I’ve never been to Astral before, and a big part of that has been the location. It’s atop Star City, which, along with Darling Harbour, has to be my least desired Sydney destination. I’m not keen about facing humourless blackjack dealers in a cavernous room, and I’ve made it a point not to contribute to NSW’s gambling addiction. Even so, I’ve always wanted to go to Astral in spite of Star City, but I just needed a bit of extra impetus to get me there.
I’ve been very curious about Sean Connolly’s food for some time now, especially since he’s managed to create such a positive gastronomic buzz in a building that was dying for a touch of class. And that interest went up a notch further this spring when Connolly became the surprise hit of the Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Food Guide awards, picking up the coveted gong as Chef of the Year. By all accounts, Connolly was as surprised as anyone, and provided an amicably humble acceptance speech.
So when I received an invitation to check out the relaunch of Friday lunch at Astral – after a hiatus of several years – I jumped at the chance to sample the ‘wunderkind’ chef’s offerings, even if he isn’t the babyface he was when he first took the helm.
I get to Star City on a perfectly sunny midday, and walk up the steps from the CBD-facing side, where I meander for a bit until a helpful staffer points out that the elevator I need is across the other side of the casino floor. So I take the dime tour, scoot around the pokies, shimmy past the ceiling-high fishbowls and then find my vertical chariot that ascends to the 17th floor.
As soon as the elevator door opens on the penthouse level, I’m greeted by light and space and the feeling I can breath easily again. I’m not sure what it’s like here at dinner, but as I walk into the restaurant, the vibe is professional but completely relaxed, and the interior warmly bright. The staff promptly receive me and then lead me to the private dining room to join an intimate gathering of other food and travel journos.
At the end of the room, the glass doors are open, revealing a northeast-facing panorama that spectates over the Harbour Bridge, Millers Point, Luna Park and more. It’s a classic harbour view, and made that much more impressive and unobstructed by its high perch. I take a seat at the large walnut-stained table and take notice of the 17 copper-chrome lamps that decorate the ceiling. It’s equally impressive to look down, with a table setting invested with luxe El Bulli plates from Spain, Michel Bras (as in the three-Michelin-star chef) silverware from France, and fine glassware to match. The exy setup has inspired a bit of theft as well, so as soon as I hear about the new metal detectors, any kleptomaniac dreams are instantly dashed.
For such a fine dining environment, the lunch prices stay within respectably mortal, albeit not exactly frugal, limits: $49 for two courses, $65 for three. Today, there’s a choice of eight entrees, from confit chicken and leek terrine with toasted brioche to marinated tuna with smoked eel dust and a yuzu emulsion, and seven mains, tempting with wagyu skirt with béarnaise sauce or maybe slow-roasted cannon of lamb with goat’s curd creme and cumin-spiced ratatouille. Of course, if you’ve done well at the roulette tables downstairs, there’s caviar for two with blinis for $290 for 30g, or $425 for 50g.
I start out with a warm pavé of ocean trout, a very tender square of fish that’s topped with a fried egg, the uncommon sight of fresh morels, asparagus, thin rings of fried eschalot and dotted with chopped hazelnut. It’s lightly flavoured with a vinaigrette and I am so overjoyed with the dish, especially as the soft yolk oozes lovingly over the fish, I sit smugly, knowing that I’m immunised against menu envy today.
For my main, I go for the $10 supplement – which, of course, you do with abandon when someone else is paying – and order the intriguingly decadent lobster burger with foie gras butter and handcut potatoes. It comes out with a solid tail of lobster meat, painted with a shmear of the truffle butter. The only downside is that the meat has some grain that won’t surrender and wants to all come out at once, so I have to put the buns down and turn to my trusty knife. It’s still very good, yet it is overshadowed by a supporting actor: a golden side dish of gratin dauphinoise. Its brilliance is best described by its kitchen journey: Connolly boils the potatoes in cream for nearly 30 minutes, then removes the spuds, reduces the cream, seasons it with garlic and rosemary, pours it back in with the potato slices and then melts heaps of parmesan over the top. It is richer than a Murdoch, and about the most pleasurable way to grow love handles. “You’re not coming to Astral to keep fit,” admits Connolly, who’s joined us at the table for a chat.
The chef saves one of his best tricks for last: what the restaurant contends is one of only three cheese trolleys in all of Sydney (Bathers’ Pavilion and Bilson’s offer the other two). And this one is a doozy. I look over 14 artisan and imported cheeses, from an unctuous triple-cream Brillat-Savarin to a Corsican Fleur de Marquis coated in rosemary, a non-pasteurised Roquefort, and a circus of other lactose wonders. If I closed my eyes, I could be in France… or the Simon Johnson cheese room.
I leave Astral a little heavier than when I entered, but with little regret. And though I still have no desire to join Chinese tourists and footy players at the poker table, I think I might find myself lured to the apex at Star City, where the dining experience is elevated in more ways than one.
Astral, Star City, Level 17, 80 Pyrmont St, Pyrmont, NSW, (02) 9657 8767, www.astralrestaurant.com.au