October 07, 2009

Bistro Ortolan

Bistro Ortolan is one of Sydney's well known "flash" restaurants. A fancy place you go when you want an upscale french dinner. We had heard mixed reviews. One friend whose opinion we respect a lot had completely panned it, but when our favorite server at Tastevin called it "the best degustation in Sydney" we decided we had to try it.

It's a single bus ride for us out to Leichardt, which is best known as one of Sydney's oldest estabished Italian neighborhoods. Leichardt is where we go for ricotta cake, wood fired pizza, and great Italian cheeses. I called early in the afternoon to get a booking, asking "could I get a booking for this evening?" "Certainly, when would you like to come in?" "When do you have open? I'm free all evening." "So are we." "In that case, I'll just wander in. See you in a bit." "Thank you, sir."

So wander in we did. After perusing the wine list, menu, and degustation we settled on a bottle of Shaky Bridge 2006 Pinot Noir from Central Otago NZ, a glass of Gosset Grande Reserve, and the degustation.

We started with an amuse of tomato veloute accompanied by a single Coffin Bay oyster and a horseradish cream filled choux. The oyster was magnificent. I continue to be amazed and appalled by the Australian custom of shucking and rinsing raw oysters before serving them, but Bistro Ortolan served the oyster freshly shucked and included the top of the shell perhaps to indicate that the oyster was freshly opened. Fat and briny, with luscious oyster liquor in the shell I could have eaten a dozen of these. The tomato veloute was rich with tomato flavor and included a number of interesting "bits" in the bottom, I believe I noticed a slice of olive, Debbie thought there were capers, and I also thought there might be some mushroom. The choux filled with horseradish cream was a nice accompaniment, but I thought the choux might have stood too long - it was a trifle soggy. At the time, I didn't remark on the number of things going on in one dish, but as the meal progressed that grew to be a theme.

The next dish, the obligatory raw course, was a ceviche of kingfish, sea urchin, with a "pipe" of caviar cream arrived in a hollowed out sea urchin shell and garnished with flowers and gold leaf - a presentation that made both of us exclaim "wow!" The ceviche itself was excellent, delicate morsels of hiramasa, tossed lightly with creamy uni and lemon in a light piquant dressing. It was accompanied by a buttery tuile filled with a caviar cream and topped with caviar. I'm not generally a fan of gold leaf on my food, it's just flashy and is good for impressing unsophisticated diners, but adds nothing to the food.

This was followed by pasta, a pappardelle on which rested an egg shell in which was nestled a single whole yolk. We were directed to pour the egg yolk onto the pappardelle, which was then finished with a buerre noisette. The dish included wild chantarelles and other french mushrooms. The combination of egg yolk and butter made this dish extremely rich, and there wasn't any acid to lighten the flavor. The mushrooms seemed a bit tired, and the flavor was augmented with truffle oil. I do not expect to find truffle oil used in a putative fine dining restaurant. Truffle oil is used to impress people who may not know better. It's inexpensive and often used to cover up inferior ingredients. The pasta itself was well made (though I remarked "Quince it's not") but I thought was slightly undercooked and barely warm. Having it hot would have helped the yolk and egg, but as it was the dish left my mouth feeling slightly greasy.

Fortunately the Shaky Bridge Pinot was the perfect cure for that. The wine was young but drinkable, full of soft tannins. It had enough acidity for me and enough fruit for Debbie, and turned out to be an excellent pairing for the degustation.

The fish course was a blue-eye trevalla, sauteed with a crispy skin. It was served with what was billed as a "baby squid and pea 'risotto'" which I was curious to see. It turned out to be a lightly cooked brunoise of tender squid shaped into a round. Tasty, but to me the key features of a risotto are the creaminess and the slightly firm texture of each grain. The green beans and broad beans were exellent. The dish was finished tableside by garnishing it with sauce from a small pitcher. I thought this was slightly gratuitous, it could easily have been sauced in the kitchen, but thought no more about it.

This was followed by poultry, a pot-au-feu of chicken with foie gras and girasole. The chicken was meltingly tender and slightly pink, which caused me to ask the server if it had been prepared sous-vide. He wasn't familiar with the term and looked slightly confused. The foie had a fairly strong liver flavor and texture, as a big fan of foie gras I was slightly disappointed. The dish was finished by the addition of the broth tableside. After three dishes in a row being finished at the table, I joked to Debbie that I was tired of it and hoped the game course wouldn't also be finished at the table. She said "there's no way they'd finish venison at the table."

The loin of venison was finished at the table. It was accompanied by a bone marrow gnocchi, asparagus, a piece of marrow, a cafe de paris butter filled croquette, chanterelles, and three garnishes. It was a farrago. Too many things going on all at the same time, with nothing to pull it all together. Venison, plus marrow, plus gnocchi, plus a croquette, none of it stood out.

The cheese course was a good roquefort, with the traditional accompaniments of toasted walnut bread and honeycomb. Creamy, tart, and sharp cheese with toasty rich bready flavors and the complex flavors of honey and wax. This combination is a classic for good reason. I love good cheese and thoroughly enjoyed this course.

Next came a palate cleanser of pink grapefruit and campari sorbet. A solid choice of two great flavors that pair very well, the tart bitterness of the grapefruit complementing the sweet bitterness of the Campari in a sum greater than its parts. The citrus salad complemented the tart/bitter/sweet of the sorbet and added bright freshness to the course. The flowers made a coherent addition to the palette.

The dessert was a cute little soufflé flavored with spiced chai baked in a teacup. It was paired with a rather undistinguished rhubarb and custard tart and rhubarb sorbet.

It seems clear that we agree more with our friend who thought Ortolan was overhyped than our friend who thought it was one of the best degustations in Sydney. If you want the best Sydney has to offer, I suggest Quay. If you want to see what can be done with simplicity and excellent preparation while still maintaining very high standards I recommend Atelier. Bistro Ortolan panders to what popular taste expects in "flash" dining, with overly complicated preparations that result in confusion on the palate, and show at the expense of substance.
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