Judging three-star restaurants is a funny business. Do you go in and just sit and wait to be wowed? Or do you work backwards, clipping points back from a perfect score and see who’s left at the end? Whichever way you choose to look at things, Pier comes up trumps. Speaking personally, I visited every three-star restaurant in Australia this year, and as good as each of them was, the meals at Pier, our Restaurant of the Year award-winner, in association with Electrolux, were the ones that really stood out. They were just flawless.
The pioneering approach to procuring, handling and cooking seafood is still there, still very unusual even on a world stage, still its big hook and still the foundation of the restaurant’s appeal. This is a restaurant that takes such care with its seafood that you can tell the kitchen thinks it’s a sin to cook it at all, and when they do, they have the waiters encourage diners to start on a fillet’s thin end so that by the time they cut into it, the thick end has reached the perfect just-set texture as the residual heat warms it through. Better still, this is the kind of restaurant where a suggestion like that can be made to diners without it seeming either pompous or ridiculous. No mean feat.
It’s the best place to eat seafood in Australia, but it’s no longer just a fish restaurant. Like New York’s Le Bernadin, Pier both defines and transcends the genre. When did Pier begin to outgrow the label? Perhaps it was the appearance of the Robuchon-inspired Tasting Room at the entrance in 2005. It showcased Greg Doyle and Grant King’s versatility and progressive interests while underscoring longer-term strengths such as presentation and restraint. It has also exposed many more people to Katrina Kanetani’s desserts (the Tasting Room’s honeydew melon soup, with its frogspawn-like drape of basil seeds, borders on the sublime), which are among the nation’s very finest, and now recognised as one of the restaurant’s key strengths. The scope of her interests is impressive. There are few pastry chefs who have plum wine, sumac, tamarind, Pernod, olive oil and tahini alongside the cream, sugar, butter, chocolate and fruit as they work, and fewer still who pull it off.
Pier has taken it up a notch, there’s no doubting it. The floor team, led by service veteran Nick Allchurch, is a very smooth bunch indeed, informed, poised and efficient, but not averse to a smile or a laugh. There’s much to like on the wine list, a document which seems to be improving, and its service is sound.
A glance over the pages of the Pier cookbook, which hits the shelves later this year, reveals a core repertoire that Greg Doyle and past chefs have chiselled to near-perfection over the years, as well as some bright new thinking and fresh interest. Salad of raw kingfish with foie gras mousse, the modern classic salmon ‘pastrami’, a Spanish-inflected salt cod with mojama and almond crunch, a play of earthy tastes and salt tang in confit Murray cod with radishes, baby beetroot and smoked prawn butter are joined by Kanetani’s inspired, highly sculptural cumquat pain perdu with orange blossom panna cotta and mandarin sorbet, quince and chestnut tart with chestnut ice-cream, and warm pomegranate sangria with poached fruit and honey ice-cream.
It’s been 16 years since the restaurant opened, and far from slowing, it seems as if Pier is picking up speed. And yes, amidst the steak fervour gripping the rest of the nation, they still cook a damned fine piece of fish.
594 New South Head Rd, Rose Bay, NSW, (02) 9327 6561,www.pierrestaurant.com.au.
WORDS PAT NOURSE PHOTOGRAPH WILLIAM MEPPEM