1 Macquarie St Sydney, NSW 2000
|Opening hours||Lunch daily from noon; dinner Mon-Fri 5.30-10.30pm, Sat 5-11pm, Sun 5.30-10pm|
|Features||Accepts bookings, Bar, Business lunch, Licensed, Long lunch, Pre-post-theatre, Romance-first date, Views, Private dining, Wheelchair access, Vegetarian friendly|
|Prices||Expensive (mains over $40)|
|Chef||Matt Moran, Joel Bickford|
|Phone||02 9240 2255|
Succession planning is all the go at the moment. Let's face it, our top chefs aren't getting any younger. They don't want out; they just want to step back from being on their feet in the kitchen all night, and still steer the business.
At 61, Neil Perry is now culinary director for the largest restaurant group in Australia. At 66, Peter Doyle has moved sideways out of the kitchen, to lead the Merivale Group's new apprenticeship programme. Tetsuya Wakuda, 59, has made an art form out of having a gun young head chef at the helm. Think Martin Benn, Darren Robertson, Luke Powell.
So clearly, Solotel's Matt Moran – much younger, but coming up to the big five-o – is aware of the need to identify and develop new talent, placing Vue de Monde's Cory Campbell at the group's landmark Barangaroo House and Melbourne's Jesse McTavish at North Bondi Fish.
Now, Joel Bickford has been sourced from the Gantry and installed as executive chef at Circular Quay flagship, Aria.
On the surface, changes are minimal – more Indigenous voices on the playlist, new table settings – but on the plate, it's noticeable.
There's grace and precision here, applied to some of the state's best producers and suppliers – Outback Pride, Darling Mills greens, Joto's fish, U Goose geese, Vic's Meats, not to mention the Moran Family Farm.
The snacks are serious, from tricornes of compressed beetroot enfolding Kristen Allan fresh curd cheese to cigarillos of sweet potato around chicken liver parfait, and crunchy nori topped with tuna and salmon roe.
Dining has a flow to it, through cured goose breast with pear, parsnip and mead, and the luxury of poached WA marron grounded by pan-fried sweetbreads and twirly furls of pumpkin. Surf and turf recurs as a theme; another successful pairing is slow-cooked pork belly with shavings of abalone.
Then we hit celestial. Warm-meets-raw is always brave, but Murray cod from Griffith is lightly steamed and served with a chilled angasi oyster – the mouthful of the night – on warm celeriac with miso cream in a totally thrilling combination of texture and taste.
The only misstep is a simple fillet of blue-eye trevalla, firmly cooked and paired with tiny razorback prawns served raw, like Japanese ebi, for no apparent reason.
The floor here is an immaculate mix of wine and food enthusiasts, from head somm Alex Kirkwood to Steven Rhodes, Robbie McGowan, the elegant Robert Moon and the exuberant Kosta Koutalistras.
I fear I may have drunk Aria out of the Sorrenberg gamay on previous visits, so I move on to the lightly gamey, earthy 2017 Farr Rising Gamay from Bannockburn ($95), which is as happy with both fish and meat as I am.
Dessert is a fruity cutey: a tart-that-isn't of warm, compressed confit pear topped with fresh blackberries, burnt butter soil, quinoa toffee, malted ice-cream and strategically placed crisp twigs cleverly recycled from pear skin.
It feels as if Aria was waiting for this to happen. It had everything else in place – the stunning Opera House and bridge views, the comfort levels set on max, the engaged staff – but now, they take on new lustre.
Bickford's food is exciting, with a clarity and seasonal synchronicity that lifts the dining experience to a new high.
If this is succession planning, it has success written all over it.
Vegetarian: One dish from each course is vegetarian, making up a vegetarian tasting menu.
Drinks: Solotel group sommelier Matt Dunne has gone for broke with one of the best wine lists in the business, including rare and classic finds.
Go-to dish: Murray cod, angasi oyster, white radish, miso, celeriac.
Pro tip: Pre-theatre menu of two courses for $90 runs from 5.30 to 7pm.
Terry Durack is chief restaurant critic for The Sydney Morning Herald and senior reviewer for the Good Food Guide. This rating is based on the Good Food Guide scoring system.