THIS RESTAURANT HAS CLOSED
The American philosopher Kevin Costner once said something like, "If you build it, they will come." It worked out okay for him in Field of Dreams, but for chefs and restaurateurs who have taken his wise, wise words to heart over the years, it ain't necessarily so. It'd be nice to think that simply hanging out your shingle and offering interesting, high-quality food and drink in a comfortable room in exchange for money ought to be enough to attract sustainable custom. It's rarely that simple.
I remember Maurice Terzini saying in an interview once that he looks at a prospective restaurant site at least once a week. Even if he keeps opening restaurants at the rate of one roughly every three or four years, that's still a hell of a lot of groundwork, well before the first entrée is drafted. I mention this because Terzini is a restaurateur whose success rate is as close to perfect as you'll get in the premium end of the business in Australia, and while food and service are among the other things he cares deeply about, the inference is that the choice of site counts for an awful lot in the life of a restaurant.
Arras is a case in point. When it opened in late 2007, it ticked the boxes: distinctive design rendered in a polished fit-out (cool Brittania meets Olde Sydney Town), cooks who knew one end of a knife from the other (Adam and Lovaine Humphrey), a menu with personality (something like The Fat Duck via a visit to gran's house) and a very, very good maître d' (Alon Sharman, who had come to the restaurant from Quay). What it didn't have was customers. Or not a lot of them, anyway. The Humphreys have put that down to the fact that their original site, past the Sydney Theatre on Hickson Road on the inner-harbour side of The Rocks, had limited scope for the business crowd and next to zero potential for walk-in trade. Truth be told, too, the room, with its Union Jack-print chairs and stone walls, had a slightly penal feel, and being so close to the water and yet shut away in a dark room didn't really help.
Fast-forward to today, and Arras 2.0 is anything but dark. It's no closer to the water, but now reaches for the sky. When the Humphreys decided to roll the dice again and take on the Clarence Street site vacated in 2011 by the Bécasse team's move to Westfield, they didn't go for half measures. The new look is bright and bold. The large, well-padded armchairs are now upholstered in pinstripe, while flat laser-cut perspex shapes hung from the ceiling are lit from above, to make abstract clouds that vaguely recall Matisse cut-outs. Under a gently billowing sheer curtain, an exuberant mural by Scottish graffiti artist Az One covers the two-storey wall of the ground floor and blossoms up the stairs to the mezzanine. The carpet is a rich royal blue, the glass is Riedel, the cutlery Robert Welch, the cloths on the well-spaced tables ironed and luxurious. It's less The Fatal Shore and more Paul Smith-meets-Magical Mystery Tour.
For the most part, they've kept what works, and thrown out what doesn't. The touches of whimsy and references to the Humphreys' northern English heritage that first set Arras's menus apart from the mainstream are still here, but they've been toned down. Dressed Alaskan crab, looking a bit like sang choi bau in its lettuce cup, flecked with crisp wafers of garlic and coriander cress and studded with green soy beans, bean sprouts and little Parisienne scoops of carrot, is piquant and refreshing, even if the use of imported crab in place of local product is a bit of a let-down. It's described on the menu as "spiced and dressed crab, lettuce and soy". Not exactly full disclosure, but a lot more straightforward than "rack on black", "tails from land and sea" and some of the other more opaque items which have graced Arras cartes over the years.
It's the first of four courses of the $120 prix fixe menu (a dégustation is also offered), with a choice of four or five dishes in each bracket. Among the other first-courses, milk-cooked pork belly is preposterously generous, but well rendered and nicely matched with whey purée and crackling. The pick of them is probably the King George whiting. Humphrey updates a creamy '70s vermouth, chive and tarragon sauce with a little lozenge of clear fennel jelly with a broad bean sealed at its centre, and a cooked dice of cucumber. The cucumber, the waitress tells me, has been compressed. To me this signifies nothing, and counts for even less, texture-wise. In the middle of all this, the two fillets have been deftly cooked, and it's a great dish regardless.
I can probably survive without eating another coriander-seed tuille any time soon, but my month would be less pleasant for not having eaten Arras's pigeon dish. Served crime-scene rare, the breast of the bird is splayed in two pieces over a rubble of burghul. Dots of lemon emulsion, dun rocket purée and a scattering of pomegranate seeds complete the Middle Eastern-inspired sour-sweet picture.
Some of the effects can become a little repetitive. I'm a big fan of mixing patterns, but must every plate come adorned with so many dots? The little sprays of dust, too, don't contribute much more than to make things look, well, dusty. There's also probably too much of the old pouring-more-stuff-onto-the-plate-once-it's-at-the-table routine. So much so, in fact, that on one occasion one of our waiters was overwhelmed by the plethora of little jugs at his disposal and (egad!) drenched the duck breast (served, interestingly, with butter beans and an odd little roll-up of confit leg and prune purée in a prune leather) with a sauce intended for the somewhat ordinary shredded poached skate served with rémoulade and a squirt of fennel mousse. It was a slip-up corrected with impressive speed and a merciful minimum of fuss, but the message is nonetheless clear: if you like your food plated simply and with a minimum of buggering around, this might not be the restaurant for you.
But life without whimsy is no life at all. Our market is well served by top-dollar protein merchants happy to whack down a steaming, juicy, exhaustively sourced piece of beef or fish with nary a parsley sprig for modesty - and charge like wounded pure-blood bulls for the pleasure. Arras has always been about more-is-more, and this incarnation is no different. Snacks precede amuses-bouche (a Noma-esque little sandwich made of crisped chicken skin being the highlight), while house-baked bread comes in five flavours. Alon Sharman's wine list remains far better, too, than it really needs to be. It's a thing of beauty, packed with half-bottles, magnums, imaginative imports, a host of apéritif options and plenty of interest by the glass, and it hits that sweet spot between flexible utility and interesting reading. Sharman's unflappable service, and that of his cohorts on the floor, is a notable asset in itself.
The OTT-factor gets its best outing at the end of the meal. Desserts, such as the banana sandwich, are busy and sweet. The sandwich is a sort of millefeuille arrangement of gooey banana caramel cream sandwiched between thin layers of crisp banana nougatine. It sits on a field of glossy chocolate dots and is accompanied by slabs of banana meringue. If you think that's unrestrained, though, just wait till you get a load of the petits fours. At Arras 1.0, it was an impressive display, a hefty tile of slate covered with rows of confections, jellies and frills. On Clarence Street, slate has given way to candy-coloured clowning on a perspex stand that seems twice the size of the original. Lollipops of lavender and citrus rear up in a sea of sherbet at the centre, while lucky-dip things on sticks and mint fairy-floss loom over the far side. All around them are artfully positioned bricks of orange chocolate popping candy, chunks of peanut brittle, chocolates, truffles, after-dinner mints, Dime Bars, yoghurt sorbet cones and more. You're invited to serve yourself, though by this stage I usually find myself already on the far side of sated. With a little more portion-control and tweaking of the acidity of the preceding dishes on the kitchen's part, I'd say the odds of the average diner making a bigger dent would improve. It's goofy, and very endearing indeed. More than a little, that is, like Arras itself.