It's 6.30pm. It's a beautiful evening in Sydney with the sunset against the backdrop of the Harbour Bridge and a rainbow on the opposite side. In the middle of this two amazing natural phenomenons is the iconic and majestic Sydney Opera House. I'm also lost. I see the place I want to go from the outside but how do I get inside? I finally notice a sign and walk past the throngs of people waiting for their show and enter a doorway. There are steps leading upwards and with each step I take, the more I'm in awe of the breathtaking space there that is Bennelong restaurant.
As the Sydney Opera House is located on Bennelong Point, it seems only fitting that the restaurant inside it takes on that same name—the name of the Aboriginal interlocutor who lived in this exact historic spot. Fun fact: The restaurant is young as Buro 24/7 Malaysia. It opened its doors in July 2015 and was the most highly anticipated launch as the place had been left empty for 18 months. It didn't just see a new chef with a new menu—it went through a multi-million dollar refurbishment overseen by the award-winning team at Tonkin Zulaikha Greer Architects.
That investment was clearly worth every penny as I briefly scan the room. The staff gives me a warm welcome as I tell them I'm here for the review and promptly escorts me to my seat. I continue to admire. It looks even better than the photos. Bennelong's distinctive tri-level layout is like a dynamic stage where the chefs, their assistants, the sommelier, and the waiters are all performers and we, the guests, are the audience scattered across the room. And then, there's the colour palette; so warm and inviting in ochre and natural tones. The iconic granite walls and extensive ribs of the Opera House paired with the stunning views of the Harbour Bridge; a perfect match and almost catheral-like.
Bennelong offers several dining options. I'm here for the 'Cured and Cultured' so I sit at the bar on the central level where I get a view of the chefs at work and the clear waters outside of the building. The menu is simpler—a la carte style unlike the three-course meal at the main area—but tantalising all the same. The spotlight here is the raw and cold produce: oysters, cured meats, fresh crustaceans, you name it. If you're seeking a taste of Australia's finest produce (and wines), this is where those take centre stage. Peter Gilmore, one of the most celebrated chefs in the country, helms Bennelong while Chef de Cuisine Robert Cockerill leads the team in the kitchen.
I start the evening with a cocktail: Cloud of Passion. It arrives dramatically, engulfed in a 'cloud' that soon dissolves after the glass jar encasing it was removed. The passionfruit mandarin is sweet with a tinge of vanilla and strawberry-infused Ketel One vodka. A good choice if you prefer fruity drinks.
The first dish arrives. It's red claw yabbies (so light and fresh) to be eaten with lemon jam (the right amount of sweetness) and cultured cream wrapped with a buckwheat pikelet (fluffy, fragrant and so good I can eat it on its own). In fact, the pikelet is made fresh at this kitchen bar itself and I can smell a heavenly new batch from the oven. An instant favourite. Next, it's the raw Mt. Cook alpine salmon paired with pickled kohlrabi and horseradish cultured cream. Australians are known to be proud of their seafood and so far, these two dishes are proof why. The salmon is velvety smooth on the palate and its accompaniment doesn't overpower it.
If you enjoy salads, you will enjoy Bennelong's concoction of smoked eggplant, crisp falafel, pistachio nuts, currants and labne—after you put a spoonful into the house made pita bread and take a mouthful. I'm starting to see a trend here in the 'Cured and Cultured' menu—watch the chefs prepare it and then finish the job when it's served to you, which makes for a more fun experience—and (possibly) Gilmore's style of creating unique food combinations that one usually would not even imagine. I can see (or rather, taste!) why it's so hard to get a table in here. The suckling pig sausage roll with black garlic, on the other hand, is not one that impressed me the most but it's certainly a very Australian dish, as my newfound friend of the night tells me. Four dishes from the menu shared between the two of us is just nice because: dessert.
Order the pavlova. It's easily one of Bennelong's signature dish and a work of art that's almost architectural. Resembling the sails of the Opera House, it's constructed from meringue, rhubarb, raspberry and more meringue. It's coated with dots of fresh cream and in the centre is a sweet passionfruit sauce. All in all, it's fluffy, instantly melts in your mouth and the best way to end a night of dining at Bennelong restaurant in the Sydney Opera House.
For more info about Bennelong restaurant and its other dining options, visit the website.