Our story so far: Neil Perry has been at the forefront of modern Australian cooking for about as long as the term has had any currency. Rockpool, opened 25 years ago this month, wasn't his first notable restaurant, but in retrospect it marks the beginning of the empire.
To put it briefly, Perry opened a bunch of restaurants, then closed a bunch, then opened a bunch again, and this latest lot seems like it's here to stay. Throughout all this, the George Street restaurant has been more or less constant. There was a brief flirtation with an intensified seafood focus when it was Rockpool Fish, and then "on George" was added to the name when the newer, grander Rockpool Bar & Grill began to overshadow its parent restaurant. It never really stopped being a creative powerhouse for modern Australian cooking, but now that Perry and his team have moved the whole show, holus-bolus, to the CBD and set up shop in a striking new room, Rockpool crackles with energy anew. It's bigger, it's bolder, and has redoubled its focus. If you're looking for the year's Big Deal Restaurant, this is going to be the one to beat.
Over the years Perry has attracted some impressive chefs to run the kitchen at Rockpool. Ross Lusted, Khan Danis and Mike McEnearney are all talents in their own right, as the loyal followings they've found at The Bridge Room, Cipro and Kitchen by Mike respectively demonstrate. Young New Zealander Phil Wood came to the fold via Tetsuya's and The French Laundry, joining the Rockpool kitchen as head chef in 2009. Today, a great many of the wow moments on the menu continue to spring from the exploration of Chinese cuisine's deeper cuts, married with the admiration for classical French restaurant cooking Wood shares with Perry.
There's been a version of the Chinese-style glazed pigeon on the menu for at least 20 years now, but the most recent might be the most lustrous. The fine liverish texture of the breast of the burnished, twice-cooked bird is echoed beautifully by a slice of steamed savoury custard, darkened by exposure to the same master-stock that first cooks the pigeon before it's finished in the wok. The legs and wings redefine the term "finger-lickin' good", and a judicious scattering of corn kernels and toasty cashew nuts join the dots between the bird and the little sandwich of eggplant rounds filled with soy-sticky prawn on the plate. It's a mighty fine thing.
Right about now would be a good time to reach for a Burgundy, and the outstanding by-the-glass offering has you covered. To his very great credit, though, sommelier Richard Healy counters with an Austrian blaufränkisch blend, which takes the dish to great heights, and at half the price of the Jean Grivot.
This outstanding wine list fizzes and pops with interesting beers and sakes, but has serious chops for the big-hitters as well. Healy and his fellow somm, Emma Plumridge, read their guests well and make consistently apt and welcome suggestions throughout the meal, barely putting a foot wrong. Broadly speaking, the same could be said of most of the service. At the moment there's no one fronting the place who has the grown-up, Big Deal Restaurant gravitas that Tom Sykes and Jeremy Courmadias bring to Rockpool Bar & Grill or that Vanessa Crichton displays at Rosetta, Perry's Melbourne Italian, but the floor ticks over pretty smoothly overall.
All the waiters are dressed in slinky black, which fits the 50-shades-of-black decorative theme neatly. There's pressed black matte zinc on the ceiling and glossy black tiles on the walls. I suspect if you lifted up a bit of the floor it'd be black under there as well. By day, sunshine streams in vast, biblical washes from the double-height windows to Bridge Street; at night, the tables are islands of lamplight in a sea of sultry dark. Perry might lay claim to the dimmest restaurant in town with Spice Temple, but the new Rockpool certainly gives it a run for its money. And yet it's a great place for people-watching, unhampered by the L-shape of the original Rockpool or the partitions of Bar & Grill. And though it's dark, noise is well managed, neither hushed nor blaring. Glinting with damask and crystal, it has weight without drag; it's a room that makes you want to sit that little bit taller, order another Martini and bask in the buzz and sparkle.
The menu works a bit differently from day to night. At lunch it's a straight prix-fixe, one course for $52, two for $69 and three for $79. The entrées pop: prawn cake in an intense, salty prawn broth with shreds of prawn is texturally brilliant, and as spicy as any three-star restaurant would dare. Compared to this and the lush salad of shredded poached chicken and bamboo fried in pork fat with XO sauce, some of the main courses seem a bit ordinary. The chicken galantine with prawn and liquorice butter, and the seared and poached fillet of Rangers Valley beef with creamed silverbeet and Bordelaise sauce are both plenty juicy and flavoursome, but otherwise feel a little bit like function food.
Perry has said the lunch menu is designed to be punched out quickly, and that's admirable, but in some cases convenience comes at the cost of texture - Bar & Grill's claim to steak superiority isn't under threat. On the other hand, lunch's potato dauphines might be the most impressive side offered at any Perry establishment: crisp shells and liquid centres bathed in a deeply flavoursome kombu butter. ("We've tried the butter on a lot of things," notes Wood, "and have decided that it makes everything taste better." He's right.)
Still, it's dinner when both the room and menu truly come into their own. Dubbing the first section of the carte "beginning the journey" might be risible in its would-be profundity, but this bracket of dishes shows the kitchen to be virtuosic. The new deal is that they send out this flurry of canapés and small courses of their own choosing at the beginning (always the best bit of any dégustation), but after the "journey" is begun, the diner picks a further one ($125), two ($145) or three ($165) savoury courses, and then a dessert.
That first salvo is a barrage of bold tastes. There's ballsiness in kicking off with a pungent prawn head fried in a tempura-like batter, followed by an immediate comfort hit in chicken wings that have been boned, stuck back on a bone handle, fried and drenched in that crazily moreish kombu butter. Every one of the five dishes that follows is measured, interesting and delicious on its own terms, whether it's the potato purée - little more than a dollop - with green wheat, XO sauce and a dusting of prawn powder, or the bread, made in-house and served with a freshly made ricotta, sauced with tomato water, that's similar to the one seen at Rosetta.
There's no bloat in the choice of courses to follow. If you're feeling like you need richness without bulk, opt for the egg (soft-poached) with caviar (Sterling, plenty of), crisp potato (in a puffy, pretty circlet) and a silky scampi-stock Allemande sauce on a blini base. The similarly airy garlic mousseline tart is tart in name only, really, with the pâte brisée broken into shards garnishing a rainbow of carrots, baby turnips, tufts of fennel greens and rounds of radish laid over a slick of garlic sauce. If the central project of modern restaurant cooking is liberating flavour from heaviness, these guys are on the right path.
Happily the "rich and noble" congee, one of the best dishes of the recent Rockpool era, has survived the move. Its latest update involves nuggets of Balmain bug meat played off peanuts, youtiao (the fried Chinese dough you've probably had with your congee at Golden Century) and almond tofu. It's hawker-deluxe, a rich vein I suspect Wood and Perry still mine with more success than anyone else in town.
Desserts might not quite shimmer with the same inspiration as those Rockpool offered under Catherine Adams, and they don't kick things up a notch in the same way as the final courses at Quay or Sepia, but they're certainly still worth sticking a fork in.
A meditation on the theme of strawberries and cream is sweet and lovely, combining ricotta parfait, strawberry compôte, shreds of jelly and crème Chantilly with moscato poured on at the table, the perfume of the strawberries kept at the fore. Mango pudding, meanwhile, locates the tastiest intersection between yum cha, pavlova and trifle in a bowl laced with condensed-milk sabayon, lemongrass yoghurt and almonds. The move from George to Bridge is all the better for the fact it's been done quite unsentimentally, but it's still nice to close with a petit-four version of the date tart that has graced the tables of Perry's establishments since 1984, essentially unaltered.
Neil Perry has never wanted for confidence or ambition, but the Rockpool of today is a place he has opened with the benefit of 25 more years' experience. As a chef he's older, wiser and maybe even a little bit humbler, but the essential thing is that he has lost none of his drive or curiosity.
For all the reach of his empire, Perry says that it's Sydney that most defines what his cooking is all about. It's a cuisine that Rockpool, holding true to its twin inspirations of Chinatown and the bounty of the sea, showcases to its utmost. In 2014, with the restaurant in its fullest flowering, Sydney finds its investment in Perry repaid many times over.
In Rockpool reborn we have a restaurant for here, for us, for now.