10 Oxford Street Woollahra, New South Wales 2025
Claude's has been Claude's for as long as most of us can remember. The tiny little restaurant on Oxford Street with its discreet wooden door and understated dining room has been one of the few constants in Sydney's ever-changing dining scene. Now, owner-chef Chui Lee Luk has taken steps to make Claude's her own.
Prepare to be scandalised. The wooden door has gone and you no longer have to buzz for admittance as the new glass door pushes open to the touch. Inside, the dining room is richer and dressier, the walls lined with Oriental art.
And you know what? It's fantastic. It's dark, moody and luxurious, abuzz with 40th birthdays, wine-sniffing glass-twirlers and girls' nights out.
So why did it take Luk so long? I'll tell you why. We wouldn't let her.
We've all had the mythology of Claude's spooned down our throats, starting in 1976 with the louder-than-life Claude Corne. The young Damien and Josephine Pignolet ran it from 1981 until Josephine's death in 1987. It was taken over by Damien's talented protege, Tim Pak Poy, in 1993, who in turn passed it on to the then 34-year-old Singapore-born, Malaysia-raised Chui Lee Luk in 2004.
Since then, most reviews of Claude's have referred to Luk as its ''custodian'' as if she were some hired caretaker or museum curator.
She supposedly inherited ''a legacy of good taste and restraint'', and ''admirably maintained the aura of stability and familiarity''.
But no more. Luk has blown off the caretaker mantle and opened the front door, metaphorically and physically, breaking with tradition by adding a la carte to the fixed-price option from Wednesday to Friday. But the most captivating move has been the wholehearted way the new menu reaches back into her Malaysian roots.
The F-word cannot be avoided. This is true fusion food, as French and Asian techniques and flavours work together to produce a unique and single-minded way of cooking reminiscent of the early days of Tetsuya's in Rozelle. How else to describe a rather sensational starter of crisp, puffy taro crackers arranged with cubes of lush chicken liver parfait and a spicy mixed vegetable pickle based on Malaysian achar ($8). It's a tug of war between crunchy and smooth, sour and spicy, east and west.
Take Luk's fresh and refreshing spin on crudo - fleshy, translucent slices of trumpeter soused in white soy and kalamansi lime, served with shavings of dried mullet roe and a frisky kerabu salad of snow peas, green mango and Vietnamese mint flavoured with shrimp paste, chilli and garlic ($26).
A hot and fragrant broth ($26), proves to be an intense, spicy, sour soup, green with nettles and jazzed up with pieces of caramelised chicken and fluffy dried chicken floss. Duck comes as a clever tweak on the old seared-breast/confit leg duo ($42), the breast cured and the leg braised in a herbal concoction. Tender slices of abalone, abalone mushrooms and chrysanthemum leaves add body and freshness. I love how this food is clean and contemporary, yet carries the ghosts of timeless hawker favourites. A deep-fried, gnarly piece of wrasse ($40), refined with shavings of tender slow-cooked octopus, sauteed green beans, capsicum and white radish, has the same DNA as all manner of fried fish eaten on street-side tables.
Luk and sous chef Ben Sears (formerly with Andrew McConnell at Melbourne's Cutler & Co) redraft their own constitution of pan-Asian cooking, using elements of Shanghainese, Thai and Nyonya. Tuesday's more experimental ''Mighty Bouche'' nights also promise to be fun as they try out ideas for a planned casual Chinese eating house (Chow) in Surry Hills. What's interesting is how successfully Claude's new style works with wine. The list helps the cause by having a fair number of spice-friendly labels such as a citrussy 2009 Serge Laloue Sancerre ($76) and a youthfully bright 2009 Oceans Eight Pinot Noir ($70).
Textural contrast continues into dessert via a softly crunchy cracked sponge, deftly teamed with an orange and curry leaf-infused egg custard and tingly lime jelly ($17).
Claude's is a delight, a thoroughly modern, civilised restaurant with natural, fuss-free service and intriguing food that is writing its own story. In fact, it's no longer Claude's. It's Chui's.
Address: 10 Oxford Street, Woollahra, 9331 2325, claudes.com.au.
Open: Dinner Tues-Sat.
Licensed: Yes and BYO (corkage $25 a bottle).
Cost: Wed-Fri: About $175 for two, plus wine; Sat: eight-course degustation $135 a person; Tues: Mighty Bouche set dinner $75 a person.