Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Sydney Gastronome: Marque degustation

Coming in to land in Sydney

Fantasy weekend of opulence in Sydney with best-friend-K and my dear Californian friend Sam, who finally came to visit me in Australia. Sammy's visit with me started with three fun but drizzly weekdays in Melbourne, so naturally Sydney - beautiful tart that she is - turned on some dazzlingly sunny weekend weather.

Luna Park Sydney

Several months ago I'd impulse-bought tickets for b-f-K and me to see Cate Blanchett and Joel Edgerton in the STC production of A Streetcar Named Desire (which we LOVED, by the way), so we'd been planning this weekend for some time.

As good luck would have it, my Sydney uncle and his wife were going away that same weekend, and they very generously offered to let us stay in their Milsons Point apartment in their absence. Their apartment is just next to Luna Park, in the rounded building with blueish windows at the right of the above photo.

The apartment has THE most spectacular view of Sydney Harbour.


Part of the planning for this weekend involved liaising with my charming Sydney friend J (aka Beatch) about choosing an appropriately fabulous Saturday night dinner venue. We decided on the degustation at Marque. In the end our reservation swelled to eight: me, Beatch and his girlfriend Z, "cousin" K and his girlfriend F, b-f-K, Sammy and last but certainly not least Naval Lieutenant Levi, Sammy's travel companion in Australia.

Everyone came over at 6:30pm for champagne on the apartment balcony. Just an ordinary Saturday afternoon drink, really (!).

Veuve on the balcony

355 Crown Street, Surry Hills, NSW (map)
(02) 9332 2225


I'd been pretty impressed reading about Ed's take on Marque, then doubly curious when Marque chef Mark Best was adjudged SMH Chef of the Year. The degustation was not cheap - $145 per head, with matching wines a further $75 per head - but was impressive enough to justify the price tag. I was slightly disappointed to see an absence of Australian wines on our menu, but not complaining about the quality of the overseas wines we did have.

The interior was sleek and sexy. Loved the softly glowing lights on each table - they looked like dinosaur eggs.


First up was the chaud-froid free range egg, a dish Mark Best credits to Alain Passard, circa 1998. It reminded me a lot of Eric Ripert's Egg that I had a few months ago at Le Bernardin, but this one was even more of a expedition through Flavour Country. I can't remember all the ingredients but they included at least cream, maple syrup, vinegar and chives as well as the egg itself and two salt-encrusted grissini... very anorexic soldiers to dip into the egg. It was sweet, salty, sour, hot and cold all at once.

Chaud-froid free range egg

The next dish was as much an expedition through Texture Country as through Flavour Country: a cone of almond jelly with morsels of blue swimmer crab buried underneath, almond gazpacho, sweet corn, a glob of avruga and popcorn dust sprinkled on top. Almond with blue swimmer crab was a flavour combination that at first sounded like all kinds of wrong to me, but DAMMIT IT WORKED. B-f-K's favourite dish. It was served with a glass of 2007 Alzinger Grüner Veltliner (Wachau, Austria) - grüner veltliner is rapidly becoming my favourite new varietal.

Almond jelly with blue swimmer crab, almond gazpacho, sweet corn and avruga

Next up was smoked octopus with mustard (in sorbet form), dill, watercress oil and ink, served with the 2007 Yves Cuilleron Saint-Peray 'Les Poitiers' (Rhône Valley, France). Apart from the crazy mustard sorbet, I can't say this dish did much for me.

It was followed by steamed scampi with 'fish floss', scampi anglaise custard and tiny cubes of turnip soaked in bitter bitter Campari. The nuggets of scampi were lovely and juicy and I liked the cleverly-disguised thin discs of mushroom on top. I get that the bitter turnip cubes were meant to be a contrast with the sweetness of the scampi, but the bitterness was just a bit too sharp for our tastes. This dish was accompanied by the 2007 Brookfields Gerwürztraminer (Hawkes Bay, NZ).

Smoked octopus with mustard, dill, watercress and inkSteamed scampi with fish floss, scampi anglaise, campari and turnip

I'd been slightly underwhelmed by the previous two dishes but boy oh boy was I overwhelmed by the next dish. For starters, feast your eyes on the photo below:

White asparagus, morel, parmesan and potato

Visually spectacular, or what?! I couldn't resist clapping my hands together with glee as it was placed before me. "It's.... gorgeous!" chirruped somebody. "It looks like Stonehenge!" chimed another. "No, it looks like the Twelve Apostles!" replied one of our international visitors. For me, it immediately made me think of the towers of San Gimignano (because I am, after all, a half-Italian pretentious tosser).

So what was it? Segments of new season white asparagus, with flavour!flavour!flavour! Victorian morels, dabs of parmesan custard and transluscent leaves of purple potato paper perched on top of some of the columns of segmented asparagus. Served with my favourite wine of the night, the intriguing 2008 Felton Road 'Vin Gris' (Central Otago, NZ). While it's made from 100% pinot noir grapes, the juice of the freshly crushed grapes is immediately bled off, so the wine is golden coloured with a very faint pink tinge.

White asparagus, morel, parmesan and potato

Next up was the slow cooked pork jowl with spinach, sesame and Pacific oyster, matched with a glass of 2006 Ànima Negra Àn-2 Callet/Montenegro/Shiraz (Mallorca, Spain - I had no idea that Mallorca produced any wines of note!).

This was followed by the wagyu sirloin with black olive, Earl Grey ash, burnt cucumber, onion and green shallot purée, matched with the 2007 Conterno Fantino Barbera d'Alba (Piedmont, Italy).

Both meat dishes were fabulous, if less show-stopping-SPECTACULAR than the previous asparagus and morel dish. The elegant Barbera was my second-favourite wine of the night.

Slow cooked pork jowl with spinach and Pacific oysterWagyu sirloin with black olive, Earl Grey ash, burnt cucumber and onion

We were then given the option of an additional cheese course, which about half of us selected. It was Roquefort Papillon, served with honey jelly, crazy deep fried capers and dukkah. Served a glass of 2008 Ronco del Gelso Malvasia (Isonzo del Friuli, Italy). The menu we were given to take home at the end of the night, however, failed to mention what I thought was the most remarkable element of the cheese dish: the scoop of radicchio sorbet. LOVED it. Excuse the photo - we'd already started eating it before I remembered to pull out my camera!

The Sauternes custard, which came out unaccompanied by wine, was perfect. Simple and perfect.

Papillon Roquefort cheese with honey jelly, capers and dukkahSauternes custard

The other dessert I was less sure about. Goats cheese spheres, white chocolate powder, sorrel and lemon sorbet. Maybe it's because I was getting palate fatigue, but it felt like this dish was trying too hard to hit all of our buttons at once: sharply contrasting bizzarro flavours, the molecularlicious spherification AND powder thing in the same dish, etc. It was served with a glass of chestnut marble (pages, liqueur de Châtaigne and lime marble).

Finally, after several enjoyable hours, petits fours were offered. Similar to the ones I had recently at The Point, there were salted caramel chocolates and bitter bon bons. I didn't hear the waiter's warning to handle the bon bons carefully - they were fragile with a very liquid centre - so I reached for one only to have it explode spectacularly in my hand!

Goats cheese, white chocolate, sorrel and lemon sorbetSalted caramel chocolates and bitter bon bons

So there you have it. It was challenging food, not meant to be necessarily crowd-pleasing, but pretty damn special. Oh, and it goes without saying that the service was exemplary. Bravo!


cloudcontrol said...

It all looks like fun for the mouth. The seond dessert (the one you weren't so sure about) reminds me a lot of the desserts that Monsieur Truffe were serving, before the dessert chef went on hiatus - is he back yet? - only the presentation at Monsieur Truffe was better.

Anna said...

I really enjoy reading about your degustation menu adventures - I've never been to a high end degustation myself so it's a bit of a vicarious pleasure!

I have some really daggy questions to ask because a couple of things put me off going to something like this and I just NEED to know, so I don't commit some sort of faux pas...

The first is, with so many matched wines, is it improper to drink it all? Do you just have a little of each so you don't walk out of the restaurant belligerant and stumbly, or do other people have a much higher alcohol tolerance than me?!

The second is, I always find dining with large groups (like 8 people) difficult to sort the bill out with - do high end places like this let you all pay separately or do you have to all hit up the ATM for over $200 each before you go??

One day when I'm not a poor student I hope that I have a grand enough lifestyle to not have to ask questions like these :-) By the way, love your blog and your dining enthusiasm!

Reemski said...

Have dined at Marque twice now, once with Ben Shewry behind the range and both times I would explain it much as you have, challenging, interesting food.

But tell me lovely, how are your photos so amazing!? I've found the place so damned dark i couldn't get anything decent. Check out my flickr for proof!

claire said...

Cloudcontrol: Alas, I didn't get around to trying the famous Monsieur Truffe desserts degustation before Pierre Roelofs went on hiatus. Suggest checking this site for updates!

Hi Anna - glad you like the blog and don't think that your questions are daggy! :)

1) I wouldn't say it's improper to drink all of the matched wines, it depends on how well you hold your alcohol. I've grown up in a wine-loving household (we used to own a share in a vineyard), so I've always had a fairly high tolerance and I tend to drink all of the wine I've paid for. In these circumstances, the volumes they pour for you tend to be a bit less than if you were ordering wine by the glass.

But what you might like to do in this situation though is what my friend Miss T did when we had the degustation with matching wines at the Royal Mail Hotel last weekend (coming soon to Melbourne Gastronome!!) - she told the sommelier that she'd just like 3 or 4 wines over the course of the meal (say, one sparkling, one white, one red and one dessert), and asked him to design a mini matched wine menu for her, with her paying for each wine by the glass. He happily obliged, and she made each glass last for two courses.

2) Eight is the maximum number of people I like to dine with. Any more than six and the reconciliation of the bill becomes SO DAMN TEDIOUS. It helps if you can be organised enough to get everyone to bring cash in advance.

From memory in this case, we split the bill evenly over four credit cards and worked it out in pairs. Everyone ordering the same priced degustation helped (though a few of us had ordered Negronis before the meal, which meant a bit of extra adding and subtracting).

Reemski my dear, it's very sweet of you to say my photos are amazing! But me, I'm NEVER satisfied with my low level lighting (LLL) photographs. I really wish I had a better camera that performed better in LLL - photos like the LLL ones Abstract Gourmet took on his recent visit to Melbourne make me practically weep with jealousy.

That said, I use every trick in the book to take the best photos I can with my pocket-sized Panasonic DMC-FX38! Choose the best-lit seat, hold the camera very steady (duh!), adjust the exposure, frame to include background ambient light and macro the hell out of it, are all tricks I've used in LLL. And of course, avoid flash like the plague. Plus I sometimes tweak the exposure settings in post-production.

My 30th birthday is in January - really hoping some kindly soul will give me a camera with a sexy lens :)

Ed said...

Wish for the Canon with the $3,000 f1.4 lens.Great pics.

tzu-yen said...

I found your blog but searching hicory smoke... lead me to Attica. I wanted to buy some powder form for my BBQ tomorrow but can't find any.

Wow, that white asparagus looks sensational. I love to see plating that just makes you go WOW again!

Anna, that is a really good question. I think restaurants with these expensive degustation menus should actually volunteer (quietly) to the host that split bill is welcome. People should not be expected to get out of the way and carry hundreds of dollars in cash to come to these restaurants.

I was recently in Sydney as well and had dinner at Yoshii. It was fantastic too.

claire said...

I'm wishin' and hopin', Ed. I have lens envy.

Thanks for the comments, tzu-yen! Plating is by no means everything, but I do love a fabulously-presented dish that also tastes amazing :)

ecumer said...

Hi Claire,

I have an etiquette question about restaurant photography. Do you ask permission before shooting or is it just assumed? I have conniptione every time I pull out the humble Olympus at someone else's table and often can't even bring myself to do so at high end places.



claire said...

Hi Ecumer
In terms of camera etiquette, I can only speak for myself. The only place I've ever asked the staff permission to photograph was at Le Bernardin, more out of deference to the VIPs who were taking me out to lunch more than anything. Permission was of course granted with a warm smile.
But otherwise, I normally just take the photos without asking. In the 2.5 years since I've been blogging I like to think I've become rather adept at taking photos quickly and discreetly: I never use flash; I don't huddle over the camera but rather extend my arms, hold it up to the food and look in the camera screen; I wait until the waiter/waitress has left the table; and I use a camera that's small enough to fit into my jeans pocket.
Out of all the places I've visited, not once have I been told off or asked to put the camera away: I think (particularly with high end restaurants) food photography is becoming so mainstream that it doesn't seem worth making a fuss over, provided the photographer is discreet enough to not bother other customers. If any restaurant did want to ban my little camera I'd probably suspect they knew their food wasn't up to scratch and deserved a bad review!
All that said, however, I may revise my camera policy if I do end up getting a big chunky camera. They're a lot more anti-social (for my dining companions as well as other customers), and I imagine I'd only feel comfortable using it in circumstances where the lighting is too dim for my pocket camera, or where I'm with a bunch of food bloggers so feel less self-conscious.
What's your take on it?

cloudcontrol said...

Hahaha you should've seen it when Phil, Penny, Henry and I went to Hung Vuong in Footscray for pho. It was camera central.

Adski said...

Hey Claire,
Nice to hear your view on cameras in restaurants. I'm always keen to hear what equipment other people use for their blogs and how they feel about taking the actual photos.
Back in the day when i first started blogging, I didn't mind pulling the camera out so much because not many people knew about blogging or bloggers. But these days, it seems everyone in Melbourne is a food blogger of sorts. So these days, I feel a little bit more apprehensive about taking photos in a restaurant.
I use one of 3 different cameras when I'm out.
Iphone: My absolute last resort. The photos are crap and I hate posting them to my blog, but sometimes I've either just forgotten to bring another camera or went out for an impromptu meal.
Canon Digital Ixus 65: This camera is ok, but I don't love it. The main reason I'd use this is to be inconspicuous, probably at a restaurant where I'd feel slightly embarrassed taking photos. Maybe somewhere dark and formal like Ezard.
Canon 40D: This camera is my baby. If I could, I'd take every single photograph with this camera. I have 2 lenses which I love and are perfect for food photography. One is the 24-70mm, which is about $1800 new. This is one big lens and to take this out, you might as well set up a photography studio at your table. It takes amazing photos (IMO) if you check out my blog, it's quite obvious which lens took the nice looking pics. The other lens I use is the 50mm 1.8. This lens will only set you back about $100, but for it's price is an amazing lens and works pretty well in low lighting. However you usually need to up the ISO a bit. This lens is tiny, unassuming and fits in the palm of your hand. A lot less embarrassing to take out with you.

When I'm taking my pics at restaurants I ALWAYS wait until the wait staff have left and are preferably not watching me. I get a bit self conscious when taking restaurant pics. Usually my little trick is to have the camera out before I've even ordered and will flick through the photos on the camera with my dining partner and maybe even take a few snaps of each other. The reason I do that is, I like to give the wait staff the impression that I didn't get the camera out just for the purpose of taking photos of their food, more just to record the night. Do I sound paranoid? Or do other bloggers think the same way?
The only time I've ever been asked about my camera or more specifically asked NOT to take photos, was at Jacques Reymond. Apparently there are these people out there called 'bloggers' and they take terrible photos and post them on the internet. Well, that's what the waiter told me anyway. You can read more about that in my review.
If you're looking at getting your first food photography lens, I'd highly recommend the 50mm f1.8. It's cheap, has amazing DOF and works great in low light situations. Fit that onto something like a canon 400D and you have a great little reasonably inconspicuous restaurant setup.

fennb said...

On the topic of camera policies and food bloggers, I've been musing about "The perfect food blogger's camera".

Obviously, you could rock up with a Canon 5D mk II with a 17mm tilt-shift lens, but that's likely heading towards the point where the restaurant (or for that matter, other punters) my start caring - it would be big and somewhat loud (and inconvenient). It would also cost $6500.

So, what small, compact camera would be perfect for food?

Basically, the features you want are good macro/wide angle and excellent low light performance.

Two cameras instantly spring to mind:

1) The new Canon G11. It has less megapixels than it's older sibling, which was purposefully done to provide extended ISO (12800) low-light performance that canon has until now restricted to DSLRs.


Samples: http://www.flickr.com/groups/1095006@N23/pool/

2) The Ricoh GR Digital 3. This camera has a fixed length lens (so no zoom) BUT is 28mm (perfect for food/restaurant interiors) and can go as fast as f/1.9 (that's fast). This should make it great for low light/closeups, which is perfect for food.

Sample: http://www.flickr.com/photos/min626/4068242050/

Both cameras can shoot RAW (afaik) which is hugely helpful for low-light situations and both cost $500-$600.

I have no personal experience with either of these, but interested in people's experiences/opinions as it might help other keen food bloggers make a decision :)

Ed Charles said...

Fennb, I've got the GR Digital 2 which is pretty amazing especially it's macro with a tiny focal length which is ideal for close up restaurant shooting. I wish for the GR3 because of the f.1.9.

The Ricoh's also have a great build quality too.

momijitomitsukoshi said...

Far out!! That looks so divine! Makes me want to cry!

claire said...

Fellas, I've moved the camera etiquette and other camera discussion to a new post (here). Thanks for your comments!

Sorry if it makes you want to cry, momijitomitsukoshi - that wasn't quite my intention! :)

Esz said...

What an incredible meal :-) That asparagus dish is so amazing! I am glad you answered Anna's questions about degustations because I had been wondering the same things! Especially about the wine!

Anonymous said...

cloud control - I see "versions" of Pierre Roelof's desserts all about the place. Seems he's leading the Aussie dessert pack.

Just learned the other day that he has a dessert workshop in the MFWF. 3 desserts and matching wine for only $50!

For further information and bookings follow the link to the MFWF website-