1 Macquarie St Sydney, NSW 2000
|Opening hours||Lunch Fri noon-3pm; Dinner Wed-Sat 5.30-9.30pm|
|Features||Views, Accepts bookings|
|Prices||Expensive (mains over $40)|
|Chef||Matt Moran, Joel Bickford|
|Phone||02 9240 2255|
Why review Aria, and why now? Sure, they've reopened, but then, so has everyone. After 21 years of Matt Moran's fine-dining queen gazing out across Circular Quay and the Opera House, surely there's nothing to see, move along now.
Quite the opposite, actually. When Moran announced his reopening date for fully vaccinated guests in line with government advice, the Instagram post received more than 10,000 comments.
Some were supportive, many were not, and most were hateful. That's as good a reason as any to make a booking, I reckon.
But there's more. There's a bright new executive chef in Thomas Gorringe, who is stepping up to take over from Joel Bickford, which he coincidentally did three years ago at Pier One at The Gantry, when Bickford first moved to Aria.
And I have another reason to be here: curiosity. Aren't you wondering just where fine dining is heading in these changing times? Has its flag been lowered to half-mast?
The answer depends, greatly, on whether you are dying to treat yourself to a multi-course degustation menu, or never again want to sit at the same table for three hours waiting for a chef to place botanicals on a plate with tweezers.
Then the snacks arrive, and it's hello, ceviche of scallops sitting on crispbread under bitter radicchio, and hola, little potato churros filled with pecorino custard.
It's a big welcome back to the fine art of the sommelier in general manager Alex Kirkwood, who (correctly) assumes I will be requiring the Sorrenberg Gamay ($130), with its little edge of 10 per cent pinot noir.
Over four courses, it's clear that Gorringe is up to the fine-dining game. A striking, burnished ruby rubble of cured and lightly torched Paroo kangaroo shrouded in furls of beetroot is studded with the sweet pop of mulberries, on a burnt onion emulsion.
A velvety breast of Eugowra quail from Central Western NSW, riffed with pea shoots and peas and a sherry vinegar reduction, is classy, convincing and damn near perfect.
Some of the food gets in its own way. A dish that treats white asparagus three ways would have more impact if it were treated in one. Pork jowl with nautilus curls of Hawkesbury squid doesn't quite bond with curls of wombok cabbage and token kimchi crisps.
One of the strengths – and the weaknesses – of fine dining, is the perceived need to value-add, as if special wasn't special enough.
I'm distracted by a zucchini flower, perfectly stuffed with freshly picked crab, that adorns a beautifully steamed diamond of coral trout, bedded down with zucchini shavings, tomato broth and smoky little confit tomatoes. It's lovely in its own right, but I don't need it, and nor does Australia's finest wild-caught fish.
The stronger dishes have fewer components: the quail, the roo, and a deep-flavoured Maremma duck, glazed with pomegranate molasses on a haunting salsify puree. Even a pre-dessert on a strawberry sorbet theme does everything you want pre-dessert to do: freshen without freezing.
Gorringe had his own fan club at The Gantry for his spectacular magnum dessert, reinvented here as a rather beautiful crisp round shell of Valrhona chocolate.
Inside is a bittersweet sensory playground of different chocolate mousses, whey caramel, ganache and cake that's so good it barely needs a handbag of malted milk ice-cream and shard of toffee like a hat going to The Everest.
The dining experience is skilfully played, the service is mindful, the room hums, and there is no doubt that Aria over-delivers on the conventions of pointy-end dining. That's frustrating to anyone who can't wait for those rituals to change with the times.
But you don't get a wine list as deep as an archaeological dig, with jaw-dropping views of the harbour and all the trappings that scream big night out, unless you pledge allegiance to the fine dining flag. And here, its flying high.
Drinks Well-made classic cocktails and Alex Kirkwood's award-winning wine list featuring rare and classic wines. Look out for the special list of Victorian winemaker William Downie's 2019 pinot noir releases.
Vegetarian Meat-free option in every course, plus dedicated veg, vegan and dairy-free tasting menus
Pro tip Skip the raspberry souffle and go for the chocolate, malt, caramel and whey; it's crazy-good.