Bennelong is back, baby

Making magic: Chef Peter Gilmore in the kitchen of Bennelong at the Opera House.
Making magic: Chef Peter Gilmore in the kitchen of Bennelong at the Opera House. Photo: Edwina Pickles

Peter Gilmore is building the Opera House. Staff huddle around the Quay chef, watching him tile a raspberry and rhubarb-filled base in a gloss-matte-gloss-matte pattern with piping bags of Italian meringue and double cream. With the concentration of a kid playing a game of Jenga, Gilmore places a crisp meringue sail on the top still-setting tiles and it snaps in half. Another sail is hoisted on the roof and it too shatters into delicious shards.

As Utzon and Arup might have told you, building the Opera House isn't easy.

"The sails are just so fragile," says Gilmore. "And the problem is I keep trying to make them bend to my will." Gilmore's will perseveres and his completed version of a pavlova is a many splendored thing. An unapologetic celebration of Australia, it's the America's Cup win, right there on a plate. It's the bicentenary. It's Ken Done. It's the vibe of the thing, your Honour.  

Roasted Holmbrae duck with black miso butter and hispi cabbage.
Roasted Holmbrae duck with black miso butter and hispi cabbage. Photo: Edwina Pickles

Peter Gilmore and The Fink Group open the doors to Bennelong on July 1, about seven months after it was announced they had signed a 10-year agreement with the Sydney Opera House to take over the iconic dining room and exactly 18 months since Guillaume Brahimi served the Paris mash underneath its ribs.

Third-generation restaurateurs and hoteliers, The Fink Group also owns the three-hatted Quay Restaurant and one-hatted Otto Ristorante (as well as having stakes in The Bridge Room and Firedoor). The lease-signing of Bennelong sparked rumours that Gilmore and Finks were set to abandon Quay at the at end of the Overseas Passenger Terminal and concentrate their efforts across the pond (the number of cruise ships visiting Sydney has almost tripled in the past five years and while this has been great news for the tourism dollar, it's not so great for Quay diners who increasingly find themselves playing Rear Window with RMS Queen Mary 2 instead of marvelling at the Opera House sails in all their billowed glory).

As it turns out, the opposite is true.

Bennelong's cherry jam lamington.
Bennelong's cherry jam lamington. Photo: Edwina Pickles

"Quay will always be our flagship restaurant," says John Fink, creative director of the Fink Group and son of its chairman, Leon Fink.

"Once we've bedded Bennelong down, we want to throw a bucket of money at Quay," he says. "We want to refocus the room so it's looking at the Harbour Bridge. Also, we've been there for 28 years and it's no secret that the room needs a bit of a freshen-up."

Goodbye, Dairy Milk-purple carpet, hello even better views of the coathanger.

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Back to Bennelong, a dining room not without controversy over the past two years. When the tender came up in 2013, incumbent chef Guillaume Brahimi declined to apply due to a conflicting vision between his fine-dining French cooking and the Opera House Trust's new criteria of a mid-priced, bistro-style restaurant.

The Finks showed interest in taking over that initial tender, but it wasn't to be.

"We had a conversation with Bill Granger about coming into site but that didn't eventuate," says John Fink. "It's not that we walked away, it just didn't happen."  

The lovingly assembled Opera House sails pavlova.
The lovingly assembled Opera House sails pavlova. Photo: Edwina Pickles

The Melbourne-based Van Haandel Group won the tender but when its flagship Stokehouse restaurant in St Kilda was destroyed by fire, the deal went up in smoke.

How did Peter Gilmore come to take over the kitchen then? Gilmore, like Brahimi, is not the type of bloke to start plating up beer-battered flathead and chips.

"The Opera House is the symbol of modern Australia," says Sydney Opera House chief executive, Louise Herron. "And we got served back to us, in spades, to make  [Bennelong] about that. I think that Stokehouse would have been great, but there was a fire and we had to go again. There's always stuff you can learn and what we learnt was how much people care [about the Opera House] and we made sure we really did something that responded to that."

The new restaurant interior.
The new restaurant interior. Photo: Edwina Pickles

The trust moved the goalposts: to provide something that was accessible to the 24 million Australians who own the Opera House, but still represented the pinnacle of excellence and embraced Australia's "distinctive and diverse produce and culinary heritage".

Enter The Fink Group.

The exact rental amount a year for Bennelong is unknown, although John Fink says it is below $1 million, or as he calls it "the Dr Evil pinky number", referencing the fictional supervillain played by Mike Myers in the Austin Powers film franchise.

John Dory with mountain spinach, white kabu turnips and Chinese broccoli blossoms.
John Dory with mountain spinach, white kabu turnips and Chinese broccoli blossoms. Photo: Edwina Pickles

What Good Food can confirm is that The Fink Group has paid for all the renovations and refurbishments.

"That part cost a lot of Dr Evil dollars," says Fink. "I remember Dad rang me and said, 'Why  am I throwing all this money at The Opera House?' I said, 'Dad, it's because it's the bloody Opera House!'"

Bennelong used to feel like one space. One Cathedral. Now it's a tri-level treasure trove of different bars, nooks and crannies, each one offering a different experience – that kind of remodelling doesn't come cheap. There's also been considerable coin dropped on future-proofing internal wiring,  Walter Knoll furniture, reupholstering the original Eames chairs in the bar, waiters' suits from M.J. Bale, and a lighting installation of golden orbs from British designer Tom Dixon that pleasantly look like they've always been there.

Raw mushrooms, ancient grains, feta, hazelnuts and eggplant.
Raw mushrooms, ancient grains, feta, hazelnuts and eggplant. Photo: Edwina Pickles

About a third of the costs was soaked up by a shiny new kitchen designed from the ground up by Gilmore.

"Everything's been done the way I wanted it," he says. "It's all brand new. We've got a MKN stove – one of the best stoves in the world – that's been custom-built to my specifications. I've also tried to design the kitchen as ergonomically as possible, so it has really good flow."

And boy, are there some good things set to come out of that kitchen. Gilmore and chef de cuisine Rob Cockerill (senior sous chef at Quay for the past seven years) have spent three months designing a menu that's more robust and direct than the highly technical offerings at Quay.

Sydney Opera House CEO Louise Herron.
Sydney Opera House CEO Louise Herron. Photo: Rob Homer

"There's a lot of processes at Quay to get the food to where it is but here I want to be a little bit more straight," says Gilmore. "It's a little bit more about the ingredients just treated beautifully and cooked beautifully with nice combinations of flavour. A little bit more relaxed, a little bit more casual, but even more so, emphasising Australian produce."

John Dory roasted and served on the bone would be too brutal for Quay, but at Bennelong it's game on, served with mountain spinach, white kabu turnips, and Chinese broccoli blossoms. It's also covered in a next-level umami butter of fermented shiitake mushroom powder, roasted kombu, roasted powdered sesame seeds, reduced fish sauce and lemon rind.

Other dishes available in the restaurant include Holmbrae duck from the Hawkesbury with black miso butter and cross sections of hispi cabbage (a specially grown, conical shaped cabbage), Flinders Island saltgrass lamb with heirloom broad beans, kale, Jerusalem artichokes, nasturtiums and anchovy salt, and Rangers Valley wagyu rump cap with mustard emulsion, black barley and a unique variety of ox-heart shaped carrot grown for the restaurant by Epicurean Harvest in the Blue Mountains.

Bennelong Restaurant lavish in crimson circa 1985.
Bennelong Restaurant lavish in crimson circa 1985. Photo: Supplied

The relaxed Cured and Cultured bar has plates of culatello (also known as the king of prosciuttos and cured from Byron Bay Pork's black Berkshire pigs) served with toast, truffle butter and radishes (sliced lengthways, thankfully, and not mandolined), raw scallops from Princess Charlotte Bay near Cairns, and cold-smoked wagyu tartare topped with raw egg yolk and cultured grains and served on a bed of fermented chilli paste, miso and garlic oil.

The bar also has one of the funnest do-it-yourself dishes ever, in the form of half-shell yabbies you can pop the flesh out of and place on buckwheat pikelets spread with cultured cream and lemon jam. The Country Women's Association would be proud.

"There's little fun references to Australia's past like pikelets and pavlova but generally it's about modern food and great produce," says Gilmore.

It's all a far cry from the food served at The Opera House when it opened in 1973. Back then, you could expect to be served the likes of Swiss sausage and cheese salad, Tasmanian scallops "au whisky", baked Virginia ham and ragout of red wine marinated lamb (although there were also Sydney rock oysters available in the shell, so that's one thing that's still on the menu).

In the 42 years since then, Bennelong has seen an all-star cast of chefs on its pans, including Michael Moore, the duo of Gay Bilson and Janni Kyritsis, and Phillip Searle and his magical checkerboard ice-cream. None of them could made it work like Guillaume Brahimi, though, who was at the helm for 12 years serving elegant French food with the respect and consideration demanded by the dining room.

Bennelong is the greatest and most iconic dining room in Sydney, maybe the world. Whether Peter Gilmore and the Fink Group can deliver and set Bennelong on the right (and profitable) course for the next decade is unknown, but The Finks have proven they know how to run a world-class restaurant and Gilmore cooks world-class food. There's an enthusiasm and dedication among everyone involved that's directed to one goal: Get. This. Right. Provided Gilmore can keep those meringue sails intact, there's no reason why they can't.

The important questions

How much does it cost? Depends on how much you want to spend. There's a few options in the restaurant ranging from a three-course a la carte menu with sides that's $125, down to a two-course pre-theatre menu for $80. Dishes from the more casual Cured and Cultured section on the mezzanine level are priced from $5 to $30.

What if I want to just drop in after a show and eat some pavlova before heading home? The Cured and Cultured bar is happy to take walk-ins.

Can I get a snow egg? No. The only Quay dish on the menu is the Eight-textured chocolate cake, winkingly referred to as "chocolate cake from across the water".

Is there disabled access? Yes, and it might be the coolest in the country, involving a secret James Bond door and what's referred to as the "open sesame" stairs.

Can you tell me about the wine? Sure. Bearded bushranger and nice guy Russ Mills has been appointed head sommelier after spending four years as assistant head sommelier under Amanda Yallop at Quay. He's put together a list that features over 180 labels, most of which are Australian.

Can I order a negroni? Damn straight you can order a negroni. Bar manager Aaron Gaulke knows his stuff and has also crafted his own creations with names like Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, Harbouring Suspicions, and Manly Street Ferry. 

Do Peter Gilmore and general manager Kylie Ball have a jet ski to transport them between Quay and Bennelong throughout the day? As awesome as that would be, sadly no. Although the pair intend to divide their time equally between restaurants, this will be done in chunks of days, not minutes. Although there is rumour of an underwater tunnel.

Is there a chef's table? Indeed. It's in the kitchen, seats six people and costs $650 per person for 10 courses and matched wine. It also has killer knock-out views of the harbour. 

What about a private room? There's a semi-private area overlooking the dining room that seats up to 12 people.

Is there any Paris mash left? Hmmm. Best cab over to Paddington for that one, sport.

Can I book? Yes. Reservations are open for the restaurant, chef's table and Cured and Cultured. Call 02 9240 8000 or email reservations@bennelong.com.au. The cocktail bar is walk-in only.

What are the opening hours? Dinner Mon-Sun 5.30pm-midnight; Fri-Sun noon-2pm.

What's the address? Is that a serious question?