I’ve been neglecting this blog of late. In retrospect, I can appreciate that over the past few months, I’ve become a social hermit of sorts and took a long hiatus from all my usual routines, including snatching a moment or two for blogging. A few significant life changes lie at the center of this – leaving my old workplace and embarking on a new role in a new industry had me working long hours and busy learning the ropes again as I frantically tried to get up to speed with all the new processes and lingo. We’ve been doing some minor renovations in our new home – nothing dramatic – an attic fitout here and a lick of paint there but yet it still took ages and cost more than we expected. But most consumingly, we’ve embarked on a little farming project: ‘human farming’ so to speak and we’re expecting the arrival of our own limited edition genetic hybrid quite soon. I’ve been relatively fortunate throughout the process – no nausea or tiredness to speak of so I’d hoped to cash in on the aspects of pregnancy that I had been curiously looking forward to all my life: oddball food cravings. I have a very diverse diet and varied palate, so I’d often quietly speculated on the sorts of crazy cravings I would develop – perhaps an insatiable appetite for those fatty, dense mooncakes as my sister did during her first pregnancy? Or perhaps hot chips covered in chocolate sauce – as demanded by one Hollywood celebrity whilst she was pregnant. There are even rare cases of some women craving washing powder or clay.
But sadly no, nothing.
A few friends pointed out my odd food habits and labelled them as “pregnancy cravings”, and it was then that I conceded that my normal food habits resemble that of a pregnant woman with cravings. Stacking hash browns into my bacon and egg roll is normal for me. As is snacking on a bowl of pickled jalapenos on their own. And maybe following that with ice cream. Ice cream and pickles might be the stereotypical, pregnancy craving cliché but the Co-pilot mused on this and deduced it was pretty standard behaviour for me.
The other pregnancy aspect I’d most highly anticipated was the onset of an enormous appetite. Let’s not beat about the bush here – I have a remarkably gluttonous, greedy appetite for someone of my make and build. The Co-pilot has often remarked upon how it was fundamentally wrong that we normally eat roughly equal servings, yet he is a good 25kg heavier and 20cm taller. Pregnancy was going to be my get out of jail free card to eat like an unhinged starving beast. Picture that memorable No Face character from Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away – that was going to be me and I was going to devour everything in sight with ferocious vigour!
But sadly no, nothing.
In fact, the opposite happened and as my belly grew, my precious stomach space shrank and often after just a few bites, perhaps a quarter of my normal servings, I would experience excruciating stomach pains and be forced to stop eating. More often than not, I couldn’t even finish an entree sized portion without the onset of stomach pain, but feeling indignant would stubbornly push on through the pain, get partway through a main and have to leave with my stomach in spasms of pain for hours afterwards. So we stopped eating out in nicer establishments altogether and contented ourselves with cheap and cheerful eateries where doggie bags were routine and not sniffed upon. It was a very sad development indeed.
I’d all but resigned myself to ruling out all restaurant outings when an invitation to experience Public Dining Room’s new menu from a visiting international guest chef came my way. Chef Guillaume Zika has an impressive pedgiree having worked in boast-worthy Michelin-starred restaurants in Europe and New York including:
- 3 Michelin-starred Per Se in New York that we had the fortune to experience a while ago
- 3 Michelin-starred Le Grand Vefour, Paris
- 2 Michelin-starred Le Moulin de Mougins, Paris
- 2 Michelin-starred Relais Louis XVII, Paris
- and most recently, he was head chef at the 2 Michelin-starred Hibiscus Restaurant in London
Now Sydney has secured him for a brief sojourn as guest chef at Public Dining Room at Balmoral and his initial 5 course degustation offering was scheduled over 8 weeks and sold out in a mere 48 hours. From mid September until the end of October he is offering diners a Parisian inspired set menu, appropriately entitled “A Night in Paris”. Stomach pain or not, I simply couldn’t resist this invitation. If eating out comes with the backhanded slap of searing stomach pain, then I’d better make it worthwhile and ensure it’s a darn fine meal. So one balmy Friday night, the Co-pilot and I made our way to Balmoral Beach for a rare date night.
Neither of us had been to Public Dining Room before and were seated in the dining room just as the sun was setting. The restaurant has floor to ceiling windows that saturate the dining room in ambient light and offers great views over the beach where the fading sunlight was being gradually replaced by softly lit piers and fairy lights on grand old trees. Inside, the decor is modern, casual, and inviting with polished wooden surfaces, white eames chairs and lush floral displays. There was no white linen and silverware to be seen and the dining room chatter fills the air without becoming noisy or forcing diners to raise their voices to be heard. In short, I’d describe it as a refined casual setting and it’s just what we like. There’s a time and a place for those revered Michelin-starred establishments where suited waiters and hushed tones are the order of the day – but I’m perfectly happy enjoying fine food in a more comfortable setting.
We perused the menu and very quickly collated a number of questions about what I could or couldn’t eat from the menu. Cue the Chef, Guillaume Zika, a young and effusively friendly man with a broad smile and utterly without the pretentious airs you might expect of a Michelin-starred chef. He personally came out to both welcome us and to go through each of the dishes in turn and explained what could be considered the pregnancy-friendly dishes.
Armed with the Chef’s advice, we made our choices and snacked on some feather light kalamata olive and lemon crisps to start that weren’t unlike very adult salt and vinegar crisps – the full flavoured salty hit of kalamata olives complimented by an acidic lemon zing.
The entrees came and the Co-pilot’s choice of foie gras custard was definitely something that was right up my alley, particularly as I’ve been recently reviewing photos from our own trip to France and reminiscing on foie gras laden meals there – but sadly it was yet another of those items on the forbidden list. I could only watch on as the Co-pilot devoured it, providing a running commentary as he went. He described it as a very rich and decadent dish – a creamy pool of very gamey and pungent foie gras studded with tiny cubes of brioche, and topped with fine shredded salty Parmesan, tangy yuzu and crispy duck skin. The classic citrus and liver combination worked well but he wished it was served with more substantial pieces of crusty toasted bread to really savour the dish. The little cubes of brioche simply weren’t doing the foie gras enough justice. At his urging and reassurance I tentatively tasted a microscopic amount of the foie gras custard and sighed with half-exaggerated nostalgia and longing. He wasn’t wrong – those foie gras flavours weren’t shy and it was exactly my kind of dish. In this case, absence certainly makes the heart grow fonder.
I’d opted for the only perfectly safe entree option: the heirloom tomato salad entree, dressed at the table with a pitcher of tomato and vanilla water. The tomatoes of course were the star of this dish and seemed injected with turbo charged flavour. One taste and we both remarked it was how tomatoes should always taste and quite frankly I’d like to be able to abolish all those rubbish tomatoes like the ‘QLD cricket ball’ variety that dominate our supermarkets. Accompanying the tomatoes were chopped pistachios and diced and slivered baby zucchinis that were so young they had a nutty crunch and texture of their own. The vanilla water was more aromatic and powerful on the nose than the palate and at first taste seemed at odds with the other ingredients. Where it matched well was with the fried zucchini beignets – the slightly oily, fried flavour seemed to transform somewhat when mixed with the vanilla into a lingering rich sweetness.
For our mains, the Co-pilot chose yet another “off limits” dish: the grey mackerel, which as Guillaume kindly explained, would be just cooked and he really didn’t recommend it any more well done than that as it would just ruin the fish. The fish was as expected just poached through and still tender on the inside, sitting in a inky black pool of thick and unapologetically punchy black garlic paste. The oily fishyness typical of mackerel was tempered by the necessarily powerful flavours of black garlic and anchovy-laden hollandaise.
I opted for the beef cheek bourguignon – a dish that Guillaume admitted would be his choice if he were a main from the menu. I’m so very glad that I did – it was not traditional bourguignon as I knew it, but quite simply an amazing interpretation of it. The cubes of beef cheek were incredibly meltingly tender – the gelatinous texture of the cheeks lending so well to this dish and the intense rich, fatty aftertaste is so good it immediately evokes a sense of guilty pleasure. To counterbalance the soft textures crispy puffed grains and tiny micro vegetables provided contrasting crunch. I’m not generally a fan of licorice and have seen it backfire when used in savoury main dishes (like a disastrous Pernod infused fish pie I once had in Lima), but it was executed incredibly well here, possibly because the emphasis was on subtle hints of licorice – just enough to achieve that almost menthol-like cooling quality licorice root has and complementing, not overshadowing the beef. Testament to its subtlety is that the Co-pilot, his palate overwhelmed by the stronger black garlic paste and anchoiade hollandaise flavours in his main, couldn’t detect the licorice at all. Despite not being able to taste the Co-pilot’s mackerel main, of the two mains, I’d wager that I picked the winner.
Desserts rounded out our meal and surprise, surprise, the Co-pilot chose the last off-limits dish available: the melted pont l’evêque cheese. The cheese was melted over a bed of toasted sourdough, honey and grapes and served with a small shot of sweet riesling wine on the side. He was instructed to pour the riesling over the melted cheese and wait about 10 seconds for the riesling to soak into all the crevices before plunging in. He described it as a truly deliciously pungent cheese and the honey, grapes and sweet riesling added a much needed dimension of sweetness to the ripe cheese. It was however, quite rich and overpowering to have in such a large quantity. Particularly since I wasn’t devouring half the dish as is my usual custom.
I’d chosen the poached pear which came dipped in dark chocolate and covered in slivered almonds, paired with a quenelle of ice cream atop a bed of crunchy crystallised dark chocolate. The concentrated sweetness of the pear was perfectly tempered by the bitterness of the dark chocolate and icecream. I couldn’t recall reading what the ice cream flavour was and upon tasting, I was momentarily lost for words for what the familiar flavour was. The Co-pilot tasted it too and mentally grasping, I eventually remembered it: “Marzipan – no, almonds!” I cried. “Cyanide!”, the Co-pilot cried simultaneously.
Cyanide. Good grief! Even if cyanide technically does taste like marzipan and thus almonds – who says that? What a nerd..
The final dessert was a complimentary addition from the Chef who’d heard us deliberating over the three different desserts on offer. The broken vanilla crème brûlée looked like a thick glazed pancake gently blanketing a mound of sweet, succulent strawberries and basil. A relatively simple offering but one that particularly sang to the Co-pilot, a sucker for a custardy dessert. And pushing the proverbial stomach pain envelope, I ate heartily and finished off the remaining dessert.
We were absolutely satiated at this point but were offered some petit fours to finish. I can’t recall exactly what these were – I think semi frozen light and airy chunks of white chocolate and caramel served on a bed of cacao nibs. I certainly didn’t need anything extra but still dutifully ate the petit fours – these melted under my fingertips and their intense sweetness was balanced by the bittersweet cacao nibs.
The Co-pilot raised a wary eyebrow at my appetite. “Don’t give yourself stomach pains again” he cautioned.
Too late. I could already feel the simmerings of stomach pain – but it was well worth it. You don’t get to sample the menu of a Michelin-starred Chef everyday so a few pangs of pain could be tolerated. The Night in Paris dinners at Public Dining Room are only on until the end of this month, so you’ll have to get cracking if you want to try that menu. But if you can’t make it – don’t despair, Guillaume has collaborated with Public Dining Room’s resident head Chef, Anthony Telford to create the current a la carte menu that’s available each and every day at Public Dining Room. I just hope Guillaume stays on in the Sydney scene so once my appetite bounces back, I may just be able to entertain my No Face-inspired delusions of gluttony once again.
The Gourmet Forager and Co-pilot dined as guests of Public Dining Room.
Public Dining Room
2A The Esplanade, Mosman NSW
Tel: +612 9968 4880; email: i...@publicdiningroom.com.au
Open daily: lunch and dinner: Mon – Sat noon – 10pm; Sun noon – 3pm. Breakfast is served on weekends only 8am – 10:30am