In a bite
A decade on from setting the pace in the avant-garde of Sydney’s casual fine dining style, The Bentley went in for a nip and tuck earlier this year, emerging with greater energy, excitement and finesse to become one of the standout destinations of CBD dining.
Setting the table
A confession: I’ve been massive fans of The Bentley’s owners, chef Brent Savage and sommelier Nick Hildebrant for the better part of two decades. It goes as far back as when they worked with Mark Best at Marque, then went off to open a quirky, virtuosic wine bar called Moog in Darlinghurst.
It was a sign of the brilliance to come. They first opened The Bentley in an old pub in Surry Hills in 2006. It was, as the tech startup community would say, bootstrapped, but their minimal resources were put to clever, stylish use and it was a place to experiment, with food, wines, and how we eat out – a precocious high-wire act that was unabashedly global without trying to be part of the in-crowd.
In my first year as Good Food Guide editor in 2005, we named Savage ‘chef of the year’, a testament more to his talent than my foresight. It was also easily the best new restaurant and since then, The Bentley has simply been one of Sydney’s best restaurants, with Hildebrandt named ‘sommelier of the year’ and the restaurant awarded ‘wine list of the year’ first in 2007 and twice more.
Between them, Savage and Hildebrandt have gone on two open two more places in Potts Point: the vegetarian bistro Yellow and the wine bar Monopole. They also own one of my regular haunts, Cirrus, one of the city’s handful of brilliant seafood restaurants, down at Barangaroo.
And in between they found time to fall in love, have kids and keep evolving as restaurateurs.
The Bentley is the epicentre of their imaginations, and moved to Pitt Street’s Radisson Blu Hotel in 2013 (for history buffs: the site was Fairfax Media’s first home for a century up until December 1955).
Five years on, they enlisted designer Pascale Gomes-McNabb to reinvigorate inside a 1920s sandstone building, keeping the brooding darkness and something of a warehouse-under-renovation vibe with black steel scaffolding sprawling across the ceiling while the walls are jagged with black and white strokes of paint that offer lighter relief. It’s evolution rather than revolution to The Bentley style.
Downstairs you enter the drop-in bar where you can snack spectacularly on dishes such as a toothfish sandwich with padron peppers ($16), kingfish with yellow raspberries, nori and marigold ($26) and wagyu tongue with fermented saltbush and muntrie relish ($27) while exploring the spectacular depth and breath of Hildebrandt’s fascinating wine list.
The mezzanine, separated by a glass balustrade featuring a forest-like mural, is both literally and figuratively next level eating.
The room hints at luxe steakhouse via New York brasserie with grey leather banquettes, dark timber tables and brass trimmings.
What to eat
The business lunch is not dead at The Bentley, although it’s now the realm of consultants celebrating the fees from advice on another round of corporate evisceration, rather than the bankers, who are now eating at their desks between responses to APRA.
You can lash out on the 15-odd dishes on the $165 tasting menu without feeling like a foie gras goose, or tackle two or three courses from the a la carte menu for $65/75. The entrees are generally priced around the mid-$20 mark, the mains around $50 and desserts around $22.
Savage and Hildebrandt have built a team of such polished excellence that the service and food is seamless. The welcome warm and relaxed to debunk any sense of haughty fine dining.
Time has seen Savage’s food evolve from the brash ambitions of his youth to a more refined elegance that nonetheless remains youthful at heart. You do get the feeling the boy who grew up in a coal mining town west of the Great Divide is now trying to find the answer to life’s existential questions on a plate. It’s a sort of culinary conversion of David Bowie’s Low album into a symphony, although there are times when the descriptions sound a bit like a theory from Stephen Hawkings’ Brief History of Time. Savage keeps an eye on the pack before striking out on his own with combinations that startle in the reading and delight in the eating.
How else can you explain a dessert described as olive oil ice cream with caramelised lactose and pineapple beer, which sounds like the start of a joke about three ingredients walking into a bar, but tastes like the Hallelujah chorus from Handel’s Messiah?
Dotted amid his signatures are surprises such as beetroot with pastrami-like qualities, and camel’s milk curd served with pickled walnuts, radio and celeriac, accompanying wagyu chuck tail flap, a secondary cut that reminds you there are better uses that hamburger mince for beef raised so intensively.
The meal begins with several mouthfuls arriving at once on an assortment of plates: a rock oyster, sweet, sharp and salty from finger lime and shimmering blue-grey scampi caviar; kohlrabi leaves with whipped cod roe; kingfish with yuzu and pink pepper. Each mouthful explosive and thought-provoking, yet relaxed enough to accept at face value.
He makes potato sublime by topping a crisp, small cup of spud with filled with creme fraiche and Italian caviar. Another time, it’s covered in a grated Afro of fresh black truffle.
Savage’s approach is both modernist yet earthy. The house-made rye bread that appears after those appetisers comes with black sesame butter. The extravagant sweetness of WA marron is complemented by the humility of an onion broth and nasturtiums.
The menu constantly evolves, but like a painter, he returns to his favourite subject matter to rework and rethink it, seeking new angles, changing light and shade, and colours, creating an ephemeral beauty to his craft as he goes.
One minute the bass grouper with smoked pil-pil (a bold, thick, white Basque garlic oil sauce) with almond, to riff on gazpacho, has scampi caviar added, the next time it’s sunflower shoots. That camel’s milk cured might be paired with pork neck, miso and nashi pear next time.
And then there’s dessert. Three of them with the tasting menu. If you’re dining a la carte, try them all anyway.
Quince with preserved lemon sorbet, blood orange and stracciatella (an Italian ice cream that also plays on the cheese of the same name) is revelatory. It’s crisp white lattice meringue roof gives it an Opera House-like quality.
Too often I’ve experienced chefs splashing lemon myrtle, a native ingredient, around plates like cheap aftershave, and every bit as pungent, but at The Bentley its subtle in a curd combined with coconut sorbet buried under a rubble of pink pomelo flesh that pops in the mouth as you bite in.
Put simply, Savage is one of Sydney’s most thoughtful chefs, quietly brave and determined and it shows on the plate.
What to drink
If you know what you like and that’s what you want, then chances are The Bentley will have it (although if what you want is Oyster Bay sauvignon blanc, you’re in the wrong place).
But that would mean you miss out of one of the great joys of dining and drinking here – putting yourself in the hands of Hildebrandt and his team, as they guide you through an another world of wine.
There’s 1000 bins on the list – 30 by the glass – with a focus on organic, bio-dynamic and preservative-free wines. The house wines, a pinot noir and roussane, are made by Lucy Margaux in the Adelaide Hills.
Tell them what you like, your budget and they’ll return with something you’ve never seen or heard of before to surprise and delight. It could be a hard-to-find Australian producer who only produces small runs, a similar female winemaker from France, a grape variety you’ve never heard of before or something from a country you didn’t even know made wine.
With the tasting menu there’s a $100 matching wine option or a $200 premium selection that’s worth the extravagance for the chance to taste wines well above the mortality of everyday life.
So the adventure can range from an Australia marsanne-roussane blend from Beechworth’s Vinelea, to a 2008 Rioja, and then with dessert, the Domaine Cauhapé Ballet D’october Jurancon, a late-picked white from the region between the Pyrenees and the Atlantic, made from Gros Manseng and Petit Manning. Yes. Inevitably the wines The Bentley team serve are conversation starters, especially if you’re curious.
Alternatively, there’s a $65 non-alcoholic match.
If you just want to treat yourself to a glass of great wine and something fab to snack on, then head to the bar at The Bentley.
And if you want to experience the cutting edge and very best in Sydney dining and drinking, then head for the restaurant and put yourself in the hands of The Bentley team. It’s an elegant thrilling ride that quickly becomes addictive.
Need to know
Bentley Restaurant + Bar
27 O’Connel Street (Cnr Pitt & Hunter sts), Sydney
Phone: (02) 8214 0505
Cost: Around $90 per head, plus wine.
Lunch: 2/3 courses $65/75
Tasting menu $165
The Bentley Restaurant + Bar
[Restaurants are rated out of 5 knives and forks. The Bentley scores 4.5]
Pork neck with celtuce and miso
Wagyu chuck tail flap with celeriac, pickled walnut, wild garlic, watermelon radish, camel’s milk curd and nashi pear
Quince with preserved lemon sorbet, straciatella and blood orange
Olive oil ice cream with caramelised lactose and pineapple beer
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