Yes, lightning really can strike in the same place twice. If anything, the Quay that is Restaurant of the Year today is, dare we say it, a better place than it was 12 months ago when it first won the award. All the things that made it great then – the unmatched commitment to sourcing unique and interesting premium ingredients, the superb waterside setting, chef Peter Gilmore’s distinctly individual and seamless way of integrating bright flavours from the field and waters, the plays of texture echoing the best of Chinese or Japanese cooking – are more emphatic this year.
If you’re not familiar with Quay, much of what makes it special happens before anyone in its massive, space-age kitchen even picks up a knife. Where once Peter Gilmore’s aesthetic was all about subjugating produce to crisply delineated squares and circles on the plate, now the horse is pulling the cart, and, at the risk of making him sound more like an Edwardian country lady diarist than he really is, nature is his inspiration. This is not to say that the elegance of presentation at the restaurant has suffered a jot, of course; it has just taken a new direction, and is all the better for it.
Take the fine shavings of South Australian squid and slices of octopus. The marriage of their slow-cooked tenderness with the silken wobble of the garlic custard that accompanies them is a very clear expression of the attention to texture which we now recognise as one of Gilmore’s hallmarks. There are echoes of the ideas of Cantonese cooks, the masters of textural manipulation and great admirers of its subtleties, here, and a grasp of how a few degrees or moments difference in cooking makes all the difference between that perfect giving suppleness and the rubberiness or mush on either side of the textural divide. A waiter pours a small amount of hot consommé made from roast squid onto the bowl at the table, enriching it further without overshadowing the main event.
The thing that really makes this dish striking, though, is the ring of fine slices of baby radishes encircling the ingredients, and the scattering of native Australian violets imparting a discreet perfume and making the arrangement pop for the eye. That, and the fact that it tastes bloody good.
Few chefs have quite the access Gilmore does to rare blooms and exotic heirloom vegetables, many of which are grown solely for him in the Blue Mountains by Richard and Nina Kalina at Berridale Farm. Fewer still have the large brigade necessary to pick and prep the scores of shoots, buds, flowers, seeds and nuts that accentuate every dish. And it’s a very unusual restaurant kitchen indeed that has a room dedicated to the care and storage of baby violas and chive and rosemary blossoms. The thing about Quay is that you don’t need to give any of this horticulture or technique a second’s thought, because despite Gilmore’s relationships with growers and the time he spends in the garden, his food comes across as pretty rather than precious, and out-and-out tastiness – the phwoar factor, if you will – is still the prime consideration.
Quay is what you want it to be. There are fascinating stories behind how the slow-cooked belly in the signature pork with tofu, abalone and cuttlefish comes from rare-breed pigs and so on, but it remains a dish that can also be pretty damn rapturous on its own terms; the only thing that will interrupt the flow of conversation between you and your friends or loved ones here will be the occasional eye-rolling groans of delight. It’s that damned good.
Things have improved appreciably on the service front, meanwhile, with a rich cast of engaging professionals taking the stage where once it was held together by a more varied handful of players. The cellar is now a living and dynamic thing rather than a shaky brag-list too. Head sommelier Daniel Wegener has broadened its reach and made a concerted effort to connect with both the kitchen and the diners. Where Quay’s selection of wines by the glass has at times been an object of lukewarm interest at best, it now contains falanghina from Campagnia alongside Canowindra semillon, Rhône red next to King Valley nebbiolo, and spans a range of prices.
On this foundation, most importantly, we now see a greater confidence, an ease and assurance that makes every aspect of the Quay experience more pleasurable for the diner. Quay is now being recognised as not just an Australian great, but a restaurant that is talked about around the world. And so it goes.
Quay, Upper level, Overseas Passenger Terminal, The Rocks, NSW, (02) 9251 5600
WORDS PAT NOURSE PHOTOGRAPHY TENY AGHAMALIAN
This article is from the September 2009 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.