After a great start to our “wedding gifts from generous friends” dining adventures with a high tea in Coogee, our next stop was a romantic Valentine’s Day lunch at Quay. Gifted by my wonderful colleagues at JDRF, the surprise was organised by my wonderful manager who had messaged K with “We’d like to get you guys a wedding present, but mainly the present is for Amanda not you, so where do you think she would like to eat?”
It was a wonderful surprise, and not one that I had anticipated – a meal at one of Australia’s top restaurants!
Quay is well known in Australian culinary circles of course. Peter Gilmore is known for wanting to take each of his diners on “a journey” and is renowned for his meticulous planning and preparation. He’s so earnest about the importance of pre-preparation in fact, that someone I knew was once turned away as she had hoped to do a walk-in but had some rather challenging dietary restrictions that Peter felt he couldn’t cater for on short notice. That’s dedication to his craft!
While it can be difficult to get an evening booking at Quay unless you book months in advance, we managed to get a lunch booking on Valentine’s Day without much hassle. There was a cruise ship in port on the day which hampered the view to the Opera House, but we were still in prime position with a beautiful view across to the Harbour Bridge.
Seating us with a flourish, our waiters for the day (we had three or four different waiters serve us which was a little bit strange) came out with menus, orders, a dainty beetroot amuse bouche and drinks all in quick order. It was to be honest, quite a bit more brisk than I’m used to at similar ‘fancy’ restaurants – though not rushed, a romantic Valentine’s Day weekend lunch certainly wasn’t enjoyed at the leisurely pace that I would have wished.
K and I both opted for the full degustation, though without the matching wines option. I’m still not drinking alcohol, and K wanted to stay sober enough to enjoy everything in full. I enjoyed two of Quay’s mocktails though, and K had two glasses of wine that were suggested by the sommelier as good matches.
The first course of the degustation was a raw (smoked) Wagyu tartare-style dish, with a good serving of lightly spiced horseradish cream and shaved funghi that imparted a strong earthy flavour to the dish. Beautifully presented, and even me with my usual aversion to raw meat enjoyed it!
The mud crab congee was definitely my choice of the day! The strong but clear seafood broth, tender mud crab, soft rice grains and slightly salty egg yolk emulsion combined into a dish that was a pure indulgence of flavours, while still showing elements of the simple home-cooking style of congee.
I make a lot of fish and seafood congee at home for K and I, but never ever have I ever been successful in making congee as simply delicious as this dish. Peter Gilmore, teach me your secrets!
The XO marron is a real piece of theatre in an otherwise conservative meal. A bowl of lightly cooked marron is set in front of you, with thinly shaved baby radishes and other garnishes. It looks simple, until another waiter comes along with a small iron kettle, in which is brewed the strongest XO sauce mix I’ve ever tasted. With a theatrical flourish of the wrist, the XO sauce is poured all over the marron.
What’s left in front of you is a once-simply garnished dish of top-quality marron, now a rich seafood dish that delights the senses with the rich spicy sauce blend. The tender marron meat is superbly enhanced by this addition, especially when eaten in a single mouthful with some of the crispy radish garnish.
Now this I found unusual – the top-quality sourdough bread is only brought out to your table with a little curl of butter and sea salt on the side when you’ve finished the first three courses. I’m more used to enjoying my bread at the start of the meal, but I guess the benefit of having bread a little bit later is that you don’t fill up too quickly after only the first few courses.
Quay’s hatted version of a ‘Surf and Turf’ is as good as you would imagine – the pig jowl has been slow-cooked to tender melt-in-your-mouth goodness, and the thinly sliced scallops almost dissipate on your tongue as soon as you place it in your mouth. The roasted rice and seaweed lends an interesting crunchiness to the dish, and surprisingly, the broth is not too rich – a nice contrast to the rich XO marron course.
At this point, I look at the time and I’m surprised by how quickly we’ve gotten through the first few courses. Our dining neighbours on another table have already left, but we’ve already finished four of the final eight courses. It’s only 1.30pm, and I feel a little bit rushed.
Our next is a lightly (poached?) piece of whiting which would be all-around unremarkable if it wasn’t for the interesting small ‘native coastal greens’ that garnished the dish. I don’t know very much about edible native plants, but I know that they made a remarkable addition to this dish. Unfortunately the rest of it was less than impressive – the whiting itself wasn’t anything remarkable, and the smoked oyster crackling on top was actually a bit too strong especially when eaten with the strong oyster sauce on the base of the dish.
The duck was another matter! I’ve never had duck quite this succulent before – tender, strongly flavoured and lacking any of that dryness that can mar most ambitious duck dishes. The ice plant buds were an interesting garnish as well – the tiny frozen droplets on the buds were extremely beautiful.
The famous Quay Snow Egg is on the must-try list for many people. It’s been on Quay’s menu almost since it first opened, but the legend of the Snow Egg really hit the mainstream when Peter Gilmore appeared on Masterchef over five years ago and set the Guava Snow Egg as a challenge for that year’s contestants.
It’s a piece of dessert engineering that leaves most in its dust – something of true beauty that has to be seen in person to be fully enjoyed. The flavour changes with the seasons – we were the first to try the plum snow egg on its first day on the menu (previously cherry over summer), and I can report that I nearly wept with happiness as I ate it. The custard cream, the granita, the smooth gelato…it’s a masterpiece.
The Snow Egg is a hard act to follow, and I find the Chocolate Ethereal that comes out as our last course just that little bit lacking as a result. While I’m sure Peter Gilmore has his reasons for sending the Snow Egg out as the first dessert, I would have suggested that it would make a more appropriate show-stopping final course that really sticks in the minds of his diners.
That’s not to say that the Chocolate Ethereal was a bad dish – it certainly wasn’t! I’d be absolutely over the moon if I was served it for dessert at any other establishment…but it does seem very ordinary after the remarkable snow egg.
With our meal over, we kick back with a cappuccino for K and a jasmine tea for me to enjoy the view and to share our excitement over the meal that we just enjoyed.
While it’s certainly not late as it’s only 3.30pm by my watch, we can sense that the mood at Quay is changing. We’re one of only a few tables left still sitting back and enjoying the view with leisurely sips of our beverages.
Even the beauty of my jasmine tea bud expanding in the glass teapot can’t shake the feeling that the wait staff are waiting for us to leave. Maybe it’s the clearing of tables and tablecloths around us, or the young waiter ironing the new tablecloths at a table right next to us, or the regular check-ins from another waiter (is there anything else I can get you?) but there’s certainly the hint that our romantic Valentine’s Day lunch is coming to a rapid close.
We can take a hint! We quickly eat our petit-fours, call for the bill and make our way away from Quay.
Despite the sourness of the final rushed ending of our meal, there’s no denying that Quay is a wonderful experience. The views can’t be beat, and there are more than a handful of standout dishes on offer on the elaborate degustation menu – from iconic dishes like the snow egg to quiet champions like the mud crab congee.
It is a big price to pay for a meal that lasts only two and a half hours though – at over $300 per person for the degustation and two drinks, you could reasonably expect to have the opportunity to stay longer, linger over your meal, and continue enjoying your hatted dining experience.
As lovely as Quay is, I don’t think we’ll be back unless the menu was to change dramatically. My favourite hatted restaurant in Sydney is still Ormeggio at the Spit – at around $200 per person for a seven course degustation and drinks, service that allows you to linger over your meal for four hours, and one constant waiter who you get to know rather than a rotating door of different wait staff…well, it’s no contest really.