30-36 Bay St Double Bay, NSW 2028
|Opening hours||Lunch Thu-Sun; dinner Wed-Sun|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Phone||02 9068 8888|
So, you're sitting at a table and someone comes up and asks you what you want to eat, and you tell them, and they go away and then they bring it and put it down in front of you.
Sounds crazy. But it might just work.
If I'm excited about restaurants being open again, I can only imagine how Neil Perry must be feeling. The former Rockpool chef and owner, whose name is synonymous with hospitality in this town, was about to open his $5 million, 170-seater Margaret restaurant in June when Sydney was plunged into lockdown. Doing takeaway kept the momentum going, but it was never going to replace food on plates.
No wonder he looks happy. "No more boxes!" he cries through his mask, as he pops out of the open kitchen. We're all happy. Not just head chef Richard Purdue (formerly Rosetta), and manager Josephine Perry Clift, but everyone sitting at tables eating char-grilled prawns, drinking chablis and pondering which dessert to have.
(I can help with that dilemma: the spirit of the famous Rockpool date tart has been exhumed in the Memories of Mirabelle tart, $16, which achieves the same implosion of creamy, sweet, custardy richness with prunes.)
The large corner restaurant, named for Perry's late mother, is a comfortable, well-appointed space by David Caon and Acme & Co, with a soft, metallic glow about it. Colours are muted – more Armani than Gucci – and a handsome leather banquette skirts the dining room. Downlighting does a good job, and cantilevered windows promise fresh air dining inside, with outside dining coming soon.
It's an overnight success, as packed as protocols will allow. But in truth, it's taken Neil Perry 40 years to be able to write a menu like this, building connections with producers, winemakers and fellow chefs.
When the King George whiting is "Bruce's" and the big-eye tuna is "Pav and Heidi's", when David Blackmore is a mate, you've made your own butter with Copper Tree Farm, and Cobram Estate has created a special hojiblanca olive oil just for you, then you probably don't feel the need to plait fish or build picket fences of carrots. So he doesn't.
Mind you, that classic Perry playlist of Mediterranean and Asian flavours comes with the odd twist. Small, well-formed agnolotti stuffed with spanner crab ($28) pivot from Italy to Thailand, topped with makrut lime leaf in a pour-over broth that sings of fresh chilli and lemongrass. An on-season globe artichoke and broad bean caponata is richly dressed with cooked-down tomato and fruity pops of sweetness into a lovely Sicilian, agrodolce mess of spring flavours.
But it's all about the wood fire. Grilled tuna is the world's most boring order, but when it's as fat, smoky, charred and as rare as this, it's like barbecued sashimi that just melts on the tongue. A chippy-chop of grilled tomato and zucchini is all that's needed.
Again, wood-rotisserie chicken ($35) doesn't sound thrilling, but a jointed half of crisp-skinned, corn-fed Game Farm chicken on a smooth eggplant puree makes it a prize order. Crunchy salad of cucumber dressed with yoghurt and nutmeg ($14), also cool.
The wine program under Richard Healy means you can follow a glass of Eleonore Moreau Chablis ($23) with an A. Rodda Willow Lake Chardonnay from the Yarra Valley ($19) and enjoy both. His 2020 Clos du Moulin aux Moines Pommard ($25) is all iron fist, velvet glove.
None of this makes Margaret a zeitgeist experience, just a rock-solid and very welcome evocation of what hospitality is all about. For me, it best expresses the joy of Them getting back to business and Us returning to dining right now.
Even though the experience is one we've grown up with, it feels fresh. No tricks, no artifice, just developed flavours from some of Australia's best produce, placed on a plate and sent to the table by utter professionals.
As I said, this might just work.
Drinks Pre-batch cocktails star a great native negroni, and Richard Healy's 22-page wine list is full of wines of interest, with 25 by the glass.
Vegetarian A few good options, especially first courses.
Pro tip Check out The Wines We Loved During Lockdown list, it's a joy.