Upper Level, Overseas Passenger Terminal
The Rocks, NSW 2000
With my graduating medical school, Chris turning 29, and our 12th anniversary all coinciding at the end of 2021, the time has finally come for us to visit Quay – a restaurant that has been synonymous around the world with Australian fine dining for the last 2 decades.
Quay may be getting on in years in restaurant terms, but it was graced with a 4 million dollar revamp just over 3 years ago. Gone are the starched tablecloths and stiff-backed chairs, and seating is cut down from over 100 to just 80. The feeling is now much more casual-luxe, featuring custom-designed chairs upholstered in buttery leather, light timber ceilings, and plush royal blue carpets. Everything is kept deliberately airy and sparse, so as to direct the attention to the most impressive piece of décor – the view.
Also gone is the a la carte menu – the experience is now degustation only, at $260 for 6 courses, and $310 for 8 courses. Drinks pairings are of course extra, with two options available for wine, and more interestingly, a Temperance Pairing at a slightly gentler price point for those of us who aren’t on the booze.
I had decided to avoid any drinks pairings in order to save room for what was hopefully going to be fantastic food, but I couldn’t go past trying a few of their mocktails; after all, what’s another $50 on top of $600? The Grape and Passionfruit ($18) was apparently the most popular option and it was insanely delicious. The characteristically intense fragrance and tartness of the passionfruit was mellowed out by the crisp sweetness of cold-pressed grape juice, whilst notes of rosemary provided an unexpected warmth that smoothed out the sharp edges. Meanwhile, Chris was rhapsodising about his Honey and Blood Orange ($18), which upgrades the sparkling blood orange soda with the floral and lightly waxy notes of Yellow Box honey, and Seedlip spice, a non-alcoholic spirit boasting an aromatic blend of cardamom and allspice. It is remarkable how nuanced and delectable these drinks were, and once again makes me lament that the same amount of effort isn’t put into non-alcoholic drinks as the alcoholic ones, because I would get these again in a heartbeat.
Seeing as we were already here, I decided we may as well go the whole hog with the 8 course option. After that was settled, our menus were whisked away, and replaced within minutes by leather placemats, and a rather large bowl piled high with walnuts. But no, we were not expected to crack these with our teeth (though, I do wonder what they’d do if you BYO nutcracker); if you look closely, nestled amongst the pile were four Walnut Truffles. Our waitron described these like little deep-fried dumplings, and the moment she said that, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the crispy taro puffs you get at yum cha. The golden exterior gave way to a creamy, umami centre that’s flecked with walnuts for a slight crunch. It is the perfect fun and flavour-rich snack to start off the meal, and certainly got me keen to find out what else the kitchen has up their sleeve.
The first formal course of the menu was the Raw Hand Harvested Seafood, which set the tone for the rest of the meal with its fresh, seasonal, and local produce. Armed with chef’s tweezers and a spoon, I felt as if I was harvesting the seafood straight from my own personal rockpool. Unsurprisingly, this was about as good as seafood gets. The pipis were plump and meaty, the little octopus tendrils had just the slightest bite, and my favourite of all, the bed of thinly-sliced scallops that were tender to the point of creaminess. The light dressing of virgin soy (apparently that’s what you call the soy sauce from the first fermentation, which has a cleaner flavour than the rest) was all you needed to highlight the flavour of the seafood, whilst the crunch of palm heart accentuated its delicacy.
When the Smoked Eel came out, I was a little confused to say the least. The presentation may have been stunning, but I had no idea where my eel was. As it turns out, the kitchen takes the smoked eel, and slowly cooks it in cream until its all boiled down to about a tenth of its original volume. The result is a thick custard, which is served studded with baby almonds, and little dollops of Oscietra caviar. But as unusual as this dish may seem, it is nothing short of scrumptious. The eel cream (is that what we’re calling it?) was intensely rich and umami, yet light and silky. The baby almonds were like nothing I’ve ever had before, their watery crunch reminiscent of fresh fruit, and a great textural contrast to the eel cream. All the elements were pulled together by the caviar, which has just enough brininess to draw the attention, yet was mellow enough to blend in. Everything about this was entirely unique, from the flavour to the execution to the breathtaking presentation, and is probably the dish I have thought the most about from this entire meal.
We’re now two courses in, and it was time for the bread course! Except of course, this is Quay, and the bread course is not bread, but Poolish Crumpets served with Cultured Cream and Smoked and Fresh Salmon Roe.
Forget what you think you know about crumpets – these will blow everything you’ve ever had out of the water. Made using a French technique, the dough is a rich, buttery yellow, and basically tastes like brioche but with the texture of crumpets. The cultured cream and briny pops of roe are indulgent accompaniments, but if I were to be honest, I would be happy even if the crumpets were all we got.
The Bone Marrow Noodles was Chris’ pick for dish of the day. The hand-made noodles, which have bone marrow incorporated into the dough itself, are rib-huggingly sticky with just the right amount of chew. Coated with a luscious sesame sauce boosted with marrow and shiitake, the effect is a cross between the creaminess of carbonara, and the rich umami of sesame noodles. Interspersed with hearty chunks of fresh mud crab, this is the epitome of fine dining comfort food.
My pick of the day however would have to be the Native Marron. Arriving at the table were chunks of marron, balanced on top of a mound of golden flakes, which turned out to be a combination of deep fried fish maw, salted egg yolk, and sea urchin butter. But the true magic happens when our waitron pours in small measure of umami broth – a decadent blend of everything umami the chefs could get their hands on, including scallops, kombu, shiitake, chicken, squid, and about 8 more that I can’t remember. All of a sudden, the ingredients are emulsified into the rich broth, and when mixed through with the pearly grains of Koshihikari rice, became a luxuriously umami cross between a risotto and a porridge. It was so explosively flavoursome that you almost didn’t need the marron, though the succulent butter-poached shellfish definitely added to the indulgence.
Moving onto the richer meat dishes, the Maremma Pasture Raised Duck was a tiny work of art, sculpted with ephemeral swaths of roasted lettuce and crispy seaweed. This was an ingenious bridge between seafood and meat; the plump duck, basted in a delicately sweet and tangy beef-based glaze, was nonetheless succulently fatty. The charred vegetables add an additional layer of toasted warmth, resulting in a flavour profile that feels substantial without being heavy. It’s a very light and balanced take on duck that has a great deal of depth and nuance.
The Slow Cooked Pig Jowl on the other hand, is pure indulgence. For something so demure (or I dare I say it, even bland) in appearance, the amount of flavour this packed was awe-inspiring. The first thing that hits the senses is the smoky aroma of sizzling pork; that would be the sheath of black pig salami, sliced so thinly that the fat begins to melt with the warmth of the dish. But it was what was hiding under the salami that truly blew me away. The slow-cooked pork jowl was topped with a layer of umami-rich shiitake custard, and the result was so similar to a fatty piece of pork belly I almost had to double check to make sure. Better still, the usage of the custard meant that you get all the indulgent richness of pork belly without any of the accompanying greasiness. This may have been a relatively simple concept in theory, but I couldn’t help but be impressed with the impeccable execution.
After what felt like an age (it’s been about 3 hours by this point), we finally moved onto dessert. The Mulberries, Cherries, Strawberries was everything a summer garden has to offer, the layers of strawberry-infused cream, mulberry ice cream, and shavings of cherry parfait hiding a harvest of plump fruits. It’s refreshing, sweet and creamy – a simple dish of berries and cream taken to the next level.
The dessert I was really looking forward to however is the Chocolate: A Moment in Time, which is the newest replacement for the legendary snow egg. This may not seem very impressive at first glance, but the technical skill involved is actually remarkable. The kitchen starts off with a warm chocolate custard, of which four batches are carefully made at staggered intervals during each service, in order to ensure optimum texture. Then comes the hyper-aerated chocolate mousse, which is siphoned into a vacuum-sealed container, causing it to expand to 5 times its normal size, before being gingerly taken to the blast freezer until it’s needed. Now here’s the clincher: there is only a 20 minute window in which this dish can be plated up and served successfully; any shorter and the heat of the custard will melt the mousse, any longer and the custard will turn thick and heavy. But they manage this temporal tightrope, and what arrives at the table is casually effortless. But the method by which this dish comes to be isn’t even the most remarkable aspect. When you first dig your spoon in, it genuinely looks like no more than layered custard and mousse. But when you go to eat it however, the experience is so unexpected it’s almost bordering on surreal. The mousse dissipates so ephemerally, and the custard melts so rapidly, that the effect is almost as if you’re eating puffs of air, flavoured intensely with the finest dark cocoa. It is so ethereal it makes fairy floss feel clumsy. It truly is A Moment in Time in every sense of the phrase.
But wait, there’s more! Because we had several celebrations going on, they brought out a complimentary cake for us! Though not as elaborate as our previous desserts, this was just as delicious, with layers of chocolate mousse (non-aerated this time), cream, and sponge cake. There was even a surprise centre of salted caramel and peanut, which elevated it beyond your run-of-the-mill pastry.
And finally, at long last, petite fours to finish. The little tart filled with vanilla cream and a dollop of honey was yummy, but I wasn’t expecting just how good the salted caramel canelé was. With a chewy, caramelised shell bearing just a hint of crispness, and a buttery centre with an almost custard-like consistency, this was a little bite that showcased a whole lot of skill (and deliciousness!).
Ever since my meal at Attica, I was sure that no other dining experience in Australia could compete, but I was happy to be proven wrong. There was not a single misstep in the entire 4.5 hours, and the food was so delicious that I wanted to eat every course again before I had even finished it. And as bizarre as this sounds, what I appreciated most about the food was the focus on making it as delicious as it could possibly be. So many high-end restaurants expend all their efforts on sourcing the rarest ingredients or cooking with the most difficult techniques that the most important thing – taste – falls by the wayside. And that’s not to say that Quay doesn’t do both those things; the skills and local produce showcased by the kitchen is nothing short of remarkable, but they never lose sight of the fact that first and foremost, a delicious meal is what everyone is here for. I honestly can’t recommend Quay enough, and is absolutely worth every cent.
Rating: 20/20 – advanced australian fare (thank you to The Australian for this amazing line!)
This rating reflects my personal experience at the time of visit.