It's time. After 10 weeks of closed doors and more than $4 million spent in reinventing itself, Quay 2.0 opens on Thursday. The three-hatted restaurant has swapped tablecloths for timber, ditched bread in favour of crumpets, and – drum roll, please – replaced the signature snow egg with a dessert of "white coral".
"We wanted to come back fresh, so I needed to create a new dessert that could stand up to the snow egg," says Quay executive chef Peter Gilmore.
The new show-stopper takes white chocolate ganache and aerates it to the extreme before a complex process of freezing turns it into something very fragile and very cold that resembles coral you might find diving off Cairns. It's placed on top of coconut cream and feijoa ice-cream. "We must have gone through at least 30 different ideas to get the right textural components," says Gilmore.
Australian food lovers have been champing at the bit to find out what Quay's "new snow egg" would be after Gilmore announced its retirement in March, but it's only one of many changes at the fine-dining institution, which has been closed for a complete overhaul since April 2.
"Quay, as good as it was, was looking a bit tired," says John Fink, creative director of the Fink Group, which has a portfolio that also includes Bennelong, Otto, Firedoor, the Bridge Room and Beach Byron Bay. "But you don't want to spend millions of dollars on refurb when there's only a couple of years left on the lease. There's no security."
Quay's landlord is the Port Authority of NSW, owner of the Overseas Passenger Terminal, where the fine-diner has prime position. After a long period of negotiations and a commitment from the Fink Group that Quay would remain top-level, a lease was signed with the government body for another 20 years.
"You would have to be a weightlifter to pick up the files that went back and forth with Ports when I started working on a new lease three years ago," says Fink Group chairman Leon Fink, recipient of The Good Food Guide's Vittoria Coffee Legend Award in 2016.
Quay has been awarded restaurant of the year seven times by The Good Food Guide and has held three hats for a record 16 consecutive years – ever since Fink hired Gilmore in 2001.
"I received a note from Mr Gilmore who was working at a little restaurant in Palm Beach at the time," says Leon Fink. "He advised me that he was up to the task of cooking at Quay – that he was ready for it. I didn't reply, but I sent about half a dozen couples to eat at the restaurant and they all came back and said 'If you don't grab this fellow, you're mad'. About six weeks after he wrote to me, and he had just about given up, I called him and asked him to come into the restaurant. That was the beginning of Peter Gilmore at Quay."
Gilmore says he has been "pushing hard" for the past five years for Quay to be renovated to give his food the contemporary dining room it deserved. There hadn't been too many changes to the hardware since Leon Fink and Tony Bilson cut ribbon on the site in 1988 (when it was known as Bilson's).
"I wanted to create a new energy," says Gilmore. "We've achieved pretty much everything we can possibly achieve in the restaurant business over the 17 years that I've been here. For me, this is the chance to reinvent an icon."
The dining room's capacity has been reduced from 100 seats to 80, with pod-style "islands" each holding two or three tables. "Our tagline is 'Australia's biggest little restaurant'," says John Fink. "Each one of these islands is a restaurant, as far as we're concerned, with its own team of wait staff. They only have three tables to look after so you're always the most important person in the room."
Those tables are no longer covered in linen and customers will rest their cutlery on solid spotted gum instead. "If you go to the best restaurants in the world, such as Noma, there's not a tablecloth in sight," says Fink. "It represents a different era of dining." (A lack of tablecloths also represents significant cost-savings given that Quay's linen laundry bill was about $150,000 a year.)
The Dairy Milk purple carpet has also been turfed. "To me, the purple carpet was only just better than the disco-design carpet that came before it," says John Fink. The new carpet is the most restrained Quay's floors have ever been – a deep blue connecting with the harbour. It's punctuated with custom-built chairs in a range of forest-floor colours with chevron detailing to reference the Opera House sails. A timber ceiling reinforces the organic vibe and room dividers patterned like stingray skin send it home.
"I know it's very premature to say this, but I think the white coral is as good as, if not better, than the snow egg," says head chef Rob Kabboord, the bloke in charge of Quay's new $1 million kitchen on a daily basis. "It's a spectacular dish."
There are a few dishes before the white coral, though, and diners now have a choice of either a six- or 10-course tasting menu. A la carte is no longer an option.
"I've been wanting to go tasting-menu-only for the last four years," says Gilmore. "It allows me to give more to the experience, to put more concentration into the flow and sequence of the meal. I also wanted to have a bit more fun with the menu without going down the road of lots and lots of snacks. Everyone's doing snacks. There's not enough effort put into making a beautiful dish that's actually plated."
Rare ingredients are a trademark of Gilmore's cooking and the new discovery he's most keen for customers to experience is the red speckled pea grown exclusively by Dylan Abdoo and Elle Brown at Newcastle Greens. "It's a yellow and red snow pea that's really crisp and really sweet," he says. The speckled pea stars in a salad also featuring snap peas and pea tendrils on a bed of green soybean miso combined with butter, freeze-dried fish sauce and lemon zest.
Other highlights of the new carte include sand crab with tennouji turnip, kombu, squid, and Wakefield cabbage; Abrolhos Islands dhufish with tonburi, Job's tears, seaweed and kale; and pasture-raised Maremma duck with slow-cooked carrots, red dates and karkalla.
"Our bread course is pretty special," says Gilmore. "We're making crumpets from roasted malted barley and serving them in beautiful boxes made from Tassie timber with butter and Terra Preta truffles from Canberra."
"Pete's food has just gone to another level," says John Fink. "He was briefing us on it the other week and I was like 'Who are you? How do you think this shit up?'."
Quay's longtime head sommelier, Amanda Yallop, has been promoted to Fink Group wine director and Shanteh Wong has stepped up to helm the drinks program.
"Shanteh is the epitome of what a sommelier should be," says Yallop. "You come across a lot of very loud sommeliers that have more confidence than skill, whereas Shanteh is almost the opposite. Her skill set belies her confidence. It's outrageous."
The big-hitting cellar is still there if you want to push the boat out with burgundy. But Wong is hoping more people will opt for one of the drinks matching options fine-tuned to Gilmore's food.
"It's about celebrating the the unsung heroes of the beverage world that you might not think of to pair with food," says Wong. "The fortified, the distilled, the brewed and the fermented. I think sake is going to look really good with Pete's new menu, especially the seafood."
Jeremy Courmadias, former director of food and beverage across Rockpool Group's premium restaurants, became Fink Group general manager last year.
"Jeremy's a revolutionary," says John Fink. "And the most immaculate dresser you'll ever meet. I'm pretty sure he sleeps in a suit."
"At this end of the market, it's all about taking away stress from the diner," says Courmadias. "Guests walk into this environment and they have huge expectations. We need to make sure that the minute they walk in the door, we work out why they're here, what they want, and read the signs. We've got three hours to build a relationship."
There's now one light above each table with five settings: arrival, drinks, meal, dessert and paying the bill. "We want the change in lighting to be so seamless that the guests don't notice it," says Fink. "The lights are brighter when you're reading the menu, but then once you're settling into your first gin and tonic, they go down a notch. When that's happening all around the restaurant, it makes the staff focus really intently on where each table is at.
"We're not concentrating on how fast the floor staff can roll their skates to get a plate on the table and make it look posh. It's about delivering a quality streamlined service to the guest that just feels luxe. If you don't know that you're in a restaurant, that's really good. I'm speaking a big game here but it's one that I believe we can deliver on.
Leon Fink won the lease for the site in 1987 and opened in May 1988, missing the bicentenary celebrations on Sydney Harbour by a few months. "Tony Bilson and I still threw the best party in Sydney on Australia Day anyway," he says. "The restaurant was two concrete slabs and nothing else. We brought in a couple of barbecues, a few deck chairs, some tables and a mountain of booze. It was an unbelievable event. The best ticket in Australia."
More than 30 years later, Quay is still aiming to be the best ticket in Australia.
Upper Level Overseas Passenger Terminal, The Rocks, 02 9251 5600, quay.com.au
Open daily from 6pm with lunch starting from August 3, Friday through to Sunday.
How much is it?
$210 for six courses with your choice of main or $275 for the full 10-course carte.
What's the wait for a table?
Most tables for two are already booked until summer, but plenty of three and four seat options are available if you want to bring some mates.
Is there a vegetarian option?
Yes. And vegan, gluten-free, dairy-free and pescatarian. Most dietary requirements can be accommodated if you give notice at the time of booking.