Chinese artichokes, tiny purple onions, native violets. White carrots, white borage and the rare and elusive white broad bean. Blossoms of carrot, rosemary and pea. Celtuce. The tuber known only as sweet root. Peter Gilmore’s shopping list sounds, at times, like a cross between a naturopath’s mini-bar and Act 4, Scene 1 from Macbeth. At Quay, though, it’s not so much fire and cauldron, as midnight oil burning and thermoregulator bubbling; it’s this union of contemporary technology with cool and unusual fruits of the natural world that puts it up there with the world’s best.
In some respects, Quay’s menu hasn’t changed dramatically since Gilmore settled in back in July 2001, yet, subtly, the restaurant has inexorably moved closer to the top of the tree and towards our Restaurant of the Year award in association with Electrolux. “As far as direction goes for our cuisine, I had a pretty good idea of where I wanted to go when I started,” says Gilmore, “and it was always about texture and flavour, primarily, with quite controlled presentation.” Presentation is the clearest change on the plate to the casual observer. The tight, laser-edged circles and squares are gone. But it’s only the tip of the iceberg. “We’ve evolved away from being rigidly geometric on the plate,” agrees Gilmore. “I think as I’ve more thought about the diversity of nature, that’s led to a more organic look. Rather than going down the hot-jelly-foam sort of route, I’m looking to nature for my inspiration. Letting the natural produce speak. There’s so much out there, so much elegance and beauty – to me, it’s about the organic nature of food and letting flavours and textures speak for themselves.”
In the past seven years, Quay’s reputation has grown. The restaurant has garnered attention, both locally and internationally, as a place of repute. Its kitchen has blown out from a sizeable staff of 12 to a small army of 20. Controlled low-temperature cooking is now a staple technique, and Gilmore spends more time looking at seed catalogues than cookbooks.
With the backing of the Quay’s owners, Leon and John Fink, the restaurant now supports a farm in the Blue Mountains, where Richard and Nina Kalina manage crops of little-known and less-seen produce grown specially for Quay’s kitchen. It’s not such a huge leap to suggest that diners are intrigued by these sorts of offerings when the choices of what we can buy on the supermarket shelves are so limited.
“Absolutely,” Gilmore says. “You look at what’s on offer in the supermarket and it’s four or five standard choices of apple when it wasn’t that many years ago that it was 20 or 30 choices... Each might have only been in the market for a couple of weeks, but it brought something new and exciting, and you’d look forward to it… In other cases, like these Chinese artichokes we’re having grown, no farmer in his right mind would consider growing them commercially because you’ve got to get on your hands and knees to dig them up.” Gilmore knows this because he grows many of the plants in his own garden, “ I spent two hours getting just 50 artichokes, but they’re wonderful, you’ve never seen anything like them, and you can’t get them in any other restaurant.”
But his shopping list is only half the brilliance, of course; the kitchen consistently demonstrates an almost preternatural sense of balance and restraint. Whether it’s a luxe take on congee that’s rich with mud crab, a very unusual, Cantonese-inspired slow-cooked beef tendon with prune and sherry consommé and fresh black truffle, or an extraordinary dessert such as the pear crème caramel with Sauternes jelly, pear ice-cream and caramel cream, they’re turning out food that is exciting but leaves an impression, above all, of delicacy and judicious taste.
Gilmore hopes people will come to the restaurant with an open mind. “I really want them to experience things they can’t experience anywhere else,” he says. “We’re sitting on one of the most beautiful harbours in the world, and Quay is in a very fortunate position because it showcases it like no other restaurant can, so the nature on the plate is a really beautiful marriage with the setting of Sydney harbour.” It certainly gets our vote.
Quay, Upper, level, Overseas Passenger Terminal, The Rocks, NSW, (02) 9251 5600, quay.com.au
WORDS PAT NOURSE PHOTOGRAPHY MARCEL AUCAR
This article appeared in the September 2008 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.