When we dine out with a particular group of friends, friends of nearly 15 years, I get a bit nervous. Because one of my friend's husband's is called Hot Dog. He has a Grizzly Adams beard and as I say on my dining companions page, for a waiter he can either be your best friend or your worst nightmare. And we're just hoping that we get a waiter with a sense of humour because when dining at expensive restaurants, Hot Dog likes to play it up. It's hard to explain 15 years of friendship with his wife to restaurant staff, so we just hope that they play along and realise that he is only joking.
The six of us are booked into Quarter 21 which is one of Justin and Georgia North's new restaurants. The quarter in the name represents the four quarters of the business; Becasse, Etch, Quarter 21 and Le Grand Cafe. The twenty one is a reference to twenty one grams or what has purported to be the weight of the soul. The restaurant slogan says "eat for the soul" and I almost expected slightly different food to reflect this although the offerings are very much in line with their other restaurants.
We decide after some dithering to go with the degustation for the whole table, $90 for seven courses or $130 including wine per person.
The amuse bouche is thin slices of bresaola (air dried beef), feather light with some anchovy mayonnaise. It is a lovely salty start to the evening and of course Hot Dog starts on our poor waiter where he asks if he had to pay for this course. The waiter is well versed in people like Hot Dog and has him firmly in his crosshairs charming him. Relief!
This salad has beetroot in a few incarnations: pickled, raw and confit with small endive leaves, some Bellingham blue cheese mousse, hazelnuts and lightly poached pear. It comes together perfectly with the slightly sweet beetroot, rich blue cheese mousse, a contrast from the slightly bitter endive leaves and the toasted hazelnuts give the dish a lovely warmth.
When they sat this down I exclaimed that this was one of my favourite dishes. I've had it at their sister restaurant Etch a couple of times and I've had it at a recent dinner where Etch chef James Metcalfe cooked it for us. It's a fillet of kingfish that is marinated in aromatic Asian spices like star anise and coriander and it is then cured with salt. Although this time it wasn't my favourite dish as it just tasted predominantly of citrus from the sour pink grapefruit. I much preferred it when it had ginger and sesame on it which also gave it a lovely sheen and glossiness whereas the kingfish is comparatively more matte on top.
I wasn't sure about the meaning of civet which I only knew as that little cat like creature that produces the renowned Kopi Luwak coffee or a stew made out of game meat with onions, lardons and red wine finished with hare's blood. This is nothing like either definition and it turns out to be a foamy soup except that it's mostly foam covering some beautifully tender fish, prawn and mussels with a luscious scallop tortellini. The soup has flavours of lemongrass and ginger which lift the seafood subtly.
When this dish is set down it prompts comments about where they buy their dishes as this two parter seems tailor made for the dish or vice versa. I always know that they do pork well at any of the North's restaurants and it never fails to impress. This dish was a sticky, caramelised Kurobuta pork belly, a smokey bacon consomme which you could smell when it was put down in front of you-a viscous smokey liquid, enoki mushrooms, a slow cooked egg yolk which had the texture of spreadable ganache and two thin strips of almost translucent cured pork jowl set on top. We take a bit of everything and then Philippe murmurs "Mmmm bacon and eggs" and he's quite right. It's not your normal bacon and eggs-it's about ten times richer, but with a bite we are transported back to breakfast.
The chicken was a last minute replacement for the menu's original pheasant and it is a tender and slow cooked breast with halved brussel sprouts, chestnut halves, swede and a delectable smoked potato puree. For the final meat dish though, I didn't feel that this was quite big enough as usually the final meat courses on degustations are slightly larger. Some of the menfolk would have liked a little more.
A bigger dish of the two I'd like to give a better opinion of this except that Mr NQN and I were supposed to swap half way and he kind of forgot as he wolfed it down-oops!
Hot Dog looks at the granita dubiously especially when our waiter (who surely must be filing some sort of Worker's Comp claim for dealing with a difficult customer ;) ) explains that there is sheep's milk yogurt in it. But like some other dishes, when he tries he is is silenced. I left some of the Japanese picked ginger behind but I adored the crunchy crumbs and the rhubarb with the right amount of sweetness and the gingery uplift. The sheep's milk yogurt is dotted throughout and it is mild and creamy but not cloying.
We dubbed these the UFO plates and this one comes out looking very UFO like. Underneath the sugar top which we crack, are slices of caramelised banana, a banana creme brulee, chunks of surprisingly large salted peanut brittle and on top was a tiny scoopy of milk coffee sorbet which was an interesting and not often seen pairing with banana. I think we polished off every little scrap of this it was so delicious.
I'm not really one for chocolate desserts at the end of a degustation nor am I a chocolate orange lover but this converted me to both. The chocolate fondant served warm has a lava gush of liquid chocolate in the centre and the chocolate used is a good balance of sweet and bittersweet. I usually eat a bite or two and pass it on but Mr NQN had to insist on his rightful half to this.
We were so enamoured of the desserts that when another two desserts arrive, gifts from the Norths, we find more stomach space. This was a butterscotch souffle with cinnamon ice cream. I'm not usually a huge souffle eater finding them sometimes overly eggy tasting and not very exciting but when you split open the top and pour in a jug of the butterscotch sauce all bets are off. The ambrosial butterscotch sauce also masks some of the overly eggy flavour of souffles. The cinnamon ice cream is nicely scented with just the right amount of cinnamon, never becoming overpowering.
A final course, six warm madeleines with a citrus curd and with what tastes like honey drizzled on top are a nice way to end off the evening.
As we are in a shopping centre, which is something that some people have commented is hard to get used to, we have to exit via a different exit from whence we came. We go down in a lift and are escorted out by a security guard and it is admittedly a little strange wandering around closed boutiques.
So tell me Dear Reader, do you find the idea of fine dining in a shopping centre unusual or is it all much of a muchness for you? And do you prefer a la carte dining or degustations?
Westfield Sydney, Level 5, Shop 5018, Cnr Pitt St Mall and Market St, Sydney, NSW
Tel: +61 (02) 8072 7755