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Review: Bennelong, Sydney Opera House

Peter Gilmore’s new offering in Sydney’s landmark opera house is a triumph, writes Andrew Harris

Captain Cook had originally sailed straight past the entrance to Sydney harbour, though not before noting the crack in the coastline clearly concealing something interesting. It wasn’t long, however, before Governor Arthur Philip was back with the first fleet remarking in 1788, on ‘the satisfaction of finding the finest harbour in the world’. It is an assessment with which many have concurred ever since.

That spectacular meandering sequence of sandy coves and rocky inlets where Philip laid the foundation stone of Australian nationhood, is the reason why for many, the never-ending power play between Sydney and Melbourne to lay claim to the country’s pre-eminent metropolis, is game-over before the game’s even begun. As the old Manly ferry churns its way through yet another sun-dappled deep blue day, the giant coat hanger slowly pokes its way around some of the most desirable real estate in the world. And then you have it full on. The great southern land’s riposte to Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty, and the Colosseum. Since 1973 though, the Sydney Harbour Bridge is obliged to share the limelight with the equally iconic and now UNESCO-listed Sydney Opera House, jutting out on Bennelong Point.

Bennelong was a senior member of the Eora tribe whose traditional lands extended around the harbour. Captured on the orders of George III, who had ordered Philip to engage with the native population (seemingly regardless of whether they wanted to be engaged or not), Bennelong learned to read and write English, and developed a genuine friendship of sorts with the Governor. Philip built him a cottage where the Opera House now stands, and in 1792 they travelled together to England where Bennelong was presented to the king. While many of Bennelong’s descendants might wish Captain Cook had kept his vegemite sandwiches and ice cold beers, not to mention a white Australia policy, all to himself, and sailed on by to discover somewhere else, this is where it all began.

Bennelong’s memory is honoured though, not least by having the fine dining venue within the Opera House named after him. Leased for no more than ten years at a time, in 2015, Sydney superstar chef Peter Gilmore, who has spent the last 16 years garnering accolades at nearby restaurant Quay, assumed the role of executive chef. With the Opera House technically owned by 24 million Australians, and host to 8 million visitors annually, Bennelong in many ways, is as much a gastronomically-oriented national monument, as restaurant. As such, it would be difficult to envisage a better culinary custodian than Sydney-born-and-bred Gilmore, with his penchant for Australian produce, and his own, not inconsiderable contribution towards the evolution of Australian cuisine.

The setting is nothing less than stupendous and must rate as one of the most beautiful and coveted dining rooms in the southern hemisphere, if not the world. Encased in the 1960’s extravagant mad modernist vision for the building, that somehow Danish architect Jørn Utzon managed to convince local politicians was not only a great idea but could actually be built, the multi-tiered space is mesmerising.

A change of government and cost overruns introduced a fractious element into the relationship with Utzon, who eventually left Sydney in 1966 never to return. The architect tasked with picking up where Utzon left off, Peter Hall, was plagued by no less controversy. Labelled by many as an architectural blackleg for stealing the show from his Scandinavian predecessor, the affair dogged Hall his entire life. Bennelong had died an alcoholic, ostracised by his own community, and in an eerie echo of his tragic demise, Peter Hall lost the same battle with the bottle, dying destitute at the age of 64.

As Sydneysiders started to take the plight of the strange looking building emerging in their midst, to heart, it was a public lottery that provided the final tranche of funding. With the low-level allure of gambling in an improbable symmetry with the high culture soon to be on offer, the 1973 opening of the SOH, seemed somehow aligned with the brave new world offered up by the recently elected Whitlam government. By the time the first curtain was up though, there’d been more drama off stage than on!

Quay, easily visible just across the water on the other side of Circular Quay, with its continual toing and froing of the harbour ferries, is obviously close enough to make the oversight of both establishments a relatively straightforward undertaking for Gilmore. The change of tenure at Bennelong meanwhile, has been accompanied by an A$4 million revamp that has remained faithful to Utzon’s vision, even repairing and re-upholstering the original 1973 furniture.

The principle dining room sits encased in a huge panorama of glass facing the city, with partial views of the harbour, and at some tables, toward the bridge. Further back and higher up, there is a less formal dining area, Cured and Cultured, where cold plates are available around a rectangular counter, and further up still, is a smaller dining area along with a bar. Those perched up there have a pristine perspective out onto the harbour and the bridge. Pre and post-theatre drinking dens don’t come much more desirable than this.

Down in the main room, with tourists milling around on the other side of the floor to ceiling glass wall (the ceiling is also largely glass!), the à la carte menu offers six entrees and six mains. Dishes such as Princess Charlotte Bay bug dumpling, hispi cabbage, buckwheat finger lime, nori, brown butter, or, wild Cape York barramundi, crisp parsnip and hazelnuts, whole lemon puree, announce a sophisticated cuisine anchored to locally sourced ingredients.

Portion sizes can re-kindle old memories of nouvelle cuisine, yet it’s all harmonised with stylish plating and cooking that’s capable of coaxing complex flavours from deceptively simple looking dishes. A starter of Fraser Island spanner crab, soft polenta, palm heart, corn, and sunflower crème fraiche emulsion seemed strangely sweet until melded properly with the crabmeat hiding underneath. Crispy eggplant, sea scallops and XO bacon proved no less delicious. For the main course, I followed the maître d’s guidance towards the locally caught tiger flathead tail. Like the ubiquitous and extensively farmed barramundi, this is also an impressively full flavoured fish, and my first encounter with one proved a judicious choice.

The reverence and acclaim toward Quay’s signature dessert, the snow egg, has become so widespread since Gilmore first unveiled it on Australian TV in 2010, he has just recused it into gastronomic retirement after serving up half a million of them, lest it hinders further creativity. His other classic staple of sweetness though, the chocolate cake, not only lives on, it has found its way into Bennelong. Chocoholics adjust your chocnav coordinates accordingly. As a fellow co-dependent, I assure you this will be worth the journey.

There’s an almost total orientation toward domestic production on the wine list, within which there’s a further condensed list of aged offerings by the glass and half bottle, ‘The Champions’. A Margaret River, Leeuwin Estate Art Series, 2010 Chardonnay, suggested by the sommelier, proved champion indeed, and a wonderful complement to the accomplished cuisine.

One of the world’s great performance spaces is but yards away from the dining table, enabling the opportunity to mould a visit to this extraordinary building into something even more memorable. My own segue into the stunning Joan Sutherland Theatre, home to Opera Australia and The Australian Ballet was to a performance of ‘Murphy’, a sensuously choreographed homage to Australian veteran lord of the dance, Graeme Murphy. The theatre, in all its sixties splendour of white birch plywood seating and boxes formed from concrete, was recently re-opened as part of an A$273 million comprehensive overhaul for the Opera House.

Irrespective of whether the allure of Bennelong be gastronomical, historical, architectural, theatrical, all of the above, or simply to sit and salivate over ‘the finest harbour in the world’, there’s one thing you’re unlikely to find on the menu. Disappointment.

www.bennelong.com