The amuse bouche is dead. Long live the "snack".
When The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide launched in 1984, a fine-dining restaurant may have offered guests a complimentary vol-au-vent or oyster to begin a meal. Thirty-five years later, a gratis oyster may still be provided at many hatted restaurants, but now it's served with caviar and a smorgasbord of other so-called "snacks" that can take weeks to prepare and seconds to eat.
"When we upgraded our menu last year, we almost made the mistake of getting rid of the snacks because there was so much labour involved in making them," said Brent Savage, executive chef and co-owner of two-hatted Bentley Restaurant and Bar in the CBD.
"We were spending a lot of time on food we were essentially giving away. But, when we really looked at the menu, we realised those snacks were the stand-out part of the meal. We decided to start sending out seven or eight snacks instead of just two or three."
Good Food Guide editor Myffy Rigby said year on year, chefs are lifting their game in the snack department, pointing to Bentley's sea urchin fried bun and Quay's oyster cream, liquorice and kombu tart. Both fine diners are nominees for the Good Food Guide 2020 Vittoria Coffee Restaurant of the Year award, to be announced at a gala event in Brisbane on Monday.
"The original amuse bouche - which roughly translates to 'amuse the mouth' - that many of us grew up eating in restaurants was the old shot glass of tomato consomme or an espresso cup of pumpkin veloute," said Rigby.
"While there's no actual difference between an amuse bouche and what most restaurants are now calling 'snacks', these days if you're not serving your own buckshot charcuterie, hand-dived urchin on toast and house-made taramasalata on ancient-grain crackers, you're probably missing a trick as a restaurateur."
Savage said each snack he has created with Bentley's head chef Aiden Stevens could be its own course, but he prefers to serve them in quick succession so the meal begins with a burst of colour, flavours and textures.
"Snacks also give us an opportunity to use ingredients that may not be suitable to anything else but one small bite," he said. "We can offer everyone in the restaurant a taste of caviar, say, and fresh truffle when it's available."
Bentley's seven courses of snacks
'Beet-strami'. Photo: Edwina Pickles
'Beet-strami', horseradish and beef
Snacks aren't always about expensive produce - they can be made from a humble ingredient manipulated to become something barely resembling its original form. Bentley's two-bite beetroot is slow-roasted, peeled, rubbed with pastrami seasoning and dehydrated for two days while being glazed with its own juices. It's then cryo-vacuumed for around a week to maintain its moisture and take on a chewy texture before being sliced and served with horseradish and dehydrated beef.
Time to make: 10 days.
Time to eat: 20 seconds.
Crisp potato and creme fraiche and caviar. Photo: Edwina Pickles
Crisp potato, creme fraiche and sturgeon caviar
Confit potato is hollowed out to hold whipped creme fraiche before a dip in the deep-fryer for extra crispness. Currently topped with Italian caviar, the snack is designed to showcase luxe seasonal ingredients with truffle replacing fish eggs in winter.
Time to make: four hours.
Time to eat: seven seconds.
WA marron, fermented gooseberry and cultured cream. Photo: Edwina Pickles
Marron, fermented gooseberry and cultured cream
Bentley's take on the tostada is highly labour intensive for the kitchen - the dehydrated celeriac crisps alone take 24 hours. West Australian marron is painstakingly removed from its shell, roasted to order, chopped and dressed with shellfish oil. Fresh herbs are picked and washed daily, house-made cultured cream is whipped and seasoned with wakame, and gooseberries are fermented for a minimum of a week to provide extra acidity.
Time to make: eight days.
Time to eat: five minutes.
Rock oyster, yuzu kosho and scampi caviar. Photo: Edwina Pickles
Rock oyster, yuzu kosho and scampi caviar
A Sydney rock oyster sourced from the south coast is enhanced with cream, finger lime pearls and naturally blue scampi caviar. Yuzu kosho - a salty Japanese citrus-chilli paste - adds extra kick, as does umami-rich kombu oil.
Time to make: 20 minutes.
Time to eat: two seconds.
Sea urchin fried bun. Photo: Edwina Pickles
Sea urchin fried bun
One of the longest-standing Bentley snacks, this steamed and fried bun provides a canvas for different fillings - sea urchin, perhaps, shellfish cream or chicken. Creating the bun is a process of kneading and shaping dough, similar to making bread from scratch.
Time to make: three hours.
Time to eat: 10 seconds.
Spencer Gulf kingfish, target beetroot and anise hyssop. Photo: Edwina Pickles
Spencer Gulf kingfish, beetroot and anise hyssop
Kingfish is cleaned and deboned in-house, cured with dill for two hours, and sliced and lightly blowtorched to order. Mullet roe is spooned on top, and a dashi broth made from dried and smoked fish bones brings all the flavours together.
Tme to make: two days.
Time to eat: one minute.
Witlof, smoked white pea and sumac. Photo: Edwina Pickles
Witlof, smoked white pea and sumac
A twist on hummus blended with Tasmanian-made miso and white pea puree, while sumac and native pepper punch up the spice levels. Served with Cowra-sourced witlof leaves for dipping purposes.
Time to make: two hours (plus more than six months to ferment the miso).
Time to eat: two minutes.
The Good Food Guide 2020 Vittoria Coffee Restaurant of the Year finalists
Brent Savage and Nick Hildebrandt's darkly glamorous CBD fine diner is made for work or play with flawless service, cult wines and quietly considered cooking.
Snack of choice: marron with fermented gooseberry and cultured cream.
An hour from Melbourne, Dan Hunter's fine diner set in a colonial Birregurra cottage on an organic farm is the true expression of farm-to-table dining.
Snack of choice: whole wheat croissant with pumpkin.
Chef Lennox Hastie manages to astound with his precise, intuitive and pitch-perfect dishes cooked over fire at this Surry Hills hot spot.
Snack of choice: kangaroo skewers grilled over juniper.
Chef-owner Aaron Turner is Victoria's keeper of the flame, coaxing near-unbelievable flavour from minimal ingredients using raw fire power in his Geelong restaurant.
Snack of choice: chicken skin with taramasalata.
Theatrical fine dining at the pointy end of Sydney from chef Peter Gilmore and the Fink Group. After its $4 million refurbishment in 2018, service, setting and snacks have meshed seamlessly into a holistic experience.
Snack of choice: oyster cream, liquorice and kombu tart.
The Good Food Guide's third annual national edition will be on sale from October 1 in newsagencies and bookstores, and is also available to pre-order at thestore.com.au/gfg20, $29.99 with free shipping.