has clocked serious time working in a restaurant and should continue to do so. Some members of the staff have experience, others have enthusiasm; once they get a few more people on the team who can manage both, the service will be something diners can count as an asset. Maybe they're all as overwhelmed by it all as I am.
But with so very, very many ideas being flung at you, some of them are bound to stick, and stick they do. Gilt Lounge, the sharp-edged bar above the restaurant, offers not only the sort of impressively brawny, brown spirit-fuelled cocktails that just about every other Sydney hotel drops the ball with, but also some decent eats. The club is, alas, like some of the other sandwiches here, so preposterous in its proportions that it's not a pleasant thing to eat without the aid of a knife, fork and tablecloth. But allow me to recommend Bringing Back the Vol-au-Vent, which makes a winning argument with a pastry case filled with ocean trout gravlax and a quail egg topped with Sterling caviar. The King of Dogs, too, with its pork and beef sausage and fried and raw onions, is another winner. It also graces the room-service menu. Lucky guests.
The buzzy Parlour Lane Roasters on the ground floor is, for my dollar, the most interesting of the spaces, probably because it has the largest part of the old buildings to play with.
It's a coffee bar in the Italian style: just the place for an (okay) caffè latte to start the day, a chocolate milk mid-morning, a plate of gooey four-cheese and spinach lasagne at lunch, and then salumi and your choice of six, count 'em, six different Negronis for aperitivo.
They also do an acceptable line in pastries, but the sweets crown has to go to the doughnuts back up at the Grill. If massive lumps of fried dough aren't your cuppa, I'd still give the pretentious and not particularly successful "apple crumble flavours" a wide berth and steer instead to either the glossy dark chocolate brûlée, topped with last season's marinated cherries, or the take on the affogato, which combines prunes, a shot of coffee and a gelato made with Jersey milk and crunchy chocolate pearls (they like chocolate here). The doughnuts are served German-style - that is, large, and largely unadorned, except for cinnamon, sugar and the doilies that they seem mad for at this place. There's an argument to be made for ordering the other desserts just to give you something to dip them in. More is, after all, more, right?