Sydney's star chefs expand into casual dining

Celebrity chefs forays into high quality casual dining is changing the culinary landscape of Australia's largest city

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 March, 2015, 6:21am
UPDATED : Friday, 13 March, 2015, 6:21am

On a boat tour of Sydney Harbour recently the first thing the guide pointed out was the Opera House. The second was that inside the largest "sail" making up the iconic building was a great restaurant and it was about to change hands.

That's how intense the buzz is about the Bennelong site in Sydney. It was matched only by the level of speculation over who would succeed chef Guillaume Brahimi, who ended his tenure more than a year ago. Now one of Sydney's best-known chefs, Peter Gilmore, is taking the helm. His restaurant, Quay, is considered among the best in Australia.

Gilmore is just one of several of Sydney's star chefs expanding their businesses. "We are excited by the opportunity to run a standard-setting restaurant in a special location - one of the most recognised buildings in the world," says Gilmore, who will be working with his existing backers, the Fink Group.

While Quay is a fine-dining institution, the new restaurant will have a different focus to fit the venue. "Bennelong will have a more casual, less formal atmosphere," says Gilmore. "The food won't be as complex as it is at Quay, but will continue to celebrate great Australian produce."

Opening in June, the two-level space will encompass a dining room, a more casual bar area and a "cultured and cured" section focusing on seafood and pickled vegetables. Bennelong will open for dinner (including pre- and post-Opera House performances) and light bites every night of the week as well as lunch Friday to Sunday and a separate Sunday brunch.

The change in approach seems a smart move since Brahimi has been quoted as saying his fine-dining concept could not could not offer lunch and dinner seven days a week.

Sydneysider celebrity chefs Neil Perry, Kylie Kwong and Matt Moran also all have expansions afoot. Moran, known for restaurants Aria and Chiswick, has taken tenancy of the Opera Bar downstairs from Bennelong - for the second time.

"We took over that space 13 years ago, so it was incredibly exciting to re-win the tender late last year," says Moran. "It means that we're there to stay for another 10 years, and I couldn't be happier."

This time Moran has given it a complete refit (it's woody but modern and opens up to the water) and a new menu. "We wanted to do something different and give it a real kick."

As well as an à la carte menu focusing on "field or ocean to the plate" there's a raw seafood bar, charcuterie and cheese room with artisan produce.

Moran has also extended his Chiswick concept by opening a branch at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. The new venue is light-filled and airy with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the leafy Potts Point enclave and, more dramatically, the battleships stationed at Woolloomooloo Wharf below.

Fans of Chiswick in Woollahra will be pleased to see the signature dishes, Moran family lamb and snow crab sliders, on the menu. Like the original Chiswick, the menu is seasonally driven, and the structure - split into nibbles, small plates, mains and share plates - is the same, but there the similarities end.

The concept of good casual dining has definitely taken off in Sydney
Neil Perry,Rockpool

"The menu has mostly changed to take on its own identity and the restaurant has its own personality," says Moran. "The interiors and overall feel are different; it's a little more Scandinavian. Overall, it's taken on its own style to fit the light and space of the gallery."

Given the number of smartly dressed lunchtime diners (the restaurant is open for dinner only on Wednesdays, tying in with the gallery's late-night opening), the clientele seem to come as much for the restaurant as a destination, popping in after an exhibition.

A kitchen garden next to the restaurant - the original Chiswick's trump card - is also planned. "The Chiswick concept is all about fresh, seasonal produce and a beautiful garden to influence the menu, so we'll be opening a kitchen garden in the near future," says Moran.

Although Chiswick at the gallery and the Opera Bar have opened in quick succession, Moran says the arts venue theme is serendipitous. "It's not something that I specifically aimed for, but I do think the experience of enjoying great art and great food should go hand in hand," he says. "If you look at European or American galleries or theatres, it's really prevalent there. I like the concept."

Kwong has just moved her popular Billy Kwong restaurant from Surry Hills to a bigger site in Potts Point. "The time was right to make the big move and I planned it for two years; it has become my dream restaurant," says Kwong.

"It is three times the size in space and seating capacity and it includes everything I've always wanted: an extensive bar and beverage list, a very large open kitchen, comfortable seats and proper acoustics, all within a dynamic neighbourhood."

While the noisy setting and uncomfortable seating have gone, the menu remains the same. Kwong says it's also given her team a chance to become more community focused: "The new space in Potts Point has really allowed us to enhance our work with organisations such as The Wayside Chapel and St Canice Parish."

Billy Kwong uses honey from beehives on top of the former and green vegetables and herbs grown on the rooftop of the latter.

Perry, of the revered Rockpool and Kwong's mentor, is making the most unexpected of all the expansions: a casual burger eatery to add to his glossy, upscale establishments. "Everyone was surprised but thrilled," says Perry.

The idea was sparked by the popularity of the burger at Rockpool Bar & Grill. "It's a concept we've been playing around with for over a year," Perry says. "It has been created from our desire to take what we see as one of the great burgers of the world to the people and make it the 'people's burger': high quality, accessible and affordable."

Burger Project is based in the business district. It's self-service but with a design that's a cut above your usual fast-food joint. Blown-up black and white photographs on the walls are a reminder that they're using beef from the revered Cape Grim grass-fed herd in Tasmania. The meat is hand ground daily from chuck and brisket steak. They also make hand-churned ice cream in the open kitchen.

When I visited before the lunch rush, there was already a steady stream of customers. And the suited, pony-tailed Perry popped in to cast an eye over the place. "The concept of good casual dining has definitely taken off in Sydney, and it's something that we have always wanted to do, in juxtaposition to our high-end restaurants. It's working well for us," he says.

Perry has plans to expand the chain not just in Sydney and Australia, but also overseas. "We're keeping our ear to the ground for sites," he says. "We're definitely open to all opportunities."