BENTLEY RESTAURANT & BAR
320 Crown Street
Surry Hills, Sydney
Chef: Brent Savage
June has been a great month for me and Tuesdays have been wonderful days. Why, you ask? Well, each Tuesday in June I tried a restaurant that was on my “wish list”. One scorching hot venue each week: Gazebo, La Sala and Bécasse.
This is not helping my wedding saving plans at all and this really has to stop, but the main reason why I had to go one last time is because Fabio is headed to Afghanistan on a preliminary visit before he embarks in the long term to shoot a documentary. We had to have a farewell celebration since, if truth be told, Afghanistan isn’t the safest of places these days and it might just have been Fabio’s last decent meal!
Last Tuesday the venue was The Bentley Restaurant & Bar and the support team was Jonas, Nicki and Fabio.
Where a rundown bar used to be, Brent Savage and Nick Hildebrandt have set up their very cool restaurant (and bar). Both Savage and Hildebrandt have resumes that read like a who’s who of the Australian restaurant industry, one a highly inventive chef, the other thought to be one of the country’s top sommeliers. What better hands to be in?
Before I head off to a restaurant, I do a lot of my initial research on the internet. Unfortunately for me Bentley’s current website is just a homepage with their contact details so I had to rely on reviews from Gourmet Traveller, Eatability and SMH.
The room was smaller than I expected (it was a tight fit for waiters) and the crowd were much more relaxed and casually dressed. Cool jeans and smart t-shirts won over black shoes and collars. The bar section had a few stools and there were three or four tables for those wanting drinks and tapas.
The colour theme was certainly red, white, black and pale wood; the room divided by a shiny red metallic board with cut out leaves. The others didn’t like the décor very much, but I thought it suited the dressed-down clientele and Surry Hills locale. It had a kitsch plastic chic that I found playful.
Jonas and I were a little early so I indulged in a cocktail called Dust?Anyone?Dust?, a salute to the Fat Fighters convenor from the BBC comedy Little Britain (extra points to them for a reference which happens to be one of my favourites). It was a great cocktail that mixed strawberry, rose and basil. It was topped with shaved ice and a sherbet that snapped and crackled happily over my fuchsia drink.
Jonas had never had a degustation menu before, and since the Bentley does a vegetarian version, we all decided to go the whole hog and have degustation menus ($90pp) with matching wines ($60pp).
The current degustation didn’t feature Bentley’s signature popcorn chicken so we ordered this as an appetiser. It was probably one of the most wonderful things I’ve eaten recently. I’m not a big chicken fan and I can’t stand fried chicken alla KFC (just ask Tim who I accuse of being a KFC addict as though it’s a moral deficiency) but this chicken can easily be described as sublime with it’s light, crispy, spicy coating that was served with tangy aioli. Bloody good!
The first part of our degustation was a wonderful white gazpacho (ajo blanco) flavoured by almonds and garlic. It came in an elegant glass bowl and was dotted with a pretty splash of green olive oil. I love ajo blanco and this was a particularly good version, smooth, milky and garlicky. Next to the glass bowl was a bite size morsel of Claire de Lune oyster atop ruby grapefruit and crackling described as a “pork bubble”. Ever since trying a tuna, grapefruit and pork dish at Pyrmont’s Flying Fish I have been a big fan of these flavour combinations and I love Claire de Lune oysters as well. This morsel worked well for me and the creamy low-saltiness of the meaty oyster matched the salty sweet pork and bitter grapefruit.
Instead of the oyster, Jonas was given three gazpachos: green, white and red. The green gazpahco was made of green tomatoes and had a distinctly earthy, leafy flavour. The red was made of tomato and capsicum (peppers) and was sweet and spicy. They were all very good, although Jonas thought the red was the best by far, while I still leant towards the ajo blanco.
With this course we all drank the 2004 Salomon-Undhof Grüner Veltliner ‘Wieden’ (Krems/Stein Austria). The winemaker describes this wine as “pure, spicy, peppery with fruit-stressed acid”. I found this a very interesting wine and not something I had tasted before. It was slightly sour and the flavour seemed young and green (perhaps explaining why the grape varietal is called Grüner).
Next we all shared the same course, a Jerusalem artichoke custard that came with asparagus, roasted baby garlic and fennel and beans. The menu listed “borlotti, soy and lupin beans” although I only recognised the green soy beans. The beautiful purple beans I had never see before because I had always thought lupins and borlotti were white. The custard had a wonderful flavour and I was surprised by this because I generally don’t like Jerusalem artichokes. The roasted garlic and fennel were a sweet accompaniment to the earthiness of the custard.
The wine with this course was both mine and Nicki’s favourite white of the evening: 2005 Tscharke Albariño ‘Girl Talk’ (Barossa Valley, SA). The albariño grape comes from Spain and Tscharke’s wine seemed slightly acidic, quite aromatic and had a hint of savoury marzipan (or maybe that was my cold).
The kitchen’s next delivery was a soft free-range egg topped with “jamon crumbs”. The breadcrumbs had been fried with crispy pieces of Spanish cured ham (like prosciutto) and sprinkled over the egg. Nicki and Jonas (who had the same minus the jamon) didn’t enjoy this dish while both Fabio and I were pleased with it.
Fabio also liked the wine that accompanied it, a 2004 Bernard Moreau Bourgogne Chardonnay (Burgundy, France). This was a lightly oaked chardonnay and although I enjoyed it, I somehow liked the albariño better. I would definitely like to try this one again though.
The next course was a wonderful shellfish salad. A small piece of whiting accompanied a mussel, plump clams and a salsa of vegetables. This was a delicious course and I really enjoyed it. The crispy skin of the whiting had been doused in some type of sour, citrus (it seemed much, much stronger than normal lemon) and the clams were wonderful. I didn’t enjoy the mussel however as it had an acrid flavour.
This was served with the 2004 Domaine des Baumard Rosé de Loire (Loire Valley, France). This rosé was crisp and dry with a slightly tart red fruit flavour (like currants or cranberries). I liked it a lot, but I am known to be very partial to rosé wine.
While we had the seafood, Jonas dined on a unique combination of sautéed corn, black fungi and zucchini flower. The zucchini flower had been opened flat, the black fungi was sliced thin and the tiny zucchini stem had been placed on top. Although he felt the corn tasted tinned, Jonas said this dish was subtle but good.
Next came a trio of boudin noir (blood pudding), seared quail and a squid salsa. The plate was decorated with a bold slashing of squid ink and I really liked this course because the quail was full of flavour, the squid was soft and juicy and the blood pudding challenged my palate perfectly. I had never tried it before and I was pleasantly surprised with the texture and flavour. This dish was a great success for me.
At the same time, Jonas was served a plate of roast carrot, delicate splashes of avocado and a sprinkling of “olive dust”. The carrots were roasted until sweet and the olive dust added a pleasurable saltiness. A sweet sauce encircling the plate was unnecessary because Jonas felt the carrots were sweet enough without adding this extra element. He suggested a lemon based sauce would have broken up the sweetness a little more.
Our blood pudding/carrots were served with the fruity 2004 Capcanes Mas Donis Grenache Blend (Monstant, Spain). Somewhere on the internet I read a description of this wine that summed up my own experiences beautifully, the key words being: mineral, redcurrant, black tea and rose hips.
I’ve always been a fan of venison, so it wasn’t surprising that I enjoyed the flavoursome, rare slices from Mandagery Creek. This dish came with a burnt onion sabayon, frothing out of a crispy basket and accompanied by a pool of lentils, flavoured heavily with fresh oregano. This was also a successful dish with complimenting flavours.
Jonas’ last savoury course was a potato ‘risotto’ with mushrooms and warm parmesan cream. He enjoyed this dish and said it had a clean potato taste and was a good sized portion. Being of salty Viking blood, however, he did need to add extra salt to suit his palate. Before I had a chance to take a photo, Jonas had gobbled down the lot. It must have been pretty good.
The 2003 Star Lane Merlot, Beechworth Victoria was an excellent pairing with the venison. The wine had dusty tannins and a woody, cherry bouquet. I assume it worked well with the potato risotto too because I heard no complaints from Jonas.
One of the dishes on the menu was a cheese course. Artavaggio came thinly sliced and then melted onto a toasted finger of lavosh, drizzled with a sherry caramel sauce and chives. I loved this dish, and enjoyed the sweet sauce although Nicki and Fabio felt the sauce overpowered the cheese.
The wine served with the cheese was a 2004 Kracher Beerenauslese Cuvee (Burgundland Austria). This was a gorgeous dessert wine, heady with apricot but not too sweet. It was perfect for Nicki who doesn’t enjoy overpowering dessert wines. I love this style of wine in general, having tasted another Beerenauslese from Burgundland at Gordon Ramsay’s Claridges in March.
A pre-dessert arrived to cleanse our palates: cactus and fruit sorbet was surrounded with kiwi juices and topped with a pretty shard of clear, glassy toffee. A nice little morsel.
For the dessert course we received the signature “Chocolate and Honeycomb Ice Cream Cone with Warm Banana Milk”. This came with a glass of rich Pedro Ximenez sherry, sticky and dark but subtly raisin and honey. It wasn’t overly sweet and the perfume was fragrant. It was too sweet for Nicki and so Fabio and Jonas split her share.
The chocolate cone came propped in what looked like a plastic golf ball tee and was beautifully speckled with black and white toasted sesame seeds. The ice cream inside was rich and the cone had an interestingly confusing texture of crunchy toffee and melting chocolate. I have no idea what it was made out of, but it tasted good and got stuck in my teeth like toffee does. Since Nicki doesn’t like chocolate desserts, I scored her cone too.
Savage’s famous warm banana milk was something I had been looking forward to and I was not disappointed. The milk showed only a pale tint of yellow and the flavour was so real and natural, a perfect banana infusion. The chocolate straw started to melt on my lips and was childishly playful. A great positive ending.
I think my chest cold has affected my senses of taste and smell since the wine matching that Hildebrandt is so famous for did not come across for me on this occasion. I have been a big fan of his wine matching in the past. In fact, it was the wines he paired with the degustation menu at Marque that first made me realise the value of an excellent sommelier. On that occasion I suddenly became a wine lover and I haven’t looked back. I can thank Hildebrandt for that and the world of food and wine it subsequently opened up.
On this occasion I wasn’t amazed with the wine matching because I didn’t feel like the choices lifted the food to new heights. Although Nicki agreed that our Marque experience had been better, she, Fabio and Jonas all thought the matching worked more than I did. They were quite pleased with the choices and so I must bow down and say “majority wins”.
The service was friendly and professional. Hildebrandt was in control of the floor the entire time and the only negative comment I would make is that the time between each course was much too long. The initial courses were very small and bite sized, not providing anything substantial to soak up the generous servings of wine. I would have preferred the smaller courses to come a little faster and then slow down over the larger portions and dessert.
Another thing to note was that initially Nicki and I thought Hildebrandt became bored with explaining the wines, but Fabio pointed out that Hildebrandt read our table well, understanding when to give us more in-depth explanations of wine and when to inform us quickly and retreat before intruding on our conversation. After I considered this and watched further, I agree with Fabio.
The fact that both owners were visually present (Savage appeared later on) made the experience seem much more intimate. In other restaurants service can be anonymous and the owners and chefs far removed from the diners, but here the creators were close at hand. It occurred to me only afterwards that perhaps I should have asked permission to photograph each and every course. In such intimate quarters, with the owners looking on, my photography could have been considered invasive. This is certainly something for me to bear in mind for the future.
The total cost for four of us was $680 including a 13% tip. For a degustation $90 is very reasonable, whereas $60 for the wines is fairly standard, although wine portions were on the large side, just as they had been at Marque.
A potential consideration would be that the vegetarian degustation was the same price as those that included seafood and meat, when perhaps it should have been fractionally less. The price of the ingredients would be lower and Jonas made a point that meat is much more filling so either the vegetarian degustation should be cheaper or the portions should be increased so that vegetarians walk away as full as the meat eaters. It was a fair point to make.
I read somewhere that the presentation of Savage’s food could be compared to the art of Miro, and I have to agree with this. Some people might find that a drawback, whereas I found it creative and impressive. Although the visuals were still vibrant, the food flavours were subdued and reliable with a few key dishes showing vitality and flair. For a restaurant that could easily be a regular dinner venue for locals, I think these are good attributes.
But back to the popcorn chicken. It was truly wonderful and I can’t stop thinking about it. Other menu items also looked wonderful and I could easily sit in their bar sipping wines by the glass and sampling the tapas offerings. In fact, what I am doing next weekend . . . . . ?