Experience culinary perfection, the website said, and I'll be darned if that's not exactly what I did. I've visited every three-star restaurant in Australia in the past six or so months, putting together our national 2007 Restaurant Guide. (Tough job, I know.) If we were talking solely about the food of these places, I think I might nominate Quay as my favourite of the moment. Peter Gilmore's style of cooking, as it's highlighted through Quay's new signature menu (a seven-course degustation Gilmore introduced in mid-2006 after the kitchen was expanded to accommodate it), is so wholly formed, so complete in its conception, execution and presentation that to dine at Quay today is to see a gun chef coming to the height of his powers.
Gilmore's cooking obeys its own internal logic. His presentation is the most obvious expression of this, with its highly distinctive concern for geometry, symmetry and cleanliness of line. His constructions, though architectural in their fine sense of proportion and containment (no slashes, teardrops or squiggles of sauce here), are restrained and blessedly single-storey. Texture is another of Quay's keys. The amuse-bouche foreshadows this with the play between tiny balls of pink beetroot, goat's curd and truffle honey in a flavour-packed shot glass topped with violets. The course that follows makes me glad not to be a Quay apprentice. Dubbed 'Sea Pearls' on the menu, it turns out to be two spheres, each the size of a ping-pong ball. The darker one's a jelly made of dashi and contains petals of pearl meat and Sterling caviar. The lighter one's something more curious still: a nucleus of smoked eel brandade with a nubbly shell of tiny drops of tender-cooked eggwhite, each perfectly formed and smooth. Our waitress said that their method was a secret (an eye-dropper full of eggwhites, a pot of simmering oil, and a very, very patient kitchen team is my bet) but did divulge that each serve was 10 minutes' work for that part alone. The way it tastes and feels in the mouth, I'm afraid, is so good that I still wouldn't fret if they took 30 minutes apiece.
Gilmore's insight into the riches of the Cantonese canon is flagged with a pool of mud crab congee, the rice (split sticky rice in this instance) almost a supporting player to so much sweet, heavenly crab meat. It's topped with a slick of egg emulsion - a creamy not-quite-mayo-not-really-hollandaise that gives the dish body without overwhelming the crab flavour.
Slow-poached quail breast showcases Gilmore's interest in baby vegetables. Many of them, like the baby breakfast radishes and turnips - paired with tiny spring onions, an oloroso sherry reduction and the slightly odd baked milk skin - have been grown for Quay alone. And when I say baby, I mean neonatal. Like the matchhead-sized mushroom caps that accompany the confit of suckling pig. This is a rollicking ride of a dish, oomphy and delicate by turns, the flavours of ultra-crisp cubes of rare-breed pork belly tumbling over paper-thin slices of abalone and cuttlefish braised gently in ginger-infused oil, and handmade silken tofu accented with chive buds. It's just extraordinary.
Maybe it's an occupational hazard of the restaurant reviewing game, but I think I'm a bit over wagyu in the heavily marbled sense. Its almost overabundance on the plate inevitably leads to a hankering for a pint of Lipitor with a Mylanta chaser. Not so at Quay: beef has rarely been prettier than this tenderloin of Blackmore wagyu. It is poached, making for a lighter, finer taste, paired with little more than a glossy dash of spinach purée and a disc of butter infused with Tasmanian wasabi, the quality of its freshness more keen than hot - a perfect counterpoint to the meat.
This rave is not without its reservations. Service hasn't ever been a highlight of my Quay experiences, and it's here that it's seriously out of step with its peers. On the wine side of things, the rather expensive wine list is being managed well and the matches are bang on (the 2004 Curlewis 'Bel Sel' pinot is a marvel with the quail), but the wine service has yet to exhibit any of the really engaging qualities you would experience at some of the city's other establishments.
For my dollar, the room itself doesn't quite have it in terms of either the grandeur or electric atmosphere of some of our best dining rooms, nor the intimacy and attention to detail of others, settling closer to corporate-comfortable than anything truly special.
That said, the views really are incredible. There aren't any truly terrible tables, but book well in advance and be specific when you call to make the best of it. A table in the tower gives views of the bridge to the north, the house to the east, and the hypnotic traffic of the harbour beneath, something the sunset of an earlyish dinner reservation dramatises memorably.
Let's get back to the food. It's truly special stuff, and the best is still to come. That trademark obsession with shape and texture makes Gilmore a natural when it comes to dessert. The mille-feuille of caramelised raspberries that caps the signature menu - more toffeed than the menu's 'caramelised', and 'deux-feuille' would better describe its twin layers of fruit and dollops of rose-scented cream on crisp pastry - is very pretty. So much so that a local restaurant guide chose the dish for its cover. But I'd peg it as only middling in the Gilmore sweets rank. Anywhere else it would be amazing, but his talent with desserts (for my sweet tooth, only Yellow's Lorraine Godsmark, Circa's Philippa Sibley, Vulcans' Phillip Searle and Rockpool's Catherine Adams are on the same level) is such that it compares less favourably with his other triumphs, and I find myself thinking it's annoying to eat, beyond the fleeting kicking-over-the-sandcastle joy of making a mess of something beautiful.
I'd trade it in a heartbeat for the dish that precedes it in the degustation. Nothing more than a Riedel tumbler holding some granita and a scoop of ice-cream; I've had it in a few forms over the past year or so. Tonight it's mulberry granita paired with vanilla ice-cream. Lest that sound too prosaic, I should note that Gilmore took a break from the chef game a few years ago to do nothing but make ice-cream and ices for restaurants. It shows. Not only is this simple, transcendent dish, all textural harmony and swoon-making clarity of flavour, the standout of the menu, it's one of the things I've most enjoyed eating these past 12 months. It's all the more remarkable for its seeming simplicity. And who else uses mulberries? (Coda: the little chocolate cornet cylinders filled with caramel cream served as petits fours are also amazing.)
Out there and exciting, but not over-thought or overdone - that's the food that makes Quay one of our great restaurants. Envelopes may be pushed, but you don't for a second feel like a lab rat. It's inspired, leading-edge modern Australian food, but its flights of fancy aren't cloying in their sentiment or so obvious in their attempts at culinary irony as those of some contemporaries, yet there's enough of a playful nature to keep things from becoming too reverential or introspective. Achievement without overarching ego or cynicism. Let's hope it's a trend.