Rockpool is closing. For real this time. Sort of. Outgrown and overshadowed by the runaway success of its Bar & Grill siblings, the restaurant, which chef and co-owner Neil Perry opened on its original site in The Rocks in 1989, closes its doors on Saturday 30 July. It will reopen as Eleven Bridge on Monday 8 August.
So why the change? Perry says a lot of it comes down to the simple fact of the name - diners mistaking Rockpool for Rockpool Bar & Grill still turn up at the Bridge Street premises in their droves, despite the fact that Rockpool is the older establishment by decades. "It's been the subject of almost every management meeting we have down there," he says. "How do we stop people from going to the wrong restaurant?"
A closure of the restaurant for kitchen maintenance scheduled for the end of next month prompted the discussion between Perry and head chef Phil Wood: what else needed changing at Rockpool? The answer was everything and nothing.
"We said 'there's an opportunity here to completely relaunch the restaurant, and get completely out from under the shadow of Rockpool Bar & Grill'. We got to talking about that and decided to change the name. We're changing the food but not the focus on quality or ingredients. We want to move away from the smaller, fussier courses that have many layers to them."
Perry says it's about opening the sort of restaurant that he, as a diner in 2017, is more interested in visiting. "I just don't feel like putting in the time for a lot of this sort of dining. I can't remember a single dish that I ate at El Bulli, but I'll never forget the guinea fowl with a lobe of foie gras that was carved tableside at Joël Robuchon once in Paris. I think of some of the stuff we used to do in the '90s and early 2000s before we started down the tasting-menu path and I feel like perhaps it's food I believe in more."
Rockpool has moved away from its fine-dining roots before. In 2007, a year after the opening of Rockpool Bar & Grill on Hunter Street, Perry flirted with going all-seafood at the flagship, rebranding the restaurant Rockpool (Fish), but it didn't take, and in 2008 it reverted to flying the Rockpool colours once again. Moving Rockpool to its current Bridge Street incarnation in 2013, Perry set the dial firmly to fancy, with set menus at lunch and a dégustation at dinner, but latterly he offered a four-course option at dinner and à la carte service at lunch.
While Eleven Bridge's food will be different, the dégustations dropped entirely in favour of à la carte menus, much of the package will stay the same. Perry says the décor and cellar don't need to change, and key staff such as chef Wood, sommelier Sebastian Crowther, GM Jeremy Courmadias and manager Silvio Brentan will remain in place. Some signatures, old and new, will also stay on, he adds, the date tart and chicken wings with kombu butter among them.
The price point will be similar to that at Rockpool Bar & Grill. "We're not getting rid of the tablecloths and trying to have a casual restaurant where you pop in for a glass of wine and a plate of ham," Perry says. "It's not a junior Rockpool Bar & Grill." The change to à la carte, he says, will free the kitchen up to do a different kind of food. "I think of it not as fine dining but as a great dining restaurant."
If the restaurant Perry is describing sounds a lot like Rockpool Bar & Grill, Perry says Eleven Bridge will have another layer of flavour. "If I could say anything, I'd say it was like a more modern version of what we were doing at Rockpool in 1995." (For the record, Rockpool in 1995 was fêted for its Chinese-style pressed duck and mango, and roast pigeon with yam and ginger pasta.)
Closing the doors on a restaurant he has headed for 27 years is not a decision Perry has made lightly. "It's the restaurant where I defined myself, I suppose, and I'm sitting here now as the head of the Rockpool Group because of it. It's with a heavy heart that we've made the decision, but as we've talked about it, we've become more and more comfortable with the idea that we're going in the right direction. It'll always have the spirit of Rockpool."
Rockpool's last service is dinner Saturday 30 July. Eleven Bridge opens on Monday 8 August, lunch Mon-Fri noon-3pm, dinner Mon-Sat 6pm-10pm; 11 Bridge St, Sydney, NSW, (02) 9252 1888, rockpool.com.