I have just returned from one of my favorite food cities – Sydney, Australia. Nowhere, in my travels, have I experienced a city that offers more variety and quality when it comes to eating out. Sydney’s ethic diversity provides a delectable selection of restaurant options including a signature style of cuisine that is purely Sydney’s own – a sauté of ethnic cuisines melded with local products the Australian land and sea have to offer.
On this last trip, I had two distinctly different experiences – the first at Neil Perry’s signature and well established temple of Australian cuisine, Rockpool Bar and Grill – the second, at an out of the way Italian restaurant, in the Northern Suburb of Fresh Water, named Pilu at Freshwater. There is no question that each of these represent what I love and hate when it comes to eating out or finding a place to recommend to my friends.
Rockpool Bar and Grill, smack in the middle of Sydney’s financial district, is an offshoot of the original establishment located in Sydney’s trendy and somewhat touristy Rocks district. Upon entering, you are faced with a palatial room – enormous, intimidating and loud. You are greeted with ice-cold cordiality, asked to wait and then escorted silently, though courteously, to your table. There must be 200 tables in this room, surrounded by alabaster columns, rod iron decorative art and cold marble floors. The busy open kitchen runs along the entire side of the room, letting off jets of steam, the clatter of pots and pans and the rush of food being plated and swept away to the four corners of this enormous room.
The menu, on paper, is impressive – divided into cold and hot appetizers, crudos, oyster bar and several other exotic options. The main dishes are also divided into stern columns – Seafood, pastas, from the grill etc… all very impressive, all very expensive. I have learned over time, that as impressive as a menu may look and read it is what comes on your plate that tells the real story and it is what is on the plate that, in the end matters the most.
As for the food, I give Rockpool a solid B. My grilled octopus appetizer was soft and bit too chewy, it lacked that firm grilled flavor mostly because it was drowned in some unidentifiable sauce that smothered what I always enjoy in seafood grilled dishes. (Wait for my write up on Mario Batalli’s Babbo Restaurant in New York – best grilled Octopus this side of Santorini…). As a main, I ordered the Braised Rabbit Papardelle. They were good except the rabbit flavor was overwhelmed by flavors I could not identify – herby, pungent and strong – they stuck with you long after the dish was finished.
Though the meal was not bad, the overall experience at Rockpool Bar and Grill left me empty and dissatisfied. Here, such a talented chef spends millions to produce a room with ambience and cold impersonal service that does not bring you closer to your food and to the intimacy of eating a good meal but instead alienates you from what, in the end, should be a soulful and delicious experience.
And then there is Pilu at Freshwater. Perched on a sand dune facing Freshwater Beach just north of Sydney, this charming and enchanting little restaurant is the antithesis of the cold and impersonal experience at Rockpool. This is my type of restaurant.
Entering from the parking lot in front of the beach, one winds up a small path to the unassuming entrance that leads you upstairs to the restaurant dining room. We were greeted with a friendly smile and led to a table facing an amazing view of the beach and the city center in the distance. Everything about this restaurant is subtle, soft and serene – once you sit down, you simply want to stay as long as possible.
The service matches the ambience – cordial, simple yet completely professional as if they know how comfortable we are and do not want to ruin the moment.
We order from an amazing menu with appetizers such as Sautéed Prawns with Baby Globe Artichokes, Fregola, Tomato and Chilli to Risotto of Finely Diced Hawkesbury River Squid and Caramelized Fennel or my selection, Sardinian Shell Pasta with Braised Macleay Valley Rabbit, Mirto and Broad Beans – unbelievably delicious with subtle and silky flavors that allow the rabbit to come through unobstructed by unnecessary complications. Main course was highlighted by the Lamb Rump with Roasted Baby Vegetables, Pistachios, Fregola and Monica Jus – the meat was tender to the touch and the sauce enhanced the delicious lamb flavors, which I personally love.
All this, without the pushy and arrogant intrusions from our waiter which we had experienced at Rockpool, always trying to sell you more wine or get you finished so they can free up the table for the next guest – but instead Pilu’s staff seemed to relish in our contentment and joy with our meal, leaving us alone, only coming by to make sure everything was to our liking.
Pilu is everything I love in a restaurant – good food, cordial service, and amazing ambience with simplicity and charm. The staff at Pilu could not have been more hospitable and the food could not have been more delicious – I will be going back again and again, every time I visit Sydney.
Rockpool Bar and Grill
66 Hunter Street
Pilu At Freshwater