Yes, it's breathtaking. Combining Citizen Kane-like scope with detail-work befitting Mad Men, it's probably safe to say the new Rockpool Bar & Grill is the grandest restaurant Sydney - and by extension the nation - has ever seen. An edifice of polished granite and Hawkesbury sandstone, all terrazzo of floor and scagliola of column, Balmain architect Emil Sodersten's 12-storey Deco dazzler was the tallest building the city had seen when it was completed in 1936. It started life as the headquarters of the City Mutual Life Assurance Society. The soaring atrium, with Rayner Hoff's relief of Benzoni's Flight from Pompeii set into the ceiling, was known as the Chamber of Assurance, and the name still fits.
Rockpool Bar & Grill does not aspire to challenge or provoke, but to please and assure: it's a steakhouse. But what a steakhouse. The retro-corporate luxe look of the place, admirably executed by Bates Smart, doesn't really place it high in the date-restaurant stakes, but it's already a magnet for the great and good of the moneyed world. Chef and co-owner Neil Perry is one of the trailblazers of today's Australian dining, but just to be clear, this isn't a restaurant dedicated to advancing the cause of gastronomy. Here they take the simple concept of grilling a piece of protein over a fire and burnish it with care and skill until it shines anew. At the original Rockpool back on George Street they're confiting suckling pigs and creating clouds of mandarin and poaching swordfish sous-vide with anchovy and jamón. At the Bar & Grill, they're shucking oysters, creaming silverbeet and charring meat. They're making drinks and grilling stuff, which, at a bar and grill, seems fair enough.
A place energised by talk and movement, the dining room is brought to life most potently by fire, which also fills it with the scent of wood-smoke and meat cooking over charcoal. Simply put, the steaks that are at the centre of the enterprise are very good. There are up to 12 of them on offer from four different producers. I've chewed my way through enough to say that the diversity and quality on show is considerable. What I haven't seen yet - this, I hope, has everything to do with the fact that it's early days and they're still getting to know the grill - is the kind of laser-like precision and consistency with degrees of doneness you'd expect at so high-profile a steakhouse. There's also a serious amount of scorch going on with the steaks, often crossing the line from nicely crusty exteriors to blackened.
This may not be to all tastes, but whether it's an unusual leg steak cut from one of David Blackmore's full-blood wagyu beasts or a 400gm sirloin from Rangers Valley, you're looking at hugely beefy, intensely flavoursome meat. Perry won't be drawn on personal favourites more than to say that as a butcher's son, he's attracted to grass-fed meat. Certainly the interesting, almost lactic flavour in the rib-eye cooked on the bone from Tasmania's Cape Grim (from an older beast, to boot) is a winning contrast to the toasty grain quality of the serious wagyu. Try it side by side with the Blackmore skirt steak - my current personal favourite, thanks to its massive, mahogany flavour and almost flaky texture - for the purposes of comparison. And splitting the steaks is definitely the way to go.
An ideal meal would run something along the lines of a table of four hitting the lush slow-cooked egg on brioche made lavish with jelly-like bone marrow and a slick of red wine butter sauce; an enormous pile of briny, jamón-flecked Tasmanian clams steamed in white wine and tossed with fork-tender flageolet beans; maybe a tapa of charcoal-roasted squid and pork belly. You'd throw in a pasta: the ribbons of "pasta handkerchiefs" with peas, broccolini, chilli, anchovy and ricotta, say. Or the semolina noodles with cherry tomatoes and chilli, a dish given wings by the addition of prawns of unusually high quality. Alongside your steaks you'll want something like the whole roast Dory or flounder to give you a break from the beef.
The steaks may start at $45 for the skirt and shoot all the way up to $110 for the wagyu sirloin, but that buys you nothing but the charred flesh, a slice of lemon, a little béarnaise foam and the offer of the condiment service, so it's all about the sides. The chips I've seen have not been impressively crisp or adroitly cooked - something I'm keen to see sorted out. In the meantime, go long on the sous-vide poached organic carrots "inspired by St John", the very yellow creamed corn, the tender boiled greens and, hell, why not, the crusty mac and cheese.
As ever, Catherine Adams' desserts are a lesson in how to marry exuberance and grace in one sweet package. The pink almond floating island in vanilla sauce is, in a word, pretty. The rice cream with orange sorbet equals comfort minus the stodge factor, while the apple galette, a long finger of pastry covered with a herringbone pattern of apple slices and a scoop of nutty brown-butter ice-cream and a scattering of candied hazelnuts, freshens the classic with a subtle tweak. My money, though, is on the brulée. Boring? Wait till you see the flourish of folded napkin it comes swaddled in; the combination of the poise of the custard and the juicy prunes within is almost reminiscent of that other great Rockpool classic, the date tart.
The swooping multi-waiter choreography of a restaurant like, say, Est is not yet part of the Bar & Grill package, even if the space seems to demand it. Or maybe we've all been watching too much Mad Men. What they do have is $9 million worth of wine. I won't go into it in detail - the list is substantially larger than this magazine - but if you can't find a wine you want here, you're better off with water. The mark-ups on the seriously (and I mean five figures) expensive stuff are, I'm informed by our wine editor, Max Allen, pretty friendly. There's also an attractive range by the glass and an appropriate selection under $70.
Praise must go, too, to the bar - a separate concern almost worth a separate review, and certainly meriting repeat visits - whether it's for Linden Pride and company's smart cocktail list or the pleasures of the bar menu, many of which are lifted straight from the restaurant. The wagyu burger topped with Gruyère and a pickle inspired by San Francisco's Zuni Café, now the stuff of legend at the original Bar & Grill in Melbourne, is a fairly solid contender for best burger in town and warrants a visit in itself.
This is a big-city restaurant with all the bustle and hard-won competence that the tag implies. With the courage of conviction and the indulgence of a discerning backer, Neil Perry and his cohorts have realised their vision for a place to eat that at once is timeless and yet crackles with the electricity of the moment.