Brent Savage's stunning slow-roasted duck with cuttlefish & mushroom
It’s gotta be incredibly hard to find a good time to hold another food festival in Sydney. October’s a no-go, naturally, due to the Sydney International Food Fest, November and December are too hard because of Silly Season, March belongs to the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival, and, well, I’m guessing Northern Hemisphere spring and summer (aka Aussie autumn and winter) are busy times to attempt to jet-set chefs from France’s pre-eminent restaurants – what with all of those English and American tourists ticking off boxes in their Michelin Guides.
That might explain why Tony Bilson’s admirable Cuisine Now festival – championing the contemporary face of French cooking – was slotted during January’s insanely busy schedule of Sydney Festival, music and outdoor events, a time when getting noticed is nothing short of formidable. It’s such an admirable effort – pairing top toque-wearers from France alongside Australia’s most exciting interpreters of French techniques – but I wonder whether those two weeks of excellent masterclasses and dinners are getting as wide attention as that they deserve.
Tony Bilson addresses the Cuisine Now Gala Dinner crowd, flanked by
(from left) chefs Serge Vieira, Brent Savage, Shannon Bennett and Tetsuya Wakuda
That’s mostly from a media coverage and word-of-mouth perspective, since there was no worries about attendance numbers at the jam-packed Cuisine Now Gala Dinner at Pyrmont’s Doltone House a couple of weeks ago. The night featured a couple of rising French stars, starting with Serge Vieira of Restaurant Serge Vieira in Cantal, whose burgeoning restaurant in the central Auvergne region last year received a Red Star from the Michelin Guide, a mark that signifies expectations to eventually reach a penultimate three-star rating. Joining him was Jean-Luc Rocha from Pauillac’s Chateaux Cordeillan-Bages, whose Relais & Châteaux dining room the young chef assumed from avant-garde chef Thierry Marx. The duo were accompanied by a who’s who of Aussie chefs – Tetsuya’s Tetsuya Wakuda, Vue de Monde’s Shannon Bennett, Guillaume at Bennelong’s Guillaume Brahimi, Bentley Restaurant & Bar’s Brent Savage; and Bilson’s eponymous chef and Cuisine Now catalyst, Tony Bilson.
It was certainly one of the year’s better line-ups for a dining extravaganza, and I was lucky to have been invited, joining such illustrious company as Lord Mayor Clover Moore, NSW premier heir apparent Barry O’Farrell, Good Living editor Sue Bennett, and master of ceremonies Simon Thomsen, the Daily Telegraph restaurant critic and sometimes Iron Chef Australia judge.
I’m a global citizen, so I don’t need to be patriotic about my chefs, but I did find that the highest highs on my plate that night came from our homegrown talent, and maybe illustrated again how truly blessed we are by some of the folks in our top kitchens. By a solid margin, my favourite dish – and pretty much a consensus at our table – was Brent Savage’s slow-roasted duck breast, ridiculously flavourful and tender, and paired with a mushroom ‘soil’ so blazing with flavour that it made me forget (or maybe just not care) that I’m pretty much over food as soils, or dirt. When food tastes this good, you could give me foams, soils, truffle oil, towering stacks, unethical foie gras, crab stick and any other un-PC ingredient, and I wouldn’t blink. Probably.
9 Feb: I asked Brent via email about how he prepared the duck, and here’s the lowdown: “Glad you enjoyed the dish. The duck breast is slow-cooked, then the skin is rendered till it is crisp. The cuttlefish is poached in verjuice, then the juice is used to sauce the duck. The mushroom is cooked and then dehydrated. Once dried, we blend the mushroom with confit garlic and onion. The acid from the verjuice really brings out the flavour of the mushroom, and the salt content from the mushroom balances the verjuice sauce.”
Shannon Bennett's oh-so-tender beef cheek
The one dish giving Savage a run for his money was Shannon Bennett’s beef cheek with stinging nettles and smoked marrow, amazingly tender yet with a beautiful, lightly crisped exterior. I wondered aloud whether it was cooked sous-vide, slow-roasted or a combination of the two. It might have even matched Savage’s contribution except for a need for a bit more moisture. It was begging for a jus or sauce.
The line-up of matching plonk, seemingly compiled with love by Bilson, was one to relish. The most unforgettable wine was a late menu addition, scratching the Penfolds RWT Shiraz and replacing it a burgeoning Australian icon wine, the 2006 Penfolds Cellar Reserve Barossa Valley Cabernet. It’s made with a wild yeast ferment and new French oak barrels, and is such a fantastic expression of the varietal that even Bilson couldn’t help waxing on about how incredible it is. “I think it’s the best cabernet that the country has ever made,” he boasted, adding that it was Australia’s first wine that could stand alongside the best of Burgundy. For someone like me who already prefers Penfolds 707 cabernet to shiraz-driven Grange, this was a to-die-for wine moment. Being greedy buggers, the Daily Telegraph’s Grant Jones and I scoured the floor for a spare bottle for a top-up, but turned up empty-handed. Maybe it was better that way – it made savouring that one beautiful glass even more intense.
My hat off to Tony Bilson for championing his love for innovative French cuisine. Sydney has been and continues to be lucky to have him as it’s Francophile torchbearer, and I’m looking forward to seeing how Cuisine Now grows and evolves over time. Now if we can just coordinate our promotional schedules for next year – the 2012 calendar is looking pretty free in May/June. I’m just saying…
Guillaume Brahimi's king salmon sashimi
Jean-Luc Rochas's pruneaux et tuiles de pain
Tetsuya Wakuda's marinated lobster with avocado cream and caviar
- Tetsuya Wakuda, Tetsuya’s, Sydney
Marinated Tasmanian lobster with bread salad, avocado cream, junsai, Oscietra caviar
(wine pairing: Moet et Chandon Imperial Champagne en Magnum)
Guillaume Brahimi, Guilluame at Bennelong, Sydney
King salmon sashimi with a brunoise of cucumber, apple and finger limes on a bed of white peach puree
(wine: 2005 Tyrell’s HVD semillon, Hunter Valley)
- Serge Vieira, Restaurant Serge Vieira, Chaudes-Aigues, France
Homage to the Great Barrier Reef: vongole, pippies, mussels, razor clams and Sydney rock oysters with prawn bisque, fennel purée, lemon jelly, shellfish & peppermint jus, and saffron mayo
(wine: 2008 Chateau D’Esclans rosé, Provence, France)
- Brent Savage, Bentley Restaurant & Bar, Sydney
Slow-roasted duck breast with cuttlefish and mushroom
(wine: 2010 Harkham Winery Aziza’s shiraz, Hunter Valley)
- Shannon Bennett, Vue de Monde, Melbourne
Beef cheek with stinging netteles and smoked bone marrow
(wine: 2006 Penfolds Cellar Reserve Barossa cabernet sauvignon)
- Jean-Luc Rocha, Chateax Condeillan-Bages, Pauillac, France
Roquefort Glacé, pruneaux et Tuiles de Pain
(wine: 2005 Chateau Guiraud, sauternes, France)
- Tony Bilson, Bilson’s Restaurant, Sydney
Tarte Tatin of figs with truffles and summer fruits
(wine: 2009 King River Estate merlot dolce, Vic)