Mad Cow and Teppanyaki have both closed.
Bovine spongiform encephalopathy. It just doesn't have the same ring to it, does it? There again, Mad Cow might just be the least appealing name for a steakhouse ever. It's certainly memorable, though, and that goes for much of Ivy, the multimillion-dollar new drink, dine and dance complex that it sits in. A dazzling constellation of lifestyle indulgences, as the official spiel has it, Ivy is the latest blockbuster development from Justin Hemmes, the hotelier-cum-music promoter responsible for, among other things, Establishment (home to three-star stunner Est), and the Good Vibrations dance music festival.
Entering the George Street behemoth today, much of it is still under construction, with the finishing pieces (including the rooftop pool, penthouse hotel and Italian restaurant headed by former Buon Ricordo chef Massimo Bianchi) set to fall into place mid-year. The girl in the cinch-waisted dress who stands at the bottom of the stairs isn't wearing a hard hat, though. She's got a clipboard, and is flanked by security guys in SWAT team-style jumpsuits and high-lacing boots, so she might as well be bulletproof. We're shown up a steep flight of steps. At the top, we're greeted by another clipboard dolly bird, but no SWAT guys this time. A colleague tells me you can bypass lots of this nonsense by taking the lift, but that would be to deny the full Ivy experience.
If this sounds like a rigmarole to get a drink, you're right: it is. And this is a Tuesday night we're talking about. And the place is still only half finished. Saturday nights when it is operating at full strength will surely boggle the mind. So why run the gauntlet of all this nonsense? Because it's a big dose of kooky fun. Once you're past the clipboards and up the stairs, the first floor opens out to a vast courtyard filled with a Japanese maple, a grand spiral staircase and lots of hanging plants and flowers. Wow indeed. Ivy is the only restaurant complex I know of that has its own florist and gardener. (When the pool is finished it'll also be the only one to have its own lifeguard.) The space is ringed by bars and a lounge, and Mad Cow sits at the far end. The second floor holds still more bars and lounging space, the DJ dais, Teppanyaki, a modern Japanese restaurant, and, naturally enough, an outdoor shower.
Mad Cow is one of the best answers to the "why bother" conundrum. It's dubbed a New York-style steakhouse, but that really only holds true in the sense that it serves steak and charges plenty of money for it. 'New York-style steakhouse' says mahogany and leather, teak and weight and no expense spared. And that's just the clientele's brief-cases. Mad Cow's look speaks of sweetness and light; some would say breakfast room, but I think it's great that someone is breaking with the steakhouse clichés and trying something new. The oversized lampshades, all-booth seating and the array of cute little chandeliers and shades are all white or picked out in a very zesty shade of lemon. Pale green carnations and little bunches of hydrangeas adorn the tables. There are huge hunks of meat and four-figure bottles of red wine to be had, and the steak knives are predictably hefty, but it's a lot closer to Miami than Manhattan.
It's also fun. "Old MacDonald had some pigs!" reads the speech bubble above the cow lurking behind a swathe of ivy on the restaurant's business card. "Eieio," says its companion. The cover for the wine list features similar graphics and gags, with our cud-chewing friends exhorting us to go for white wine. This freshness extends to the staff, too. Seeing Ivy advertise for personnel through MySpace didn't fill me with confidence, but while the waiters at Mad Cow are certainly bright and peppy, they're also good at their jobs.
Back of house, Christopher Whitehead, a chef last seen overseeing monumental numbers at Circular Quay's Opera Bar, and his team cook a menu designed by Peter Doyle, chef at Est, the signature restaurant at Establishment. That menu is divided into To Start, The Cow, With the Cow, Not the Cow and Cheese & Dessert. The pick of the entrées is probably the plate of jamón Ibérico with fresh figs and a little nest of rocket - perfect produce left to speak for itself. A slightly anaemic 'golden' chicken broth is light on the palate, but perhaps this is in deference to the bone marrow ravioli floating in it. The loosely shuffled deck of proper Italian buffalo mozzarella, gooey fried eggplant, zucchini and slow-cooked tomato is much better than your average tomato-and-mozza vego-pleaser, thanks to top ingredients and careful cooking, and the splash of basil oil makes for a pretty plate. And hey, 10 years ago it would've been a stack.
The non-beef main courses are fine but, with the exception of the very impressive and crisp roast suckling pig with sweet glazed fennel and carrots, not exciting. The barramundi, for instance, with green olives, preserved lemon and almonds is perfectly edible but unmemorable. The steaks, on the other hand, are something you'll recall with fondness and a growling stomach. The rib eye for two (800g with the bone for $79) is a nice piece of meat, so it was a pity ours was rushed and not rested anywhere near long enough, resulting in plenty of juice on the plate but not much in the tense meat. Put it down to first-month jitters. Paying $39 for a cheaper cut like skirt is something of a novelty, but if flavour is what you're after, here it is, with the kitchen achieving plenty of char on the 9-plus marble-scored wagyu. The striploin walks the perfect line between the tenderness of the rib and the savour of the skirt. All the meat is dry-aged and grain-fed, though the menu doesn't bore you with details: flavour and texture speak for themselves. Here's the rub: nothing comes with the steaks, apart from textbook béarnaise, chimichurri (a winner with the skirt), shallot thyme jus or tarragon mustard butter. And a wedge of lemon. So, once you've dropped between $38 and $79 on meat, if you want potatoes, salad, chips or anything like that on the plate, you're looking at nine or 10 more dollars a pop for laughably small sides.
Desserts are priced on the higher side, too. They're also pretty darn good. The little pavlova has lots to commend it, but my favourite is the grilled peaches with nougat ice-cream and ginger crisps. Restrained sweets are a rare and beautiful thing.
There's some interesting wine on the sizeable list, good Madeiras and pinot blancs among them, along with some cheeky mark-ups (when did you last see a list that had no tempranillos under three figures?). There's not much I'd want to drink with steak among the Australian reds, but there are many opportunities to blow scads of cash, with the 'Top Paddock' reserve section of the list all hundreds and thousands.
Big dollars aside, Mad Cow is an impressive and solid restaurant, and one I can recommend wholeheartedly. Teppanyaki, though, might need more time to get past its teething phase. If Mad Cow's waiters exonerate the MySpace hiring policy, the crew at Teppanyaki shows up its flaws. On the plus-side, it boasts a series of glamour rooms, and Shaun Presland's menu is full of Nobu-influenced things you'll want to eat. The floor staff are sharply kitted out. I had plenty of time to study them over the course of a frustrating lunch that blew out to two hours as the five waiters servicing the too-small table walked past, over and over, not doing much. You can do Mad Cow in 45 minutes at lunch if you really want to. I waited almost that long upstairs for a single course. One waiter noticed that we'd been served our (doll-sized) bowls of rice before the rest of our food had materialised. He didn't bother, though, to remove them and return with a hot fresh serve when the peppered tuna steak with sesame ponzu arrived. 'Kafkaesque' is not a quality you want on the floor. We ordered mini wagyu burgers from a passing waitress because we were starving, and they arrived before the rest of our real order. They were great, but then hunger is the best sauce.
And that's the shame of it: most of the food is good. The new-style snapper sashimi with ginger and garlic is as good as ever. The kingfish ceviche with tomatoes, cucumbers and sweet potatoes, and the seafood 'pancakes' topped with harbour prawns and shreds of cuttlefish are welcome news. I'll be back to try the shallow-fried flounder with jalapeño and green chilli and the after-11 night-noodle menu. Hell, I'll even give the banana harumaki a go, but I'm going to wait a while.
I think the Ivy is going to be a roaring success, but for now, like the structure itself, the restaurant side of things is a work-in-progress, at full-package prices. You could eat at Est for not a vast amount more than Mad Cow, and you're all but guaranteed better service at Sushi E than Teppanyaki. But then you'd be somewhere other than this dazzling new constellation of lifestyle indulgences. And that's one party you might not want to miss.