It has been a while between visits to Aria Restaurant in Sydney and this stalwart of the restaurant scene has seen a couple of chef changes over the last few years. When Laura and I were looking for a quintessential Sydney dining experience to celebrate the end of lockdown we decided to try Aria again. So what is Aria and fine dining like post-lockdown and with a new chef?
The first time I visited Aria was many years ago when it first opened in 1999 long before Not Quite Nigella started. Aria now has a new chef in Thomas Gorringe who was previously at The Gantry. The reason for our visit was that it was a belated celebration for Laura's birthday and we were so excited to be dressing up for dinner. I arrive and walk in wearing a mask, they sight my vax certificate. Then the man behind the counter suddenly sternly asks, "Is your other party on their way??".
"I don't know, I guess," I say shrugging my shoulders (I'm not her mother). "Of course," he says smiling, just as suddenly returning to the normal genial tone. "Is it your birthday today?" he asks and I tell him that it's my friend's birthday.
I am led to the side room which is a mercifully short walk as I'm wearing heels so sky high that I think I've lost the ability to walk in them during the 3.5 month lockdown. This isn't a bad room as there's still a view but the last time I dined at Aria it was in the main room and I really prefer that view. While waiting I flick through the menu and there's a tasting menu for $240 a person while three courses are $160 and four courses $190. The menu is broken up into 4 sections: cold entree, hot entree, mains and dessert. Laura and I decide on three courses sharing a dessert.
They bring out some lemonade fruit juice with Geraldton wax flower in it which we sip on while we wait for our cocktails.
El Coco Old Fashioned $26, Spring Gin & Tonic $25
Laura and I start with celebratory cocktails as it is a birthday dinner. Our cocktails reflect our preferences and I have a spring gin & tonic with Four Pillars Rare Dry gin, Suze aperitif, green papaya and white sesame and tonic. I didn't really taste the white sesame and the green papaya lends it an astringent quality. There's also a triangle of sesame candy that gradually disintegrates throughout the night. Laura's choice is usually a negroni but she opts for the El Coco Old Fashioned with coconut fat washed Bacardi Ocho 8 year old rum, apricot brandy, vanilla and caramel which she enjoys.
Stuffed churros pecorino cheese and Romesco, Scallop ceviche, chutney, radicchio and melon
The amuse bouche comes out and it's a scallop ceviche with a dab of chutney wrapped in a radicchio leaf on a crispy cracker that is both tasty, crunchy with a slight touch of bitterness and silky raw scallops. There's also a slice of compressed melon on the side that is refreshing. The other amuse bouche is a crunchy churro portion stuffed with pecorino cheese and Romesco sauce that is tasty and quite crunchy.
Chicken fat Kombu butter, Pioik Sourdough
Bread is brought out and for some reason this excites me so much because I miss restaurant bread with its interesting butter on the side. This is a Pioik sourdough with a chicken fat kombu butter and a Pepe Saya salted butter. It's delicious and we end up asking for another slice.
Yellowfin tuna, Tasmanian wasabi, green strawberries & kombu
The tuna is sashimi style slices of glazed and cured white soy tuna on bed of Tasmanian wasabi and edamame purée with wasabi leaves and flowers with a chilled white soy kombu broth. The tuna is luscious and perfectly seasoned with the white soy sauce and we love the milder effect of the Tasmanian wasabi.
Moreton bay bug, tamarind xo, macadamia & sugar loaf cabbage
The Moreton Bay Bugs are served with roasted macadamias, a spicy XO sauce and wrapped in torched sugarloaf cabbage. "This looks like a very sexy spring roll," says Laura. It's filled with well cooked Moreton Bay bug meat and the XO sauce adds heat while the macadamias crunch.
Chickpea panisse, tahini, lemon & snake beans
We ended up going with some of the recommendations from our waitress who steers us towards the chickpea panisse with the caveat that it is one of the best items on the menu. The chickpea panisse is like a sponge cake made with chickpeas with tahini, lemon and snake beans but it's so much more than that. Although it's a vegan dish it has a full complement of flavours and isn't bland at all. Sometime vegetarian Laura is very pleased with her vegetarian selection.
Slow cooked pork jowl, hawkesbury squid, radish & wombok
Wrapping in cabbage seems to be a theme there and as for me I'm delighted with the slow cooked pork jowl wrapped in roasted cabbage with small, tender pieces of Hawkesbury squid and Kim chi chips on top. The pork is luscious and fatty but cooked perfectly well so that the fat just melts away with every bite.
Glazed Maremma duck, salsify, nectarines & chicory
My main is the glaze Maremma duck. Although this is a dish that is a bit hard to photograph it is delicious. The duck is dried and glaze in pomegranate molasses for 4 days and served with chicory leaf, salsify root, nectarine jam and picked nectarines.
Steamed coral trout, spanner crab, zucchini & saffron
Laura's main course starts a discourse between Laura and I on our mutual dislike or fish in water. You know that dish that a lot of restaurants serve with a fillet of white fish served in a semi seasoned water soup with vegetables? It's not very exciting and we suspect it's the sort of thing that Gwyneth Paltrow would order and call "tasty". The steamed coral trout is the ubiquitous fish in water situation. Trying to give it a go we both try it and we just can't love it. Even the spanner crab in the zucchini flower can't give this the flavour or punch that it needs. "What do you think of your meal?" asks our lovely waitress perhaps spotting my enthusiasm for the duck versus Laura's barely touched meal. "I should have listened to you and ordered the pumpkin," says Laura mournfully. "Would you like the pumpkin instead?" says our waitress and Laura nods eagerly. At $160 for 3 courses you do want to be delighted with every course.
Roast heirloom pumpkin, black barley, saltbush & yeast
So we have another discovery tonight: Aria does fantastic vegetarian and vegan food. The roast pumpkin is delicious and served with several different textures including roasted, pureed and pickled. There's some al dente black barley on the side for a nutty texture, saltbush to season and nutritional yeast for some cheesy, salty flavour too. She is much happier with this course.
It's dessert time and we have trouble deciding in which dessert to share. As it's Laura's birthday celebration I leave it to her to decide. "I’m outsourcing it to you," says Laura to our waitress since she hasn't steered us wrong. First to come out is the pre-dessert palate cleanser which is a roasted strawberry sorbet with lemon foam and rosemary oil with little chunks of strawberry at the bottom. It's light, fluffy and tangy sweet and we both enjoy the rosemary and lemon added to this.
Our waitress has selected the raspberry soufflé but also kindly brought out a mini version of the mango and elderflower dessert along with a little birthday mille feuille with a super dark caramelised inverse puff pastry. This is set down in front of me and I realise that they think it's my birthday. Thankfully there is no birthday song sung or that would have been awkward having to point that out to them mid-song. I slide the birthday mille feuille over to Laura who does a COVID safe blow out of the candle by waving her hands over the candle.
Raspberry soufflé, lavender & vanilla
The raspberry and vanilla soufflé has a buckwheat crumble on top and raspberries, lavender and cream on the side. Dig deep into the souffle as there's some raspberry sauce at the bottom of the souffle.
Mango, elderflower, white chocolate & coconut
The mango and elderflower dessert is mango gel, mango slices, elderflower, white chocolate and desiccated coconut. It's pleasant and tastes of an Australian summer although we did find that the desserts weren't as creative as the savoury courses, most of which were surprising and delightful.
Chocolate Namalaka Earl Grey Tea
Our last bite is a petit four and I love a bit of chocolate to round out the evening. It's a dark, bittersweet earl grey chocolate cookie with Namelaka chocolate ganache on top.
"Happy Birthday!" they say to me as we are leaving. Well it really does sort of feel like a birthday...
So tell me Dear Reader, what are your thoughts on Fish in Water? Do you always tell the restaurant if you are dining out for a birthday?
This meal was independently paid for.
1 Macquarie St, Sydney NSW 2000
Wednesday and Thursday 5:30–9:30pm
Friday 12–3pm, 5:30–9:30pm
Closed Sunday to Tuesday https://www.ariasydney.com.au/