Fun dishes. No tablecloths. Humble service. Is Quay loosening up after 30 years at the forefront of Australian fine-dining? The landmark Sydney restaurant reopens this Thursday after a $4 million facelift that took three months and touched everything from the kitchen and furniture right down to the napkins. While the most noticeable changes are seen in the harbour-side dining room, to go with the new look chef Peter Gilmore has rewritten almost the whole menu, seizing on the opportunity to hit reset and retire a few favourites.
The design now complements rather than competes with Those Views. The bold flashes of purple and gold have been replaced by a palette that from some vantages evokes sand and sea, from others an autumnal landscape. All but one smallish portion of the old mirrored ceiling is gone. White tablecloths are conspicuous in their absence. Natural materials and textures appear to be the focus of the renovation by architecture firm Tonkin Zulaikha Greer, from the Tasmanian spotted-gum tables to the ribbed timber ceiling, linen napkins and leather that's inspired by stingray skin.
The food, meanwhile, has moved entirely to a tasting-menu format, one comprising six courses, another running to 10, and Peter Gilmore has been merciless in jettisoning even the best-known of his signature dishes.
"There wasn't really anything that I had in mind that I held back because the menu at Quay had new dishes added all the time," he says. "I didn't actually have ideas that I had to save."
The tasting-menu format, Gilmore says, give him much more freedom to design a whole experience for guests. And while that involves the guest surrendering some choice in the menu, he has incorporated more interaction in the dishes themselves. Take, for example, the uni winter broth. A series of vessels is brought to the table, each containing a component of the dish. A lidded bowl reveals Tasmanian sea urchin custard; the lid on top holds salted egg yolk, bottarga and salmon roe. Off to the side, a jug of seafood consommé is waiting to be poured over the custard. The final step involves the guest adding the garnishes; moments later, all three elements meet in your first mouthful.
"The idea is to combine all these textures but at the right moment," Gilmore says.
"Luxury can be fun" could be the new mantra of Quay 2.0. Rather than a bread course, the new menu features malted barley crumpets served in a bespoke timber box that mimics a toast rack, which is supposed to keep the crumpets crisp. They come with a butter flavoured with truffles from Canberra, and glass of Champagne. Then there's Gilmore's new and improved "oyster", a dish that retains the all flavours of the mollusc but none of the texture, something that had always bothered the chef. It's served in a sculpted ceramic oyster shell, one of several specially commissioned designs for the new dishes.
As for the desserts, which face the task of replacing Gilmore's famed Snow Egg in the affections of Australian diners, the chef's playful touch is still present in both the White Coral, a similarly multi-textured treat of aerated ganache, coconut cream and ice-cream, and in the freeze-dried oloroso caramel, one of Gilmore's favourite creations of the new menu.
Drink pairings are now more tailored, thanks to a much larger bar that allows the creation of 10 non-alcoholic matches (dubbed the Temperance pairing) and room for a variety of fermented, distilled and blended drinks that form A Round of Drinks, another of the options. There's also a choice of two wine pairings.
Service makes up the final piece of the restaurant overhaul, perhaps in recognition of the shift in Australian diners' attitudes towards the fine-dining experience. Our most recent Restaurant Guide review, published in August 2017, called out the occasionally "naff, nanna and negligent aspects to the front-of-house experience", something that an army of new floor staff and appointment of restaurant managers for each specific dining section may help remedy. The six specific dining areas hold no more than five tables and are separated by leather dividers, giving diners the illusion they're in their own smaller version of Quay. A drop from 100 to 80 seats will also make the room feel more intimate. That's the idea, according to Jeremy Courmadias, group general manager of Fink Group, the company that owns Quay.
"As a family business, it was important to ensure guests felt comfortable and relaxed in order to enjoy and appreciate the Quay experience," he says.
If 30 years is a lifetime in restaurant years, then this must be Quay's second coming. Will it be a rebirth or a reincarnation?
Quay, Upper Level, Overseas Passenger Terminal, The Rocks, NSW, (02) 9251 5600, quay.com.au. Open from 19 July for dinner, daily, 6pm-10pm. Lunch from 3 August, Fri-Sun, 12pm-2pm.