My colleague, Jean-Baptiste (a man who I consider an authority on food and wine), once told me that dining alone takes special kind of mentality. To have the confidence to sit through a meal without company took a special skill, a certain kind of person. He explained that people who take a book are only halfway there, because they cannot entertain themselves and fall back on the book like a prop. No, only a select few can sit alone through a meal and enjoy themselves.
I had always been at the book stage. I could enter a restaurant alone and order, but I needed the book as a comforter. Until tonight.
It was 7:30pm and I was still in the office. Jonas was at work and wouldn’t be home until midnight and I just couldn’t be bothered cooking. And so, as I walked to the bus stop, I toyed with the idea of going to a restaurant and meeting Jean-Baptiste’s challenge.
Then I recalled that a highly acclaimed restaurant which I had always wanted to try was only a block or so away. After quickly checking with Fabio and Nicki that I wasn’t being a complete fool, I marched straight for Bécasse.
204 Clarence Street
Chef: Justin North
As previously mentioned, I have wanted to try this restaurant for quite some time but have never managed to make it for whatever reason. I was always attracted to the menus of chef Justin North, a Kiwi who worked in some of Europe’s finest kitchens (Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons, Pierre Gagnaire and Guy Savoy) before returning to Australia as Sous Chef at Liam Tomlin’s Banc Restaurant. Justin’s wife, Georgia North, heads the floor having honed her skills at Wine Banc, Restaurant CBD and Est. before she teamed up with her husband to open Bécasse in 2001.
Although many restaurants talk about quality produce, boutique suppliers and responding to the seasons, Bécasse truly has this as the core focus of the kitchen. This is obvious from the who’s who of suppliers listed on the Bécasse website. They aim for their cuisine to be “based on French tradition and a depth of classic technique with a modern innovative European feel”.
When Bécasse was located at Surry Hills I’d regularly view the website (always loved that pig head photo) and try to conjure up an excuse to visit. Then suddenly they moved to the Clarence Street venue, literally underneath my office at the time. Even then I didn’t visit, but stared forlornly through the window at the lucky buggers inside.
Now it was my turn.
When I entered I shyly asked to see a menu, which the waitress gave me with a smile. I had a glance over it and decided to proceed with my little experiment. I waited and waited and waited to be seated. After a minute or so I started to feel a little uncomfortable as the other diners stared at this lone woman hovering around the entrance. Eventually the waitress returned and from this point forward the service was magnificent.
They quickly made me feel at home with a bottle of sparkling mineral water ($5) and a nice corner table where I could view the entire dining room, both upstairs and the main floor, although not the downstairs area with the view into the bustling kitchen.
While deciding on what to eat, a small canapé arrived at my table. Before I even thought to take a photo this delectable morsel was in my mouth! It was a tiny round of puff pastry, topped with a roasted cherry tomato, olive and a tiny quenelle of Woodside goats’ curd. Great, now I know what to do with the Woodside goats’ curd in my fridge! See here.
Next was an amuse bouche of potato soup. It came in a tiny coffee cup and was decorated with foamy thyme chantilly and thyme leaves. The potato had been cooked in milk and butter and the soup had absorbed the flavour of butter and thyme perfectly. Yum.
I hadn’t even ordered and I was almost full on the freebies!
My waitress knew her menu and could answer every question I asked. Her responses were extremely informative and yet not at all condescending. Perfect marks.
After much discussion I selected the beef brisket ($42), which is the cut of meat between the fore shank and the plate, or below the first five to eight ribs. This daube (slow braise) of 100% Blackmore wagyu came topped with roasted parsnips, crispy and chewy on the outside and soft and crumbly on the inside. The beef was so tender it flaked away on my fork, full of flavour from the wonderful marbling.
The brisket lay on fat raviolo which had an almost Asian influence, stuffed with meaty, earthy Swiss mushrooms and chestnuts cooked until soft. Around the plate was a delicious Bercy sauce, a reduction of red wine, shallots, port and jus. It had a strong, fragrant flavour that contrasted well with the rich brisket. The dish was hearty, winter fare: upmarket yet homely comfort food.
My bread was also very delicious. It seemed to be a sourdough, chewy on the outside and warm and soft inside. The floral shape it was baked in was a nice touch.
My waitress’ wine knowledge was also excellent and she described each relevant wine’s characteristics until we found one suitable for both the brisket and my palate. Her recommendation was the Australian 2002 Austin’s Barrabool Shiraz from Geelong, Victoria ($13). Until tonight I had never considered myself a shiraz fan, but this deep, bold wine was big on flavour and not so heavy on tannins. With a bouquet of red berries and only a touch of dustiness at the finish of the palate, I was very, very pleased with this choice.
In between dinner and dessert I received a palate cleanser of tropical fruit salad, topped with a tiny scoop of feijoa sorbet and decorated with a coriander leaf. The salad tasted wonderful and echoed summer flavours even on this cold winter night, although I must say the feijoa did not taste like much at all, not even guava as it is famed to.
For dessert there were a few options that caught my eye: quince feuillette, Valrhona and Armagnac trifle, warm rum baba, passionfruit sable or the chestnut soufflé not on the menu but presented on special order to the table of regulars next to me (when I asked about it Georgia North was happy to oblige). In the end I chose a rhubarb and sherry tart ($19).
When the tart arrived I was a little disappointed. No where had the menu mentioned custard and this tart was very much a flat version of a crème brûlée – thin pastry topped with a warm sherry fino infused custard and a burnt toffee surface. Wafer thin pieces of rhubarb went undetected in the custard and were almost an after thought. It was good, it just wasn’t want I had expected or wanted.
The accompanying ice cream was interesting however. Called pain d’epice, it consisted of a cookies and cream style ice cream of crème anglaise and spicy ginger bread. Very good.
Throughout the meal I drank in my surrounds (and my shiraz) and enjoyed the relaxed Tuesday night atmosphere. The dining room is quite elegant, with huge circular wooden design features attached to the walls and strange crystal chandeliers that hover over the room like elegant Swarovski halos.
I never really notice linen or cutlery when I dine out, but I did notice they have the same elegant champagne flutes that La Sala uses too.
Being alone I noticed much more of the restaurants motions and became keenly aware of how good my waitress really was. I saw her serving other tables with her faultless food and wine advice and her polite and unobtrusive conversation. I also watched the restaurant owner, Georgia North, in the late stages of her first pregnancy, kindly yet persuasively turn down a very persistent passer-by who wanted to traipse through the restaurant to use the bathroom.
I heard the couple next to me apologise for snapping at each other after their long day at work and listened to an English couple, on holidays in Australia, tell their friends the trials and tribulations of building their new home in the English countryside. Yes, I was the world’s biggest sticky beak!
Dining on your own has some benefits. Restaurant staff seem to be much more attentive and kindly towards you. Perhaps they are concerned you’re lonely or maybe they know you’re watching a lot more.
I felt relaxed and euphoric after this meal and even though I had my book in my bag the whole time, I didn’t consider picking it up even once.
I have to say the total bill was a little on the expensive side since I hadn’t had an entrée and drank only one glass of wine. It came to $90 (which included a 15% tip), but oh well.
Wonderful meal, wonderful service. Wonderful experience for my first time dining alone.
As I walked to the bus stop, belly busting and a goofy smile planted across my face like the cat who got the cream, I considered concealing this extravagance from poor Jonas who was working hard at that very moment.
But then I realised there’s no point because he’ll just read about it on the blog!