Posted on Monday, 29th September 2008
One of the great things about dining out in restaurants in Australia is the BYO concept (bring your own). It is quite commonplace in Australia, although at the higher end of the dining scale, a corkage fee is usually charged. BYO makes dining out more affordable and of course ensures that your choice of wine is available. And should you forget to bring your own bottle or simply wish for only a cheeky glass, most restaurants have a wine list too. When dining out at a pricey establishment, this can help to ease the final heartache of the bill whilst allowing you to maintain certain dining standards.
So it was with this in mind that my sister and I tried to decide on which fine dining restaurants we wanted to feast at whilst I was in Sydney. However, we are both born with a foodie DNA, and both quite particular (although some might choose to say fussy). So indecision struck, despite a revamped approach to our dining budget, and I was left to busily browse through the Sydney Good Food Guide (2009) to try and secure a restaurant for a Friday night. Fumbling, I finally stumbled across the entry for Claude’s French Restaurant.
Claude’s French Restaurant opened in 1976, and as one might deduce from the name, serves French cuisine. I last visited Claude’s some ten years ago when it was revered as a destination restaurant. Since then it has placed a new head chef at the helm, so the Claude’s of yesteryear is no more. According to the Sydney Good Food Guide, the new chef Chui Lee Luk is the leading female chef in Australia, ‘bringing vigour and a new level of experimentation to the food’. Surely this promised to be one of the top restaurants in Sydney? My expectations were high and we set off with our own bottle in tow.
Claude’s restaurant front and dining room was as I remembered. Located in a converted terrace house in the exclusive Eastern Sydney suburb of Woollahra, it’s decorated in subdued muted greyish tones with minimalist furnishings. The dining room is relaxed in a genteel sort of way and comfortable, as comfortable as could be in a space that feels somewhat tight. Not of the modern, slinky vein, dining plates instead quirkily line the breadth of the walls as artistic features, producing an air as if from a bygone era.
We perused the menu, surprisingly somewhat undescriptive for its singular approach to describing the line-up: rabbit in puff pastry, Angus sirloin with red wine, etc. There was none of the verbosity or grandiosity in the description of the dishes that I’d been expecting or anticipating, like a game of wanton seduction before finally succumbing to the ecstasy of the food.
Eventually we settled on the eight course dégustation menu, feeling this to be a viable way to gain an insight into the range of dexterity in the cooking. Starting with an amuse bouche of mushroom soup; we were then presented with seafood tasters of mulloway (a white fish also known as jewfish) with crab mayonnaise, an oyster dumpling, and crayfish and squid with saffron sauce. Meats were duck with walnut sauce and Angus sirloin with red wine sauce.
So what of the food? The headline ingredients were well cooked: the fish perfectly crisped, the squid tender, the steak succulent. However I consistently found the sauces over salted and lacking the real clarity of flavour that one might expect from classic French cooking techniques such as sufficient reduction of the sauces. Occasionally the accompaniments of the dishes were mismatched, like the savoury of the eggplant custard that was served alongside the oyster dumpling – it subdued rather than enhanced the flavour of the latter. Similarly, the walnut sauce served with the duck was perhaps a little too heavy and a little too busy for the dish.
Dessert of pear soufflé preceded by a champagne and truffle ice-cream palate cleanser finished with blood orange granita were deliciously tasty. However, by bearing little resemblance to the taste of either pear or truffle they were disappointing in not matching the expectations purported by the menu.
So what of the service? At times, it was a little erratic, sometimes resulting in a slightly longer wait on certain courses than should have been necessary. However the wait staff were friendly and attentive, at least as attentive as could be given that there were only 2 people waiting on the 19 covers seated on my floor.
Don’t get me wrong, the overall experience was pleasant enough. The setting was relaxed, and the food tasty even if it was not clinically executed. It’s just that when food is priced at the upper echelon of Sydney fine dining one develops certain performance expectations: a wanton seduction at the beginning, a satisfactory climax at the end. At A$165 for the dégustation menu that was intended as the showpiece of Australia’s finest female cooking star, Claude’s missed a beat. At least it was BYO.
Note: Options on the wine list included French, New Zealand, American and of course Australian varietals, and ranged from about A$70 to A$600.
Claude’s French Restaurant at:
10 Oxford Street
Phone: +61 (0)2 9331 2325