Sydney Opera House, Bennelong Point Sydney, New South Wales
|Opening hours||Lunch Fri-Sun, noon-2pm; dinner daily, 6.30-10pm|
|Features||Accepts bookings, Bar, Business lunch, Degustation, Long lunch, Pre-post-theatre, Romance-first date, Views, Licensed, Wheelchair access|
|Prices||Expensive (mains over $40)|
|Chef||Peter Gilmore, Robert Cockerill|
|Payments||eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||02 9240 8000|
|Free wine for Citibank cardholders here|
It glows, the new Bennelong. The whole interior – all forbidding granite and cold steel rib-cage – is bathed in a warm golden glow. It comes from the Tom Dixon Melt lamps that float overhead like coppery amoeba, from the honeyed warmth of the brass detail, and from the night lights of Sydney reflected across the harbour.
But most of all, I think it comes from the sense of relief that Sydney's showpiece restaurant is in good hands, and that everything is going to be all right.
Eighteen months after Guillaume Brahimi left the building, Peter Gilmore and the Fink Group, the team behind the three-hatted Quay on t'other side of Circular Quay, have finally opened Bennelong. It has a radiant, shimmering, metallic-edged interior from Tonkin Zulaikha Greer that celebrates the bare bones of the original Jorn Utzon design.
Much has been done to make the cathedral-like space more intimate and accessible – there is carpet, and music, and upholstered seats and oh-so-smooth Marblo polymer tabletops sited with an eye to views of bridge, skyline, gardens and water.
When Gilmore promised his menu would be "Australian", he wasn't joking. Say hello to roast lamb, pavlova, and lamington. The stunning $1.4 million kitchen is home to some of Australia's greatest produce, from Macleay Valley suckling pig to Lady Elliot Island bugs, King George whiting, wagyu beef, Holmbrae chicken and Flinders Island saltgrass lamb.
It is also a welcome return to the three-course menu (for $125 pp), a diner-friendly format that has lately fallen out of fashion. First courses include a picturesque rockpool of naked, shelled mussels, clams and pippies with a heady pour-it-yourself "umami" broth, garnished with little blossoms, shoots and tiny rashers of crinkly, crisp guanciale bacon. So far, so Gilmore, although the shellfish feel firmly, rather than softly, cooked.
Another first course is a total blast if you like big, fat, house-made udon noodles (made using South Australia's single-origin wheat) tossed with sesame and peanuts and served with meltingly tender slices of smoked pork jowl and finely sliced, barely cooked squid. Hooley dooley, it's good; earthy yet delicate, with a warm mushroomy undercurrent.
Main courses are sophisticated compositions of comfort food. Saltgrass lamb is slow-roasted and sliced off the leg, symbiotically paired with baby broad beans, wilted and crisp kale and jerusalem artichokes. Two long tranches of slow-roasted Holmbrae duck contrast well with the lactic tang of fermented hispi cabbage, black miso and freekeh (nutty, toasted young green wheat). Bowls of earthy, unpeeled baby potatoes and ruby-red salad leaves, included in the price, arrive unannounced.
Desserts are playful and refreshing, and the pav is adorable – a brilliantly white dome of rhubarb, raspberry and freshly piped Italian meringue – with achingly fine, crisp meringue "sails" clinging to it, in homage to "The House".
Head sommelier Russ Mills presents a list that showcases many of Australia's most desirable wines, including Gembrook Hill's crisp and lovely 2013 sauvignon blanc ($18/$79) and a spicy-rich Willow Creek 2012 pinot noir from Mornington Peninsula ($16/$70).
Already, this is one of the most delicious restaurants in Sydney, with its beautifully judged menu of vivid, distinct flavours and elegant solutions to various logistical challenges.
What I wasn't expecting was the sense of joy, the pride, the warmth and generosity that comes from the Fink family's patronage, the inspirational Gilmore and chef de cuisine Robert Cockerill, and the friendly young staff. If you want to feel good about Australia's place in the world of food and hospitality, go. Just go.
Best bit: The Bennelong is back.
Worst bit: More native flora and fauna, please.
Go-to dish: Single origin wheat noodles, smoked pork, line-caught squid, peanuts, sesame.