Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Yardsticking: Marque and Sepia

It's all well and good for me to fly over to foreign destinations and eat foreign destination food and say "hey, this foreign destination food is nice!" but it's kind of useless if I don't have anything to compare it to.

Don't get me wrong--I've eaten at a lot of Sydney's best restaurants, eaten at some of Melbourne's notable names, and eaten my way through New York's fine dining institutions--but it doesn't provide a clear comparison to what I'm going to be eating in a few weeks (days?).

I saw a definition of the Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide's hats the other day, which provided the comparison I needed:

3 chef hats is supposed to be on par with the best in the world and 2 hats are worthy of a detour, which is pretty much the same definition that gets applied to the Michelin stars.

Great, then hats should equal Michelin stars. Unless the Sydney Morning Herald is lying to me. And they wouldn't lie to me, would they?

I've eaten at a good amount of the hatted restaurants, but I needed something fresh in my mind. Thankfully, this week was time for the 2011 Good Food Guide awards and hats to be handed out.

Chef of the Year, and upgrade from 1 to 2 hats: Martin Benn at Sepia.
Restaurant of the Year, one of only 3 remaining 3-hat restaurants: Marque.

I should go to them.

So I did.

I'd had the business lunch at Sepia beforeand was keen to go back and try other options.

Once again, the service was flawless. I love that it puts out serious, serious food, but you walk in and feel right at home.

Started with the steak tartare, which was pretty much great. Topped with soft-boiled quail eggs for a bit of added lusciousness. I polished that off without too much trouble.

Then the kitchen sent out a spanner crab and buckwheat "risotto", which was topped with what tasted like a bouillabaisse foam. An excellent dish, an explosion of flavour and a real excitement as far as texture goes.

The main was mulloway with asparagus and a sauce I didn't pay attention to. It was nice, but just like the steak main last time, didn't blow me away.

$55 for all of that was top value, but next time I go back it will be for the degustation. I don't think I can pass judgement on Sepia until I've tasted it at full flight.

When the awards were being presented, I decided that I was going to try and get a booking at the restaurant of the year the night before leaving for Europe. I was secretly hoping that the restaurants I had no chance of getting a table at with so short notice wouldn't win. If the likes of Rockpool of Quay had won I was going to go to Sepia for dinner.

But Marque won, didn't it.

I called the restaurant as soon as I saw it announced on Twitter and was a little surprised when I got a table without too much fuss.

So I hauled my fat arse up Albion Street tonight after work and took a seat in Marque, sweating profusely.

What was I expecting from Marque? I was expecting it to be very good. Great even. But I didn't think it was going to be better than the meals I had at Quay and Bilson's, which were spectacular.

I was so, so, so wrong.

It started off well with the Alain Passard (he of 3-star l'Arpege, where I'll be eating at in Paris) chaud-froud egg. An uncomplicated starter that fired up the tongue.

2 dishes followed, and they were real "wow" moments (yes, apparently they do exist). Almond jelly with blue swimmer crab was just a delight of texture. Soft, creamy, yet slightly unyielding. And then there was the cured bonito with smoked foie gras. Fuck me, what a combination. A bit of lardo to add smokiness and gherkin to provide crispness to cut the richness of the fish and foie gras. Just wow.

At this point I was thinking it was downhill.

Next up, scampi cooked in what appeared to be a heavily spiced butter, with roasted baby cos lettuce and lemon curd. I tried the scampi, too buttery almost, but still tasting of scampi despite the heavy spicing, which was good. The roasted cos, yep, nice, okay. The lemon curd, tart. But put all of them together and it was nothing short of extraordinary. The lemon curd cut through the buttery scampi PERFECTLY (emphasis) and the roasted cos added a nice smokey flavour. This dish was so perfectly executed that I shook my head in disbelief.

At this point I'm going to stop being so effusive and finish in dot point form:
- Then vegetables in a ham consomme with pea dust. Genius. I tried to deconstruct a pea and ham soup a while ago and failed. This succeeds.
- Roast duck with a sort of reassembled eggplant and yoghurt. On their own, nice (perfect duck, the best I've ever had?), together amazing. Amazing.
- Amazing.

And it just kept coming. There were more courses, every single one of them was incredible. No meal had every delivered so many perfect dishes. Every course was a wow moment.

The venison with beetroot. Did he read my mind? I wanted to make that dish but had no idea how to approach it. It was like Mark Best was cooking my dreams.

The optional/addition cheese and truffle course? You have to get that.

What Marque are doing is profound (homoerotic phrase?). The dishes aren't overcomplicated like a lot of other restaurants. There are a few elements on the plate, but they work so, so perfectly.

This is Australian cuisine right now. There were nods to molecular, nods to France, to Spain, there was a casual dining feel to it, there were the nods to tradition, the Australian "thing" of putting seemingly incongruent flavours together.

I've had great meals in Australian restaurants, but they didn't get it this good. Every dish was exactly how it should be.

As I left, one of the waiters (excellent, no-fuss service from everyone) asked me if I enjoyed my meal.

I worry that I enjoyed it TOO much.

How can food be better than that? I can't fathom it.

Am I about to blow wads of cash on inferiority, just to confirm my suspicions that the best meal in the world is a 10 minute drive away?

Marque on Urbanspoon Sepia on Urbanspoon


g said...

On a smaller scale, how do you rate Sydney hats vs Melbourne hats? Personally (based on limited experience of about 3 or 4 Melbourne restaurants), I found Sydney hats to be stronger. Movida was great, but 2 hats? We also tried another place called The Grand which has a hat down there. It was good, but I doubt it'd make the grade up here. In saying that though, Momo (2 hats) was completely fucking mind-blowing - as good if not better than my experiences at Balzac (which had 2 hats when i went) or Sepia.

Jobe said...

I didn't pay much attention to the hats when I was down there really so it's hard to say. But my impression was that we have a LOT more top end restaurants, which pushes the ratings for other things down. But they have some medium-range places doing awesome things.

But it's all kind of a bit screwy. All up I'd say it's probably roughly similar but there are definitely exceptions.