37 Margaret St Sydney, NSW 2000
|Opening hours||Lunch Thu-Sat from noon; dinner Wed-Sat from 5.30pm|
|Prices||Expensive (mains over $40)|
So many options to wine and dine, so many terrace lounge bars, so many special little places. Everywhere you look at the painstakingly restored "commercial palazzo" that is Shell House, there is something that demands attention – the super glossy staircase (or should that be starecase?); the fanatically detailed timber trimming, the dazzling, glazed, diagonals of terracotta tiles.
And always, that hulking, 400-tonne clocktower looming above, with its 1930s black metal hands describing the time and therefore the mood of the day.
It has taken several years and $14 million for The Point Group's Brett Robinson, working with interior designer Anna Hewett, legions of architects (Made, Architectus, Woods Bagot) and Buildcorp, to get Shell House open for business.
It's a gift to Sydney – a deeply orchestrated succession of bars and dining rooms aimed at being the beating heart of the city.
The FOMO is real. Jay McInerney nailed it in his 1984 New York novel Bright Lights, Big City with "there is always the likelihood that where you aren't is more fun than where you are".
Because who's to say, if you're ensconced in a ritzy booth in the ground-floor Menzies Bar, that people aren't having more fun upstairs in the Mad Men vibe of the Clocktower Bar, or sipping martinis in the glass-enclosed Sky Bar?
But the most fun is in the handsome Shell House Dining Room, as you bite into a crisp choux pastry puff filled with oyster cream. Ignore the fact that these little baubles of luxury are $12 each, and register instead the crisp freshness that denotes recent baking, the comfort of the chair, the largesse of the table and the animation of your fellow diners, like cats licking corporate cream.
Even the simplest dishes are elevated. A spanner crab cocktail ($38) arrives in a Gatsby-esque metallic coupe resting on delicate chrysanthemum-petalled charger plates. I'm sold, even without tasting the tiny dice of pickled daikon and thick salted cream studded with filaments of crab under a dusting of dark green, velvety wild garlic.
The tension here is in the dance between commerce and art – how to ensure the opulent menu can be delivered in large numbers without undue delay?
Astaire and Rogers, in this case, are culinary director Joel Bickford (ex-Aria) and head chef Aaron Wood (ex-Sixpenny), locked in a two-step of doing lots of prep beforehand, with last-minute flourishes.
Risotto is always the test, but this cacio e pepe ($36) survives; its carnaroli rice al dente, spot-lit by a golden confit egg yolk in the centre. Rich with pecorino and peppery, it doesn't need a $30 supplement of truffle (not that it stops anyone), just a glass of Ten Minutes by Tractor's 2021 10X sauvignon blanc from the Mornington Peninsula ($20).
Dishiest dish of the night is the deeply burnished beetroot ($34); coal-roasted then sliced and barbecued, dressed with a fermented blueberry and cherry vinegar. It's crazy-good with a silky, savoury 2019 Mornington Onannon pinot noir ($93).
Main courses from the parrilla grill are dauntingly large, so order to share – especially the meaty, fatty, slow-cooked then grilled lamb ribs on chickpea puree ($58). Whole spatchcocked chicken ($54) is politely jointed and served with terrific house-made mustard fruits and chicken jus.
A golden citron filled with yuzu curd, lemon sorbet, cream and salted milk crumble ($20) is best saved for a hot day on the terrace.
Somehow, Shell House makes Sydney more Sydney. Everything here has been orchestrated – the versatility of the menu, the focus of the staff, the energy in the movement from one space to another, even the way you thread your way through the tables is designed with borderline fanaticism.
It's a beacon for Sydney's corporate moths, drawn to the bright lights and the big city, and to having more fun where they are than where they aren't.
Shell House Dining Room and Terrace
Drinks Cracking cocktails, a progressive wine list from all over and an appropriately festive champagne list from wine director Shun Eto.
Vegetarian Dedicated vegetable section, five meat-free sides, risotto and pasta.
Pro tip Speak to the reservations staff if you'd like to visit one of the bars before or after dining.