You can go a long way with great bone structure, especially in Bondi. Take Icebergs Dining Room and Bar. It just passed its 10th birthday, which makes it roughly 50 in Sydney-restaurant years, and yet the quality of Carl Pickering's design is as fresh as the day it was minted. Back in 2003 we'd never heard of Twitter, the GFC was a special offered by the Colonel, and a smartphone was a Nokia in a great colour, but Icebergs seemed perfectly of the moment, and it remains so today.
Sure, there are patches here and there that look a bit worn and that seems slightly puzzling for a restaurant that's this high-profile (and, yes, this expensive). But there are plenty of places that are half as old that have dated twice as fast. Icebergs is still frisky. In fact, after a period where it seemed to be drifting, almost neglected, it now has a fresh sense of direction.
That new energy has come in part from some unexpected quarters. This is still very much Maurice Terzini's baby, make no mistake. I don't know that the food has ever been better than when he opened with Karen Martini in the kitchen. To have eaten her grilled lobster with kipflers, peas and tarragon on a sunny day is to have known one of the shimmering moments in Australian hospitality. It was a bunch of Melbourne people doing something that they had never really done in Victoria, and it changed restaurants in Sydney for the better.
Now, after something of a fallow period after Terzini's tricky de-merger with chef Robert Marchetti, the latest twist in the tale brings in Paul Wilson, yet another Melbourne guy, to oversee the menus. Part of the British invasion that took over the kitchens of Melbourne in the late 1990s, Wilson is perhaps best known for his work at Radii and The Botanical in the early noughties, where he liked to put scallops on pork belly and top stuff with quail eggs and truffles. He also liked to roll things in soy caramel and poach them in master stock. He has always been eclectic in his thinking; before he opted out of the Melbourne Pub Group he was doing Cal-Mex at the Newmarket Hotel, Spanish-ish at the Albert Park, cool-Britannia at the Middle Park and Pacific rim at Circa, all at once.
Long story short, Wilson is one of those chefs who has ascended to that happy hunting ground where he consults rather than ties himself down to cooking at a particular restaurant. Hell, he still lives in Melbourne. Monty Koludrovic, the guy brought in to actually touch the food, has more runs on the board with the Sydney crowd, having headed the Bécasse kitchen under Justin North in its Clarence Street and Westfield iterations. But again, these last ports of call seem to suggest a chef more comfortable plating stuff with boudin blanc and Armagnac jus, compressing watermelon and making mushroom royales than saucing spaghetti and slicing prosciutto.
So, the menu. Some of it is classic Icebergs; some of it seems to run counter to Terzini's recent assertion that from now on he's only doing food he understands. I, for one, don't entirely understand the hapuku and lobster main course. It's described as "steamed hapuku medallions with lobster, aromatic scallop, broad beans and lettuce sauce". Putting aside the clumsy, vaguely icky phrasing of "aromatic scallop" (tasty little gnocchi-like nubbins of scallop mousse deserve a less clammy descriptor), there's a lot going on there. And the word "medallions" needs to stay in the 1980s.
It doesn't look any less complicated on the plate. There are bits of hapuku, and curls of shelled crustacean tail, but they're sitting under a sheet of copper-coloured jelly. Jelly. It all tastes good - the flavours of the cos, broad beans, the fish and the lobster all make perfect sense - but in this particular configuration it's not pretty, it's annoying to eat (have you ever tried to capture jelly on the back of a fork?) and it's a long way from the Icebergs we know and love. Those kipflers, peas and tarragon seem terribly distant all of a sudden.
Theoretically there's plenty to like about the entrée that combines pork, crackling and those diamond-shell clams that look a bit like big, meaty pippies. But what's it doing here at Icebergs? And why is it scattered with soaked basil seeds, those frog-spawny numbers you see on bubble teas? Put these two examples cheek-by-jowl with some of the more classical-leaning dishes and it looks like a clear win for the old school. There might be lemon thyme with the broccoli orecchiette now, and sorrel on the risotto, but the bucatini still nails the sweet-sour mix of sardines, fennel and raisins, textured with breadcrumbs and popping with anchovy.
And the grill, that Icebergs mainstay, is still rockin'. Should you prefer your fish without jelly, they're offered whole or as fritters, grilled or roasted, with lemon or with a "Pugliese-style" salmoriglio. (A shifting regional focus is one of Wilson's innovations, and this month apparently it's Puglia. Put it next to the Sardinian menu at Pilu, though, or even the regionally themed weekly dinners at Vini, and it seems unconvincing. "Do. Or do not," as Yoda tells Luke in The Empire Strikes Back. "There is no try.")
Oh, and the steak. Let me count the ways. Yes, it's a pity the bone from the rib-eye doesn't make it to the table, and yes, there are those who would say $54 for a steak served only with cheeks of lemon (even Meyer lemon) isn't so much reassuringly expensive as just evidence of a world gone mad. But I'm here to tell you that this is one of the great steaks in a steak-loving city, the char and crust of salt flattering the hunk of grain-fed Black Angus to a savoury, beefy intensity seldom matched. And there's something comforting about a big piece of beef on a plate when the other main course on the table is wearing a shroud made of jelly.
Sides: yes. There's a version of Marchetti's excellent pea and salted ricotta salad, updated with farro (biodynamic farro, no less), nutty and healthy-seeming, and a nice, cold charred broccoli number leavened with tomato, slivers of almond and chilli. You'll want them both.
Some of the newer, off-script dishes are keepers, too. The fish fingers - they call them baccalà e polenta crocchette - play fried salt cod off against an aïoli smartened up with a good whack of Kalamatas and a little orange zest. They're brilliant, just made for lazy drinks on an easy afternoon.
Best of all are the sweets. Back in the day, the dessert menu always struck me as one of the weaker points of Robert Marchetti's run at Icebergs. Everything had chocolate in or on it, when you'd think even a couple of fruit-driven dishes would be more simpático with the setting and the Italian theme. Today the dolci are wholly of the new school - in a good way. "Sheep's milk panna cotta" is just a pretext for a hot-cold mix of apple crumble and sorrel granita. Brilliant. The Campari and grapefruit granita is pretty much the only Italian connection in the Icebergs pavlova, a thoroughly modern Millie (or mille, if you will) of meringue sheets leaning on crème fraîche, beetroot sorbet, bits of grapefruit and raspberries. It's a bit more Nomafuku than nonna, but it works. And hey, only one out of the five is chocolate. That's progress.
Drinking at Icebergs has always been a pleasure, but I wouldn't say the wine list has ever been a draw in its own right. There's Italian stuff here, and some interesting Victorian names, but held against the standard set by the city's other Italian high-flyers, it's a bit aimless. Imagine if they got someone to create a powerhouse Italian cellar like the one Lara Caraturo built in her years as sommelier at Pilu, or if they were more modest in their ambitions but had a team like the gang at Berta who could really sell the wine. Terzini says he has put Rocco Esposito, winemaker, buyer, former wine director for Vue de Monde, a Victorian vinous all-rounder, on the case. Whether another interstate consultant is what the restaurant needs - well, time will tell. Me, I'd like to see them have a first-rate sommelier in the room working the floor, someone as fun as they are knowledgeable. They exist.
One of the revelations of IDRB circa 2014 is the presence of Sylvester Terzini on the floor. You can tell he has absorbed plenty of his dad's thinking on how and why service should be conducted, but where Terzini père is all action, relentlessly adjusting things on the table and ticcing around the dining room like some genius hospitality Touretter, Sylvester is calm and measured. The guy's a natural. He's just one strong member of a team that's improving. They're not where they were when the restaurant first opened, they're not quite where they should be at this price-point, but I'd like to think they're on their way.
I can't see the latest tinkering around the margins of the menus changing the essence of what Icebergs is, or becoming as much a part of the Icebergs experience as the surfers, stand-up paddle boarders, divers and dolphins in the water below. There have been stumbles in the restaurant's stewardship - it's a bit too branded now and the renovation Terzini has promised is more than overdue - but somehow it's still a magnetic place. This is one of the great restaurant spaces. Not one of the great dining rooms of Sydney; just one of the greats, full stop. Let's hear it for good bones.