Wednesday, May 04, 2011

RESTAURANT: Tetsuya's

I remember Tetsuya's two or three years ago. You would utter the word and everyone knew what you were talking about. You weren't talking about a mere restaurant: you were talking about a Sydney institution. An institution that stood for luxury; for excellence; for refinement; for the ultimate in Sydney--nay Australian--nay Australasian--fine dining. And it had been like that for years.

Put simply, Tetsuya's put Sydney (and Australian) food on the map. Sure, there were heaps of other great chefs and restaurants that helped champion the cause. But everyone knew Tetsuya's. It was the pinnacle.

The moment I started thinking about doing any "fine dining", Tetsuya's entered my thoughts. It was number one on the wishlist. I barely even bothered about wishlists, but Tetsuya's was the top spot. At times the wishlist existed solely because I couldn't get Tetsuya's out of my head. But it wasn't that easy to get it out of my head.

Well, that's a lie. The simple way of exorcising the thought was the dine at Tetsuya's. But it was never that easy. The tremendous waits for tables were known by everyone. I tried once, offering to take the next free booking, but was told the next free booking was in eight months time. For a midweek dinner. That wouldn't do. No one--I don't care who it is--can make me book eight fucking months in advance. For anything.

So I went elsewhere. I suffered almost no waits going to places like Quay, Marque, Bentley, Flying Fish, Galileo at it's peak, Omega before it shut, Becasse, Sepia, .est, Rockpool Bar & Grill, Oscillate Wildly. I went to New York and ate at the best restaurants I could; restaurants regarded as the best in the world. I went to Melbourne and did the same. Then across Europe and went... a tad overkill.

Still. I could never shake Tets.

Along the way, though, Tetsuya's has been going on it's own journey. From the unrivalled top of the Australian dining scene, Tetsuya's is now in question. Peter Gilmore's Quay has emerged as the new Australasian favourite. Competitors that were never in competition before are now being mentioned before Tets. Right or wrong, meaningful or not, it lost a hat in the Good Food Guide, arguably the most influential restaurant guide in the state. The same guide where, three years earlier, it was restaurant of the year. Alongside that, the general public had increased it's awareness of food, had begun growing increasingly more savvy and, with that, demanding. The times. They are. A changing.

The rumours were that waits for midweek tables were down to just a couple of weeks. I rang on a Wednesday and was giving a Tuesday booking. Forget about a six month wait. Six days. Only six days. Sweet dreams are made of some sort of weird brain chemical and also this.

I went through those gates--those gates that I'd walked past dozens of times, hoping to catch a glimpse of anything that would give away what it was like inside--with no expectations. My previously high expectations had been balanced to nothingness by the general ambivalence that people seemed to be feeling for the restaurant these days. In short, I went through expecting nothing. I was a clean slate.

You're assaulted with service. Straight away. It's deafening. That's the only way to describe it. Except, perhaps, shock and awe. Staff are everywhere, doing everything. Opening doors (a two man job, apparently), parking cars, watching people parking cars, taking names, watching the process of taking names. The Experience is what they call it.

They run you through the menu and I suppose it's okay. I feel a bit stifled. Oddly, it feels out of place. Because the restaurant itself feels a little dated. It doesn't feel like a restaurant in 2011. Or maybe because it seems like it actually would hurt them to crack a joke. I think it would hurt me too.

We start with a cucumber soup with yoghurt and (I think) sea cucumber. It's great. Fresh. Lively. A great start. The oysters, dressed in vinegar and ginger, are too, if a little overdressed. Yellowfin tuna sashimi with shishito and garlic chips next and it tastes great, although you need to get your ratios right because the charred shishito tries to overpower every bite.

Scampi with bean curd and junsai is a cracker of a dish. Different textures of "wobble", different subtle flavours. Paired with a fruity, slightly acidic riesling, the whole dish is totally spot on. It's a wow moment. Yeah, one o' dem.

The signature dish is up next. Confit ocean trout, nowadays a fixture on hundreds of menus across Australia. It's paired here with apple, konbu and celery. But mostly with apple. The matchsticks of apple that sit under the fish do compliment the dish in terms of flavour, but said matchsticks don't seem to compliment the texture of the dish. I put a chunk of beautifully cooked and seasoned trout in my mouth and find myself constantly chewing through sticks of apple after the trout has been procssed.

On the side is a green leaf salad that I have to say is a little overdressed. The pool of dressing left in the bowl with attest to that. It's also a side that would be suited to one of the red meat dishes further down the menu. The strong dressing and slightly bitter leaves of the salad totally destroys the subtle flavour of the ocean trout, which was already swimming upstream to escape the wrath of the apple julienne.

Cod with blackbean and bacon passes without too much fanfare--the cod is either an odd texture or slightly over. But then the shredded, braised oxtail with lotus root and sea cucumber arrives and the fanfare returns. The sea cucumber here plays a textural role similar to the fat of the meat. But it's the bit of bite in the lotus root that pushes this dish along. Solid.

Then the roasted breast of quail wrapped in, I think, pancetta with pine mushrooms and what is apparently lardo (according to the take home menu). Paired with a pinot noir made for Tetsuya's by Bass Phillip, one of my favourite pinot noir makers, the dish is spectacular. The quail is juicy, flavoursome and perfect. With the delicious pine mushrooms and lardo (or whatever else it is) it has the perfect balance. I mention to my dining companion that I could eat a lot of this, but I'm being reserved. I would happily eat a bucket of this with my hands if I had a bottle or two of the wine on the side. It's the dish of the night and part of me knows it.

Lamb with eggplant next and it's good enough. The eggplant again feels like it's playing the "fat" of the dish, which is smart.

Dessert time and we kick off with a grape sorbet which is good but adds little and a warm tarte tatin, which feels related to a creme brulee. The matched botrytis reisling feels too strong for a subdued dish. And it still does for the next dish, musk melon in sauternes with black pepper, which just tastes like honeydew with a little black pepper.

Finally, a chocolate pave. It's simple but delicious, matched to a nice tokay from Seppeltsfield. Until the chai mochi as a quasi-petit four (or petit one).

Now. A couple of the dishes I may have missed an element, because the take home menu they gave us at the end was wrong. We didn't ask for it; it was part of the "experience". If we hadn't have been given the menu, the "experience" (TM?) wouldn't have been affected at all, but after giving us a menu with a couple of incorrect dishes? Forget about it. (no, we didn't go off menu at all)

Before leaving I take one last look at the spectacular Japanese garden the table overlooks and try to sum up the meal. The service was good in that every need was taken care of. But it was lacking a bit of fun; a bit of personality. Anyone can repeat the same thing table after table, night after night.

The matching wines could have been better. Some courses could have been better. Some details could have been better.

My meal was good. There is no denying that. No dish was bad and there were some really, really great dishes. But if I compare this to other restaurants I've been to across the world (or even Sydney)... there is a tangible difference between the truly "great" restaurants to Tetsuya's. In every element.

I can't see any other diners around me in the midst of euphoria. I maybe see some diners (and reviewers) that remember when Tesuya's was "the" restaurant and when the "experience" (and food) truly was world class. But the world has moved on. Just because you had a transcendental meal at Tetsuya's a couple of years ago doesn't mean it's the best now. Putting aside any emotional or histrionic attachment just makes you feel like Tetsuya' is... just another "good" fine-dining restaurant in Sydney.


RATING: Okay, may go back [?]


Tetsuya's on Urbanspoon

2 comments:

Reemski said...

Interesting review. I've eaten at Tetsuya's as a guest, not as a paying customer, so I wonder how different the experience would be. I'd love to go back, just wish my boyfriend had a more adventurous palate!

Jobe said...

I suppose it depends how you looked at it the first time. I thought overall it was good/enjoyable but compared to other places at that price point/level of regard I thought it was a bit below the bell curve.