Something happened last time I went to Bilson's. I don't think there's any other way to describe it.
I went there once and it was a superb meal; instantly one of my favourites. Then they got a new head chef and announced that they were going to serve a 15 course meal that would take around 4 hours and would cost $280--just for food.
So far so good, I suppose.
I went there expecting something similar to the first experience, but a little different and much longer. I knew there was a new head chef and saw that as a plus. And even though the new chef was only a month or so in, people were already saying that he was doing a great job.
But, man, was that shit underwhelming. Broths were added to dishes and made them a headache to eat, elements on the plate destroyed other elements, modern techniques felt added-on rather than vital to the dish, service was a little unpolished and the wine pairings didn't always match the food. One of my favourite restaurants in Sydney had become something confusing and better-off avoided.
While I kept wondering what happened, excellent reviews kept on pouring in, climaxing with the apparent return to 3 hats from the Good Food Guide. Basically, I started to doubt myself.
There was only one solution: a ~$450 roll of the die.
It started the same way it did last time, with the fish chips: dry, crisp chips made from fish and potato, served with a tartare that is fairly inconsequential, with the chips being tasty and salty enough on their own without a punch of vinegar to go with it. This time, however, the chips seem thinner and crispier; less like the legs of soft shell crabs like last time.
An amuse bouche arrives and it catches me off guard. I'm probably getting this wrong, but I think it was a sweet potato mousse with ginger, miso, croutons, black sesame cake and a couple of other things. It was fucking brilliant. Flavourwise it was perfect. But, more relevantly, the dish worked in the bowl. It was texturally brilliant. Every element played it's role to perfection. This was nothing like last time. And it was only the amuse bouche. So much better than the coconut and garlic amuse served last time. A good sign.
The next three dishes that follow were fairly similar to dishes served last time.
The starter of oyster, king crab, apple cous cous and yogurt works a lot better on the second take. The compressed apple, celery and (I think) finger lime were balanced perfectly, whereas last time they ruined the texture of the dish by being in large chunks. There's a buzz of chilli which is almost profound. The flavour and heat of red chilli is, strangely, well matched to the mineral flavours of the oyster. A staggering amount of work has gone into making the many elements work together and it really pays off.
The dish that pissed me off the most last time is back and it's barely changed. The raw and barely cooked prawn parts are great. And the fried (I think) quinoa adds a nice texture. But I find that the consomme that gets added at the table to be really confusing and just ruin the way the dish eats. It makes the quinoa soggy--but not soggy enough to make it texturally interesting--and on a relatively flat plate with a relatively flat spoon, it eats poorly. It's not a bad dish, but it's not a great dish.
The slight reworking of the carrot, calamari, shaved macadamia and cocoa is, however, a great dish. Somewhat forgettable and confusing last time, it's reworked the balance of the elements and become outstanding. Everything on it makes sense and the combination of the shaved macadamia with the sweetness of the carrot and calamari is bang on. The matching wine is a cracker--an aromatic, almondy pigato--and takes the dish to the next level, giving the dish a buttery but clean finish.
Enter The Marron. I don't recall the next dish--marron with a rectangle of butternut pumpkin, milk foam and mandarin puree--from last time. If it had have been served I'm certain I would have, because it's awesome. Great textures, super marron, a foam that makes sense and that mandarin puree in combination with the flax seeds atop the marron holds all of the flavours together.
Egg yolk with truffled chicken soup and cauliflower is nice but is difficult to eat in the same way that the prawn dish is due to the barely cooked yolk that oozes all over the plate once punctured. Ever tried to eat some egg yolk off a plate with a fork? Fairly frustrating. It's like that. The truffles barely come across and aren't really necessary. The dish is better than what I remember of last time--and certainly isn't "bad"--but it still isn't one of the better dishes, despite promising a luxurious experience on paper. The saving grace is the brilliant matching wine that cuts through the cloyingness of the yolk but still allows the dish the richness it requires.
Smoked mackeral with salsify, jerusalem artichoke, rosemary and citrus banishes any bad thoughts. It's perfectly balanced, well-textured and beautifully flavoured. Oddly, the star of the dish is the powdered citrus, which holds all of the flavours together. It's a contender for dish of the night.
The next dish--inspired by chef Munoz's time at El Bulli--is just insane. It's a rich, parmesan-laden polenta, spherified, along with fried zucchini flower petals, hazelnuts and some pieces of baby zucchini. Fucking incredible. A rich polenta is great on it's own, but to have it contained in a gnochi-like morsel that explodes in your mouth is something special. Along with some texture from the crisp zucchini flower petals and hazelnuts and the flavour of the hazelnut and baby zucchini rounds out everything perfectly. Thanks for ruining polenta for me forever. It WAS my one of my favourite things before this dish set the bar WAY too high for me.
The mushroom and quail dishes that follow are also excellent, rounding out a spectacular middle of the menu. If every dish was like the middle section of dishes you'd have a contender for best restaurant in the country, if not the goddamn hemisphere.
A plate with pears arrives and a hare jus is poured. Like the prawn and egg yolk dishes, it eats poorly. Eating a jus/broth/consomme with their thin spoon is fairly unrewarding. Balance wise, I felt the chunks of pear were a bit strong for the hare jus. Although the small brushing of oloroso sherry add a nice depth to the flavour. Another saving grace was, again, the wine pairing. The DJP mencia was best mates with the hare jus, taking both to new heights.
The final savoury course is the wagyu shank--cooked for something like 30 hours--with kipfler potatoes and a watercress puree. It's almost like mashed potatoes and corned beef, but significantly better. A really nice dish that looks tremendous on the plate. Last time I really hated the wine match which was some sort of red and got totally blown away by the rich potato mash. I'm still not blown away by the red that is matched this time.
The cheese course takes the form of mascarpone with beetroot, orange and white sesame. A brilliant and refreshing dish after the rich beef dish. The mascarpone is perfectly flavoured and the other elements add good flavour and texture to the dish.
"Citrus" is the first dish and replaces the rose, raspberry and white chocolate dish from last time that I felt ate poorly. It's brilliant and, yes, citrussy. Citrus in all it's guises, put into plenty of different forms. Great flavour, great texture and eats so much better than last time. And very, very citrussy.
"Equatorial" finishes things off. A gooey chocolate fondant covered in coffee mousse, chocolate sauce and chocolate snow. Chocolate and coffee on an extreme, rich scale. Good flavours but I don't like the way it eats. A fondant covered in sauce doesn't really work. And the chocolate snow on the side of the bowl feels added on. There's no denying that there were some great elements on the plate (or bowl, as it were) but for me I think it needs a bit of a rework if it wants to be on the same tremendous level as some of those savoury courses.
It all concludes with the chocolate box--a box filled with chocolates and an edible base, which you can't really eat because it doesn't taste great--which I refuse to accept as a course because it's basically just petit fours, which isn't normally (ever) considered a course.
I leave around three and a half hours after I began, shaking my head. The turnaround from my last meal is incredible. The food is, generally, exceptional. The wine pairings are often inspiring. The staff now appear to be brimming with pride in their food and are well represented by sommelier Richard Hargreaves who is as passionate about the restaurant as he is likeable as he is great at matching wines.
I now rate Bilson's up with Marque and Quay as Sydney's best fine-dining restaurants. Better than Sepia, better than .est, better than Bentley. More importantly, Bilson's is better than I've ever seen Bilson's before. They're on a great path here.
RATING: Will return to [?] (promotion from 'Okay, may go back')