Sunday, October 17, 2010

Pitch Perfect

I have always celebrated my birthday with a great meal. At home in Toronto, I would always ask my mother to make roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, roast potatoes, and all the veggie fixings. The Ex and I would go out for a meal at whatever my favourite restaurant of the day was: Il Pizzico in Maryland, Radio Maria in Illinois, Tonino in Delhi, or About Thyme in Nairobi. Just because I was on my own in Sydney for the big day this year, I saw no reason to break with the tradition of having a “Big Deal Meal.”

After much research, I narrowed down my choices to two Circular Harbour- area restaurants, both of which had recently received top honours from Australian Gourmet Traveller. I reviewed the menus of both establishments and finally decided upon lunch at Aria, which is located next door to the Sydney Opera House. Named one of the top 20 best restaurants in the country, I was excited to see if Chef Matt Moran could impress me.

I showed up without a reservation at half past one and was seated by a window with a lovely view of the Opera House. Despite the decidedly high prices, I was intrigued to note that most of the other diners were obviously businessmen on expense account lunches.

I perused the menu and tried to decide what to order. After a great deal of internal debate, I opted for the Seven Course Spring Tasting Menu. Sure I would be stuck eating Ramen Noodles for a month, but instinct told me the meal I was about to enjoy would be more than worth it.

My passion fruit martini arrived prompted and left me greatly enamored of the bartender. Unlike many restaurant cocktails, my martini had not been watered down. The lovely presentation was complimented by delicate scent of passion fruit, which wafted up with each sip. Since matching wines with my meal was beyond my budget, I opted for a lovely Viognier to accompany my meal. The wine was light with little nose to speak of, thus ensuring it did not interfere with any of the flavours the chef had lying in wait for me.

The amuse bouche was a cold vichyssoise shot with salmon mousse. The tasty soup slid down my throat with little fanfare. The soup was neither too salty nor fishy tasting, creating a perfect balance between the textures of the fluffy mouse and the silky soup; all combining for a creaminess that hit my taste buds and made me smile almost instantly. My amuse bouche arrived rather quickly after I placed my order so I politely informed my waiter that despite all the paraphernalia I had strewn about the table (my kindle, camera, note book, and a pen), it was my birthday and I was not in a rush.

The reason I like tasting menus so much is that they give me a chance to try things I might not otherwise order. Despite my culinary fears, whenever I delve into the unknown flavours of a tasting menu I’m never disappointed and am left wondering why I don’t order outside of my comfort zone more often.

So it was with my first course of tuna sashimi served with shaved fennel and radish, octopus, spicy puffed rice, and yuzu purée. The only course I forgot to photograph, it set the bar high for what was to follow in both flavour and presentation. I am not normally a fan of tuna but the contrast between the yuzu purée and the sharp bite the wasabi on the fish raised this dish from a typical plate of seared tuna to a truly unique experience. The light crunch of the puffed rice and shaved vegetables provided the perfect contrast to the soft bite of the tuna.

Perhaps my favourite course of the entire meal was the cured goose breast with chicken liver parfait, poached rhubarb, black pepper, and ginger bread. The almost Carpaccio-like goose meat provided the perfect foil to what I felt was the star of the dish – the chicken liver cigar whose texture melted on my tongue and made me long for seconds even before I finished eating.

It finally struck me as I enjoyed a bite of the eye-opening poached rhubarb that my meal wasn’t supposed to be about strong flavours or knocking me over with the marvels of meats prepared sous-vide with a side of foam. No, Chef Moran had created a menu designed to impress all aspects of my palate with a contrast of textures and mouthfeel. Mouthfeel is that elusive element that makes people cringe when they eat the sucker of an octopus or sigh with pleasure when they first taste a perfectly whipped chocolate mouse. Texture is exactly what Moran has perfected with this tasting menu – the crunch of the pastry shell around the cigar, contrasted with the sinfully smooth chicken liver, and solid bite of the goose. Each bite was pure perfection – a trend that would continue during each subsequent course.

My waiter presented me with the next course: roasted Nova Scotia scallops with a shaved Brussels sprout salad, pumpkin purée, and a raisin and caper dressing. Too many restaurants lately have become lazy about scallops and tend to serve them overcooked – not so at Aria. The caper dressing was a nice surprise of tartness with each bite of perfectly prepared scallop. The distinct and unusual raisin flavour was a revelation but not more so than the Brussels sprout salad that almost had me liking the dreaded vegetable despite myself.

The well trained and efficient wait staff never failed to impress me during my meal. Each course was explained in detail and any questions I had about what I was eating were answered patiently and knowledgeably. When I was presented with the Peking Duck Consommé with dumplings, shaved abalone, and mushrooms, for example, my waiter explained the complex techniques used to create the delicious and aromatic soup. Once again, subtle flavours seemed to be the order of the day and each spoonful of soup was gentle reminder that gluttony was one of the seven deadly sins. The mushrooms still had a nice bite to them and complimented the tasty dumplings perfectly.

The course I was most looking forward to was the Kurobuta sweet pork belly with pickled watermelon and crackling. The pork belly was tender and flavorful without being overpowered by the salt cure. The pork was, sadly, not only slightly greasy on the plate but also on my palate. When eaten in conjunction with the watermelon, however, the greasiness was countered with the natural sweetness of the fruit and formed a perfect union my mouth. I often complain about saltiness yet that was what I liked most about the crackling as I snapped each bite. As this was one of the courses I would have ordered a la carte, I was somewhat disappointed by the overall dish.

My final savory course was roasted lamb fillet with confit belly, eggplant purée, tomato and basil fondue, and a black olive sauce. My lamb was slightly overdone due in part, I believe, to my late arrival and the fact that by this time, it was nearly four o’clock. The cucumber crème cut the natural saltiness of the lamb’s jus and left me with an arrangement of flavours and textures battling for supremacy as they burst across my tongue. The brightly flavoured tomato fondue was really more of a mushy bruchetta and nicely complimented the eggplant purée, which itself was the perfect accompaniment to the lamb. This final course was truly a tour de force and demonstrated Chef Moran’s talents to their utmost.

Before I could ready myself for dessert, my palate cleanser arrived: a pineapple Piña Colada sorbet with coconut tapiocoa. It was crunchy, soft, and cold all at the same time. The vivid flavours were eclipsed only by the incredibly unique tapioca bubbles that exploded like small bombs in my mouth.

To accompany my dessert, I ordered a glass of Domaine de l’Arjolle Lyre muscato. The not overly sweet dessert wine had a strong nose and although not overly sweet reminded me of Ethiopian t’ej with its honey-like colour.

When my dessert arrived, I was appropriately amused and touched to see the chocolate “happy birthday” message on the plate complete with a candle to make my birthday wish. The Calvados ice cream, caramelized apple, almond crumble, and apple sorbet was an interesting take on the now popular “Apple Four Ways”. This was the ultimate dénouement to a meal of textures as the creaminess of the ice cream, smooth tart sorbet, biting apple, and crunchy crumble united to present a sweet assault on my taste buds.

Little did I realize as I savored the last bites of apple crumble that my meal wasn’t actually done yet. A tray bearing six petit fours with two pieces each of nougat, Turkish delight truffles, and coffee lamington was laid before me alongside a piping hot macchiato. I found the sticky nougat a little too chewy for my personal tastes. The truffle, on the other hand, was a pleasant combination of a crunchy chocolate outside with a squishy middle that made me wish I could roam around to the tables that had foolishly left their truffles behind. Finally, the small pieces of cake were delightful snatches of the lightest sponge.

Despite my short-term future as a backpacker, I talked myself into buying Matt Moran’s cookbook eponymous first cookbook. One of my pet peeves when I dine at “celebrity chef” restaurants is a lack of signed cookbooks. Even though I own them all, I would have willingly bought an extra Mario Batali or Jamie Oliver cookbook if it were signed. Yet every time I visit these chefs’ establishments, I have been told that the chefs never leave signed copies available for the public. When I discovered Chef Moran’s cookbooks were signed, I felt it was a sign and added one to my bill.

Ruth Reichl, like most great critics, believed it took multiple visits to a restaurant in order to truly gauge its weaknesses and strengths. As the critic for the New York Times, she famously visited restaurants in different disguises as part of her testing process. As an overweight tourist on her birthday, I can safely say the service and food at Aria is top notch. The lunchtime fare was exquisite from beginning to end and the service was attentive without becoming overbearing. Even when I was the only person left in the restaurant, I was assured I should linger to enjoy my coffee.

Normally, the biggest insult I can offer is the word “nice.” The Ex used to joke that “nice” was the death knell of many meals in subpar restaurants around the world. Yet at Aria, I found myself uttering the word over and over without disdain. Flavours and textures melted in my mouth and left me unable to utter anything other than the incoherent babbling of someone utterly happy and sated. The perfection of the ten courses presented to me should not be lumped as merely nice – they were sublime.


Anonymous said...

this post is beautifull written, makes me want to fly on over and experience the experience! Thanks!

illahee said...

wow, it all looks so fabulous (except the tuna, that sounded fabulous!) and happy belated birthday from me! :D

Anonymous said...

Happy Birthday! What an amazing present to give yourself. I feel very full after reading all this...

sprinkles said...

Happy Birthday! I just celebrated mine this past week too!

Growing up, birthday's were mostly just another day in my family. We'd have cake after dinner (we didn't get to choose what we wanted to eat) and open a present and that would be about it. Sometimes we wouldn't get a gift but get money instead. Once, my parents gave me $3. I'm sure that's all the cash they had but I wasn't very happy that's alls I got.

Now that I'm an adult, my mom will either take me out to dinner or make me a meal of my choice, plus a cake and a present. This year, I asked for my mom's lasagna which is one of my fave meals. During dinner, my dad said that when he was a kid, they didn't really do much of anything to celebrate it at all. They might get a cake, they might not. But my mom's family always made a big deal out of it. Which made me wonder why they never made a big deal when my brothers and I were growing up.

I didn't like most of the foods you ate but the presentation on the plate was excellent!

Anonymous said...

Wow, you do your homework. I live here, yet have never been to Aria. After a review like that, I think I must. I hope you don't review a certain BBQ you went to. Shakes.


Corinne said...

I am so hungry now. I haven't heard of the apple four ways trend (what do you expect from someone without TV in the middle of nowhere?), but it looks DELISH. Glad you had a fabuloso birthday dinner.

N said...

Happy birthday! And the meal looked exquisite!

Unknown said...

Now that looks like a fantastic birthday dinner! Happy belated birthday.

Anonymous said...

What a meal!
Definitely worth a visit when I go to Sydney.
I love the dessert..and all the other courses too.

Fida said...

Happy Birthday! I am drooling;) And so well written - glad I found my way back. I think I read through your blog for the last two hours...
Glad you look so well after yourself!

Anonymous said...

I was watching an old episode of JAG the other night--apart from the beach and mall pictures, alot of the filming was done outside a resto beside the Opera House!
I wonder....