Even for a city bludgeoned by high property prices and $10 beers, a $22 toasted cheese sandwich sounds hard to swallow.
But to consider the version created by Peter Gilmore at the new Sydney Opera House restaurant Bennelong a cheese toastie, well, that’s like calling a Rolls-Royce a car.
It’s served at the casual “cultured and cured” counter bar, along with a $24 sausage roll and after trying both, Business Insider thinks both are worthy of the location and price.
Gilmore spent a couple of weeks experimenting just to get the cheese combination right. It’s a mix of five Australian artisan cheeses: Bruny Island’s C2, Australia’s first raw milk cheese, and Heidi gruyere, both from Tasmania, two from Victoria – L’Artisan’s washed rind and Shaw River buffalo mozzarella, plus Paesanella ricotta from Sydney.
The combination takes the best things about all the different cheeses: nuttiness, a bit of stink, tanginess, stretchiness, to create an orchestra playing Beethoven’s 5th in your mouth. The chef then shaves black truffle from Manjimup in Western Australia through it to take the opulence right over the top. This is one of those iron-fist-in-a-velvet-glove moments.
The sandwich is made from brioche which Gilmore bakes in the restaurant. He’s made it more savoury than usual and before it’s toasted, it’s slathered with truffle butter.
The chef told Business Insider that without the truffle, the toastie would be about $14, adding that it’s meant to be an extravagance amid a broader meal (tip: have the amazing carrots and nuts salad), rather than just having it on its own.
The sausage roll arrives in six bite-sized pieces topped with a dollop of fermented black garlic from Tasmania. This is no butcher’s floor scrapings in pastry. It’s made from suckling pig, slow-cooked at low temperature for 10 hours before it’s pulled apart and mixed with vegetables – you can taste them – inside ethereal and flaky puff pastry.
Serve with an Endeavour pale ale.
The only thing missed under the soaring concrete bones of Jorn Utzon’s Opera House sails is a large telly so you can watch the footy rather than staring out across the water to the city.
Restaurateur John Fink says he originally joked that they should make a chiko roll for Bennelong.
“At the heart of it, they’re a light-hearted look at the long-running question: what is Australian food,” Fink explains.
“Pete makes a mean meat pie too.”
Fink is something of a toasted cheese sandwich aficionado, having travelled the world to try them, making a documentary film on the subject that he’s planning to release shortly.
But his favourite is now the Bennelong version.
“There are five Australian cheeses and an Australian truffle. These are world class products and Australians should be really proud of that,” he said.
The ultimate cheese toastie has been something of a holy grail for Australia’s top chefs.
Several weeks ago, Bennelong’s former incumbent, Guillaume Brahimi, released this video for Virgin Mobile to raise funds for food rescue group OzHarvest’s #mealforameal campaign. It’s a croque monsieur, which is French for ham and cheese toastie.
Every Saturday morning, former restaurant chef Alex Herbert dishes up her “crooked madam” – her take of a croque madame (the female version adds egg) – at Eveleigh Farmers’ Market. It’s pretty fancy pants, using Sonoma country white sourdough, Egganic eggs from a fellow stallholder, and Pepe Saya butter with Swiss gruyere, adding either Dijon mustard or her home-made BBQ sauce. Have it with both mustard and the sauce and the brown paper bag your toastie comes in will be marked “slut”, but don’t take in personally. No sauce and it’s marked “nude”.
Melbourne chef Ben Shewry from Attica, one of the world’s 50 best restaurants, offered his own version of a cheese toastie for dessert. His hay ice cream with Canadian grilled cheese features in his cookbook Origin, supercharging the sandwich with maple syrup and walnuts, but if you’d prefer someone else to do the cooking, it’s hard to beat Richmond Hill Cafe & Larder’s croque madame, which uses parmesan and gruyere cheese and costs $15.50, while the RHCL grilled cheesy toast is $12.
Another brilliant option is Wee Jeanie cafe in Yarraville, which dishes up an open Welsh rarebit – think melted cheese on toast with Guinness, mustard and Worcestershire sauce – for $9.
As pleasant as both cafes are, neither is a UNESCO World Heritage site or declared the Eighth Wonder of the World. Even if your toastie costs $22, dining inside the Sydney Opera House is priceless.