When the 2011 Good Food Guide was announced, the local culinary scene went pretty apeshit over Tetsuya’s dropping down from three to two hats. But in the background, an equally apeshit demotion was taking place: Bilson’s also dropped from three to two. This I felt was unjust. My visit to Bilson’s had been spectacular. I’d rated the restaurant up with Quay and Marque as the best in Sydney.
But in the food business, a lot can change in two years.
Enter a new chef at Bilson’s with an ambitious plan, and enter a new appreciation for fine dining at This Blog. It almost went hand in hand: Bilson’s brought out a 15 course degustation that they claimed was amongst the best in the world, just after a year in which I’d had some of the best degustations of the world.
But 15 courses? Fuck me, that’s a lot of goddamn courses.
A lot of press has been made of the $280 price tag that accompanies said 15 courses, and excludes and drinks that accompany said 15 courses. But, really, if it turned out to be great food then it’s hardly a rip off: It takes a lot of staff to make fifteen courses of well-presented food that includes excellent ingredients.
And so I headed in, having been warned that it will take around four hours to see the entirety of the “epiphanie” menu.
What ensued was five hours and fifteen courses of... food.
Part of me doesn’t want to take anything away from a restaurant ambitious enough to challenge themselves with an audacious goal of a fifteen course meal and a desire to be held among the world’s best.
Another part of me looks for excuses as to why I wasn’t in raptures about the food. Had too much dining spoilt me? No, it would have given me even more appreciation. Was there something about the mood that impacted the dining experience? No, we were in good spirits. Was there something wrong with my palate? I doubt it.
But it’s the largest part that is saying that it was just a lacklustre meal. It certainly wasn’t poor; and there certainly wasn’t any “bad” dishes. The whole thing was just completely uninspiring.
Because of balance.
Balance was lacking.
I don’t see why some people oppose the use of modern techniques in cooking. I partly understand why they object, but still don’t fully understand why they can’t just change their mind once they realise how nice it can often be.
But here... Here modern techniques are to blame.
Modern techniques work purely because they delivery tastes in a different and sometimes entirely unexpected way. There is no point in using modern techniques for the sake of using modern techniques, which it felt like in my dinner at Bilson’s. You can compress the shit out of apple, but it’s pointless if the texture and flavour don’t gel with the rest of dish.
A great dish—in a fine dining setting—works in the mouth. You feel like every ingredient and texture was placed there for a reason. And it was, because that’s fine dining. But I got that feeling maybe twice during the fifteen opportunities that they had to deliver it. A world standard restaurant will deliver nearly fifteen.
The frustrating thing is that nearly every dish had an element to it that was thoroughly enjoyable. There was the green apple cous cous. The dried chicken skin. The meaty cod. The calamari. But something would spoil it every. Single. Time. The cod and the chicken skin were great on that plate, but then a furious punch of citrus was introduced and would destroy any lingering flavours. Where was the balance? Citrus may have worked, but in the right proportion; delivered in the right way.
The best dishes were when it was kept simple. Seasonal vegetables with some cheese and a little coffee to provide a bitter balance, expertly placed to provide a clear distinction from the earlier, more cloying dishes. Some seasonal mushrooms with an acidic hum of vinegar.
But just as there were hints that things were looking good—very good—something came along and ruined it. Beef short ribs were as tender as you can get, but they came with too much potato and watercress, which ruined the balance and made the dish far too light to carry the red wine it was matched too. And then lamb with an eggplant and miso puree, which is a puree that has been used dozens of times and felt dull in the face of a seemingly ambitious menu. Or a raspberry encased in a gold leaf covered square of jelly, for no reason whatsoever.
And I have to feel sorry for the people that opt for one of the other degustations and pay the supplement for the chocolate box, which is nothing more than chocolates in the place of petit fours.
Sadly, it wasn’t just the food that has changed since my last meal at Bilson’s. The borderline empty dining room was devoid of any enjoyment, which was served in abundance last time. And while the sommelier was knowledgeable, he lacked the presence of the last head sommelier.
While Bilson’s is still serving up good food, I felt it was a long way off serving food at the top of world standard. And there was a severe lack of epiphanies. For the money, every serious Sydney restaurant is doing markedly better food. I wish Bilson’s was doing better food and I could recommend it to people, because my first time there was amazing. But now... I’m going to be pointing people—and myself—elsewhere.
RATING: Okay, may go back [?]