OK folks, I’m on a roll. Since Peter and I decided that we weren’t traveling overseas until this coming September, due to his long recovery from shoulder surgery, I’ve been on a mission to check out my own backyard, Sydney. Easier said than done when the majority of its iconic sites have been somewhat tainted for me by earlier memories from the style-challenged 1970s.
One such cringe inducing recollection was Centrepoint Tower, where I spent many a summer in my teens, earning some much needed spending money working in a boutique. Brimming with mass market stores with names like “Sportique” and “Glamour Girl,” them were the days when I could buy a bucket load of Mongolian Lamb for lunch in the smoky food hall for a song. As for the revolving restaurant at the summit, the cuisine philosophy hardly differed from that of the lower floors, except that it had better views and a price tag to match. So I found myself coming full circle when I was invited to a degustation dinner last Tuesday evening at the top of former Centrepoint Tower, now known by the more grown up name of “Sydney Tower.” The venue for the dinner was to be its revolving restaurant, 360 Bar and Dining.
Really? A degustation dinner? While I’m a bit of a can’t-make-up-my-mind-so-why- not-try-the-lot kind of girl, the last 9-course ‘deg’ dinner with matching wines had me running for the Alka-Seltzer when I got home. I wondered if I would suffer the same fate at 360. Mercifully, this one was only a 6-courser.
Knowing little about the restaurant, I Googled its Head Chef. It was none other than Ashley Hughes, former owner of Alio in Surry Hills. Having served his apprenticeship with culinary stars like Greg Doyle and Steve Hodges of Pier, and Janni Kyritsis and Gay Bilson of Bennelong, he went on to collect stints with L’Escargot (Marco Pierre White), River Cafe (Rose Gray), Zafferano (Giorgio Locatelli) and La Cinzanella (the Locatelli family’s one-star Michelin restaurant in Milan). Despite Ashley Hughes’ estimable reputation, however, I approached the evening with an absence of expectations.
I purposely left my studio early so that I could check out my old stomping grounds. Hopping on a train from Bondi Junction and getting off at Town Hall, I lackadaisically strolled through the QVB like I had all the time in the world, emerging at the other end at Pitt Street Mall. Entering Sydney Tower via Zara to my left - sorry, Peter, I couldn’t help myself - my jaw nearly hit my collarbone as I studied the changes that had transformed my former hangout. The grungy food hall had been wiped to make room for Prada, Miu Miu and A/X Armani Exchange. Gap had replaced the likes of Katie’s and Sportsgirl. The prime retail space dazzled with bright lights, chrome and mirrors, illuminating new and newer merchandise, a seductive world that tempts the customer to part with their money in exchange of a promise. Taking the escalators to Level 4, where I was to meet my group, we passed through security before squeezing into a bite-sized lift to the top.
I wished that I hadn’t remembered that Sydney Tower is Sydney's tallest free-standing structure and the second tallest observation tower in the Southern Hemisphere. Or that it had a height of 309 meters, from the bottom to the very tip of the spire. As my ears popped, I failed miserably at making light chit chat with the lady to my right. I nervously shifted my gaze to my clasped hands in front of me instead, before briefly closing my eyes and praying. Hearing the “ping” before the elevator doors opened, we heaved a collective sigh of relief.
It was near impossible not to gasp when our group stepped out into a breathtaking setting of 360 Bar & Dining. Internal walls were clad with rich hand-carved dark mahogany panels. Horse-hair leather, bronze and mirrors, combined with the soft ambient lighting provided by the 14 individually crafted pendant light sculptures, enhanced the romantic vibe. But the piece de resistance was the stunning 8 meter long, tortoiseshell, internally illuminated bar. Brought together by world renowned designer Michael McCann of Dreamtime Design, the feeling was iconic “glam” merged with a contemporary sleekness. As for the unbeatable backdrop - a 360 degree panorama of Greater Sydney - it simply assaulted the senses. Shown to our table by gracious Colombian Restaurant Manager, Andres Aragon, I wondered what sort of cuisine could match such opulent surroundings.
After passing around a bowl of delicious warmed olives, a palate tickler arrived in the form of a solitary pacific oyster, served with champagne jelly and salmon roe. It was perfectly paired with NV De Perriere, Crémant de Bourgogne AOC (France). The fresh burst of the ocean and sea air in a single bite had me hankering for more.
An elegant looking baked eggplant came next, with buffalo mozzarella, basil and a 25 year old balsamic vinegar that had my taste buds bursting with anticipation before I even took the first bite. This was accompanied by a 2012 Mt Difficulty Pinot Gris from Central Otago (NZ).
Not done with the seafood yet, a refined Tasmanian salmon gravlax arrived, with mustard dressing and radish salad. It was served with a 2010 Tamar Ridge Gewürztraminer, Tamar Valley (Tasmania).
I’m a sucker for the natural sweetness of seared scallops. Hughes served this tender and juicy mollusk with a cauliflower puree, crispy pancetta and fried capers. It was perfectly married with an unwooded 2011 Joseph Drouhin Chardonnay, Saint-Véran AOC (France).
One of the favorite dishes of the evening was a rotolo of baby spinach, ricotta, porcini mushrooms, parmesan, sage and chestnut butter. Warm as a grandmother’s hug, its flavors were further enhanced by a 2009 Brindabella Hills Brio Sangiovese from Canberra (ACT).
The ‘main’ meal of the evening was a succulent and cooked-to-perfection roasted lamb rack, served with parsnip puree, mixed mushroom ragu and thyme jus. Not having known the members of our group for very long, I barely restrained myself from picking the bone up and gnawing every last morsel from it. Thankfully, decorum prevailed. A perfect match, the 2009 Rockbare ‘Barrosa Babe’ shiraz from the Barrosa Valley (SA) that we drank with this plate was so robust, it nearly had teeth.
I haven’t been blessed with a sweet tooth. So at the risk of being burnt at the stake by all you ‘chocaholics’ out there, I must confess that I only ate half of my dark chocolate tart, topped with a lighter than air milk chocolate mousse and raspberries. And yes, it was sinfully rich! This was topped off by a nip of NV Ramos Pinos, 10 year old tawny (Portugal).
Having definitely eaten my fill by the end of our meal, I was pleasantly surprised that I didn’t feel like I had a stomach full of lead. Rather, I was sated and content. As each person in the group discussed what their favorite dish of the evening was, the majority gravitated towards either the eggplant, the rotolo or the lamb rack. As for me, I had to admit that it was like asking a mother to choose between her children. They were each amazing in their own way. As Ashley Hughes stepped out of the kitchen to meet and greet our group, the spontaneous round of applause that we gave him was truly heartfelt. Compliments to the Chef, indeed.
As for the faultless food and wine pairing of the evening, it was thanks to Restaurant Manager, Andres Aragon. Achieved with affable efficiency and an absence of arrogance, he could teach an obnoxious sommelier or two the value of true customer service. It also bears mentioning that under his management, 360 Bar & Dining was awarded a “One Glass Rating” in the 2013 Australia's Wine List of the Year Awards by Fine Wine Partners and Gourmet Traveller WINE magazine.
As far as I’m concerned, fellow diners, the ‘deg’ is definitely not dead. On the contrary. When you’re wining and dining on great food, amidst exquisite surroundings, attended by flawless service, while gazing at a drop dead gorgeous vista to boot, why on Earth wouldn’t you want to prolong it? While not too many establishments have the means to dish up this kind of experience, 360 Bar & Dining does it with aplomb.
360 Bar & Dining Sydney Tower Dining Sydney Westfield Centre Level 4/100 Market St Sydney (NSW) (02) 8223 3883