Restaurant Reviews

The new Quay, reviewed

The tablecloths may be gone, but Quay 2.0 bridges the gap between luxuries old and new like no other fine diner.

By Pat Nourse
The renovated Quay is reviewed by Gourmet Traveller
Sand crab with turnip kombu, squid and cabbage

"Wow! It's just not us!" @danniellemills said to @sicspritz. "Mmmmmm for a $4 million upgrade expected a lot more," @paul_kwong_47 chimed in. "A sad looking RSL," was @willtommia's call, "Not nearly as impressive as before." "I like tablecloths," added @ianmademe12, with a sad-face emoji. Most damning of all, perhaps, was @fisnow: "Is there a salad bar?"

These comments were made when Quay's new interiors were previewed on Gourmet Traveller's Instagram account in early July. They speak to me of an emotional investment diners have made in the restaurant. A sense of ownership and pride. These Australians don't just cry out when the chef retires his snow egg from the dessert menu, they want to know where the damn tablecloths are.

But push through the door and those questions and Sizzler comparisons melt away in a rush of lush textures and careful comforts. A whisper of a tart shell laden with shiitake custard and dusted with pork crackling. A silky, deeply savoury custard draped with gleaming tongues of sea urchin roe. Sand crab and melting strands of fine-cut squid with a grilled cabbage spine, the leaf of the same cabbage, fermented and dried, turned into a translucent pane that shimmers like the wing of a dragonfly.

The new-look dining room in daylight
The new-look dining room in daylight

Yes, the olive uniforms are unfortunate ("the colour of an ugly sofa," a friend said). And yes, the idea of serving one course with long tweezers (in place of, say, some really nice chopsticks) is clunky. But the the pleasures unlocked by the new Quay are many.

Palm heart and fermented lotus seeds provide the sublime textural contrast in a bowl of "hand-harvested" seafood: filmy sheets of raw Double Island Point scallop, Victorian vongole and curls of Coffin Bay octopus that are almost heartbreaking in their daintiness. Aged vinegar and seaweed in the dressing give it oomph and depth. And it'll be better still served without tweezers.

Looking around the room, which has been reoriented to make more of its view of the Harbour Bridge (hedging against the large number of cruise ships that now dock between the restaurant and its vantage over the water to the Opera House), I wonder if the commenters online remember previous adventures in decorative statements at Quay. The carpet that looked like a woozy test-pattern. The mirrored ceilings that carried with them more than a whiff of pole-dance chic. Today from the inside Quay looks less like a strip club or a branch of Sizzler and more like a Deco spacecraft hovering over Circular Quay.

Views from the Upper and Lower Towers
Views from the Upper and Lower Towers

What of the tablecloths? I say if the tables themselves are beautiful (tick) and the acoustics of the room are otherwise well managed (double tick), I don't see a problem. And with all the new toys at the table, there's plenty of other things to talk about. Beautiful little single-serve decanters for the fancier of the 32 wines offered by the glass. Or the custom-made Tasmanian blackwood racks for the malted barley crumpets which arrive mid-meal, hot and fragrant with grain. The crumpets come with butter loaded with Terra Preta black truffles and a rock-maple timber knife that my girlfriend reports "smells like Steiner school".

Shiitake custard and pork crackling tart
Shiitake custard and pork crackling tart

Much is made of Peter Gilmore's interest in nature, but he's not really a figs-on-a-plate sort of guy. How else do you read oysters that have been blitzed and sieved, turned into a cream and piped into a man-made ceramic oyster shell? A sprinkle of crunched-up crisp chicken skin softens the hubris, though, and a healthy application of caviar gives the dish wings.

Gilmore has been playing with the combination of pork belly and scallops for a decade and a half. In its latest iteration the part of a richly fatty hunk of pork is played by a piece of smoked jowl, while the shellfish bounce now comes from fan-shell razor clams, in keeping with Quay's reputation for recherché ingredients. Why settle for abalone when you could get something served in almost no other restaurant in Australia, goes the thinking here. Shiitakes join the dots, and the whole thing is crowned with an airy puff of sea cucumber – perhaps the world's most expensive prawn cracker.

Duck, slow-cooked carrots, red dates and karkalla
Duck, slow-cooked carrots, red dates and karkalla

What of dessert? The "white coral", a clever snap-frozen reef of white chocolate ganache, coconut cream and an oddly dense feijoa ice-cream, is the intended replacement for Gilmore's much vaunted snow egg. I am usually more interested in desserts that foreground fruit rather than sugar. But at the same time, I find myself entirely seduced by another monochrome composition of prune jam covered in a sandy, slightly salty dune of crystallised oloroso-sherry caramel. And the same caramel, uncrystallised this time, forms the centre of a staggeringly well-made chocolate bar you're given as you leave the restaurant. If Gilmore ever leaves Quay, the Mars Bar could expect some serious competition.

White coral
White coral

Some practical advice: despite Quay 2.0 being sold as a more "interactive" experience, your choice is now narrowed to two dégustations: six or 10 courses. Do the six, not the 10 – the longer menu is too much; too much money and too much food. I won't recommend the three matched-drinks options, either. Whether it's the straight wine pairing, the broader "round of drinks" which calls cider, sake and spirit into service, or the non-alcoholic route (aka $95 for juice), there's just too much going on, and not all of it clicks. But between the smarts of the wine team, led by drinks boss Amanda Yallop and head sommelier Shanteh Wong, and the quality of the cellar, if you opt to go by the glass or bottle, you can drink very well. One night I challenged one sommelier, Ashlyn Foster, to pull out a killer bottle for under $90 and she produced an $86 riesling from Mosel producer Julien Haart that worked beautifully across several courses.

Consider the vegetarian menu, even if you don't happen to be a person of the vegetarian persuasion. Gilmore's reputation as a heirloom-literate close-reader of seed catalogues who is not interested in the common or garden variety is well founded. His handling of silken tofu and mushrooms is adept, while the way duck, pork and beef has been cooked at Quay in recent years has struck me as being driven more by efficiency and uniformity than care for texture.

Peas with miso and anchovy
Peas with miso and anchovy

You have to feel for Quay's waiters sometimes. Rare ingredients are all very well in the kitchen and on the plate, but what about the poor souls who have to deliver them? Over the course of my visits they have had to talk the table through Tennouji turnip, Wakefield cabbage, Maremma duck and Job's tears. They've explained that the duck course – a fudgy tranche of breast with slow-cooked carrots, karkalla and red dates – was inspired by the plate that it's served on. Thanks to these same waiters, I now know that the unusually flavoursome "post-brood" honey on the whisper of a tart that closes the meal is from the part of the comb that has raised baby bees. They know the names of the architect, four ceramicists, the guy who built the chairs, and the man who invented the sugarsnap pea.

Views across the harbour
Views across the harbour

They deliver these facts with warmth and care, morsels to savour rather than regurgitation by rote. This newly personal touch makes more of a difference to Quay 2.0 than an acre of stingray-print leather and teal carpet. Last year's Gourmet Traveller Restaurant Guide review touched on the tarnish that that "some naff, nanna and negligent" aspects of service brought to Quay. Those problems have largely been ironed out of the experience. Where once you could feel like you were there to be fed through the Quay machine, now Quay is there to feed you, its scale made human, even as its ambitions swell.

Peter Gilmore's brilliance is undimmed. It's the radical accomplishment of his food that, along with the remarkable setting, has always put this place in a class of its own. Now, with a new intimacy and a fresh focus on service, the dream of making Quay Australia's biggest little restaurant is becoming real.