Eighteen months after Guillaume Brahimi’s critically acclaimed restaurant at the Sydney Opera House closed amid plans to make the space more casual, one of Australia’s most famous restaurant spaces comes back to life tomorrow, July 1, with one of the nation’s greatest chefs, Peter Gilmore, in the kitchen.
The Fink Group, which also runs Quay at the overseas passenger terminal, plus Otto, as well as being joint venture partners in the two-hatted The Bridge Room, Byron Beach Cafe and the recently opened Firedoor in Surry Hills, won the rights to the iconic space in March last year. The Melbourne-based Van Haandel Group had been forced to walk away so they could focus on rebuilding after their landmark St Kilda restaurant, Stokehouse, which burnt down two months earlier.
For John Fink, the company’s creative director, running a restaurant at the Opera House will be “one of the greatest privileges of my professional life”.
“I come in here and I pinch myself,” he told Business Insider. “I grew up on this harbour. This place is part of my DNA. I did my first concert here, aged six, on the violin.”
Fink is also acutely aware of the responsibility that comes with it.
“Biggest challenge in running Bennelong is that this is a public space and it belongs to 24 million Australians. It’s the heart of Australia’s cultural identity.”
Getting ready for opening night has been a year-long process, including a 9-month rebuild, and for the last fortnight, training and trial dinners, enlisting family and friends to put everyone through their paces.
Fink is aware that everyone’s been waiting for this moment, and watching for some time.
“Because we’ve been working with a really good team, it’s not a pressure that freaks me out,” he says.
“It’s fun pressure. It’s a bit like extreme BASE jumping, but we know we packed our own sail, so we’re confident.”
The new Bennelong is “a little bit of everything”. At its heart it remains the fine diner that belongs in such a remarkable setting, but also addresses the Opera House management’s desire to make it a more accessible space. The restaurant is open nightly, and for lunch Friday to Sunday. The white tablecloths are gone and there’s also a casual dining menu and bar at the top of the challenging tri-level space.
“It’s one of the best bars I’ve ever sat at,” Fink says.
Capping the number of nights the space can be closed for private functions to just 10 a year also addresses one of the key criticisms of Brahimi’s tenure.
“We want to run a restaurant, not a function centre,” Fink says.
Bennelong has five different dining options.
On the lower level is generically titled fine diner, The Restaurant, open for lunch, Friday-Sunday, and dinner nightly, with a $125 three-course menu (plus a $95 two course lunch option). There’s also a 2/3 course ($80/$95) pre-theatre menu with 5.30pm and 6pm seatings. It seats 99.
“Cured and Cultured” is a casual option – counter dining for 14 people while watching the chefs on the central level, with a menu focused on raw, cured and cultured produce. The dishes are priced up to $30.
The menu, which includes the desserts from the restaurant, is also available in the 30-seat “Circle” on the upper level and runs until 10.30pm. The central level also includes “The Table” – a semi-private space for 6-12 offering the restaurant menu.
“The Bar” on the top level has room for 18 and doesn’t take bookings. You can eat from the “cured and cultured” menu there. Fink says it will stay open late.
The ultimate gastronaut experience is “The Kitchen” – a six-seat behind-the-scenes table in the kitchen, with a 10-course chef’s tasting menu and matching wines at a hefty $650 a head.
Peter Gilmore remains executive chef at Quay as well as now running Bennelong. A champion of Australian produce, he’s continued to hone the menu until the final day before opening to ensure it reflects the heritage of the space.
“There are many different ways to experience Bennelong, but the focus throughout is on the diversity and incredible quality of produce sourced from all around the country,” Gilmore says.
“The main restaurant is built around a three-course, à la carte menu showcasing stunning Australian produce, whereas the ‘Cured and Cultured’ offering is simpler, with a focus on raw food such as beautiful oysters, cured meats, crustaceans and organic vegetable salads.
“It will be light and accessible, so that you can come in and enjoy a dish or two with a glass of wine before heading to a performance at the Opera House.”
Once the restaurant has settled in, Fink has more plans for the space, including a weekend brunch menu, theatre interval take away packs and late night suppers in The Circle beginning later in the year.
Sydney Opera House
Ph: (02) 9240 8000
Dinner: nightly 5:30pm-midnight
Lunch Fri–Sun noon-2pm
Bennelong team: (l-r) restaurant manager Neil Walkington, general manager Kylie Ball, John Fink, sommelier Russ Mill, exec chef Peter Gilmore and chef de cuisine Robert Cockerill.
A restaurant entree: slow-cooked heirloom pumpkin, Bruny Island Cheese C2 cream, Manjimup truffle, roasted seeds.
A restaurant main course: John Dory roasted and served on the bone, orach, turnips, kalian, umami butter.
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