May 26, 2013

Missing the Marque

355 Crown St
Surry Hills, NSW 2010

8 course degustation, $160 + $5 for water (compulsory)
1 optional cheese course +$15, with matched wine +$15

Modern. Austere. Disappointing.

Three words that accurately describe our experience at Marque, a restaurant that has achieved numerous awards, including GT's restaurant of the year in 2012.

Tucked in amongst some of the best dining to be found, on Sydney's busy Crown Street, we found ourselves equally tucked into a dark corner of the restaurant and subjected to a loud and busy mix of post 90's prog rock. The only highlight of which was The Pixie's - Here Comes Your Man. This is fine, romantic dining? I'm already confused.

Amuse: Potato Maxims with Oyster and Wakame.

The food, like the music, was discordant. Technically superb but lacking a coherent rhythm or point, it challenges the diner but not in a good way.

An amuse of potato crisps, artfully decorated with a mousse of oyster, and wakame powder arrives. Novel, but the story it tells me is that the chef had access to some interesting equipment and has skill, but this is just a prelude to the meal. It's not a potato maxim, and the oysters aren't oysters. So what is the chef trying to tell me here? We haven't got a menu so we don't know what is coming up next. 

Our waitress scowls when she sees us discussing our cameras during the noticeable wait for the first course. The Sommelier seems to take over and is the only person that wants to talk to us all night, or at least show some interest in being there. It's a Friday night and the place isn't full yet, what's going on?

1st: Blue swimmer crab with almond gazpacho

Here's your plate. Turn. Leave. If we hadn't hacked the LED table light and brought a torch, we would also have had a hard time seeing what we were eating.

The first course is a Marque signature of blue swimmer crab, with almond gazpacho, almond jelly, sweet corn, and Avruga. Almost indistinguishable to my palate was the crab beneath the heavy marzipan tang of the gazpacho foam and I was saddened by the Avruga playing lonely token to the side. I mean it's not even real fish roe.

The wine pairing, a 2011 Domaine Marcel Deiss Pinot d'Alsace on the other hand, was my hero of the dish. Recommended if you can find it.

2nd: Swordfish lardo with celeriac and daishi

The second course was the first really interesting plate of the evening. Swordfish lardo, with celeriac and dashi. A real umami bomb, but I think it was a bit too much for the paired wine - the Toro Albala Fino Electrico sherry. 

The sherry smelt brilliant when poured, but turned out to be very strongly flavoured for a mere fino. I experienced that it reacted badly with something - probably the cured swordfish - and as a result everything I tasted for the next 20 minutes was unpleasantly heavy with iodine. The Sommelier seemed surprised by this when I commented on it, so I'm not entirely sure if I got a bad glass, or whether my palate was more sensitive to that combination.

3rd: NZ Bass grouper with green tomato, verjus, potato paper, fish milk and roe.

Ah the Fish Milk. I'm not sure why but a lot of reviewers of Marque have made a big thing about Fish Milk as if it's something new, or avant garde. The Japanese have been homogenising fish sperm for centuries in the form of shirako.

The dish itself was interesting. Almost a riff on an English fish pie, with the milk and roe forming a creamy fish sauce. The green tomato and cured samphire being the lifting accompaniment that didn't distract from the threatened species being used as the dish's hero.

Here's my difficulty. Again this was a dish that was tasty - even delicious - but it was just subtly wrong. A touch fishy, and a bit busy with too much going on. As a main course I think it would have been acceptable, but I got the feeling that the chef was in cruise mode with this dish. Best could have made this so much more than a piece of fish in a creamy sauce with a potato crisp on top.

4th: Mushrooms with autumn sticks and leaves.

In Conculsion
Sticks and leaves. The best dish of the evening, this dish was a forest floor, without the annoying soils that a lot of others would have employed.

Dessicated lettuce, radicchio, kale, with roasted pine mushrooms paired with an orange wine, 2006 Bressan 'Carat' from Italy. Hands down the most enjoyable wine of the evening as well. This combination was autumn on a plate. Genius in its simplicity.

5th: Chicken with leeks and liver parfait.

Now the 5th course was contentious. Fried? chicken thigh over splinters of leek cooked to resemble roots or straw. An entire spring onion, grilled and a puddle of drippy chicken liver parfait covered in leek ash.

I had requested no offal (I'm not one to enjoy the nasty bits as much as Ondine) and this is what I received:

Chicken with leeks and... finger lime?

The same dish, with a puddle of finger lime in the leek ash.

Here's where I obviously don't understand the chef again. The onion/leek seems to be a play on the Spanish roasted Calcot, but the chicken (tasty, tiny and almost irrelevant), just seemed to be there to fill the role of mandatory protein. It didn't work. Worse, when challenged with not adding the liver sauce, I got sour lime pearls covered with ash. What the?

6th: Venison with smoked beetroot.

The photo above is venison tartare - novel in itself and not for everyone. The 'egg yolk' is yolks blended with a hydrocolloid gel that tastes mostly like raw egg, but piped neatly on demand. There is a ribbon of lightly smoked beetroot, and the venison is decorated with beetroot leaves.

Unfortunately no-one told the table next to us that they would be getting raw meat for a course. I am not a fan of tartare in general, but the woman at the table actually turned green when it was presented to her. The dangers of not supplying the menu to the diners I guess, but this sort of thing would probably ruin a lot of patron's evenings.

Plate shot.
Just a quick critique once again on the restaurant setting. So far you have seen some - dare I say - nice photos of the food served, and there wouldn't normally be a lot to complain about.

Now compare this photograph of the very same course, as it came to us, for comparison and consider this is food from one of the best in the country. Check out the size of the serving, and how much post-processing was required to restore colour to the food.

Not as spectacular when seen in restaurant lighting, and while this is a degustation, a tartare course being served in this size as the main protein of the evening to me is a bit brave.

Never fear though, next we opted for the optional cheese course and wine pairing. I present to you "Scraps from a picnic in the park".

Optional: Gouda with mandarin.

No, really, this one was actually a bit of genius and one of the best plates of the night. The cheese was a 5-year-old Piano Hill 'Ironstone' Gouda and it matched blissfully with the freshness of the mandarin. The strip at the top of the plate was a fruit leather made from mandarin juice and pulp. The only downside was that the loose shavings were impossible to eat delicately. Cutlery was useless, and fingers only slightly more efficient.

Amuse: Persimmon with Quatre Epices.

An amuse of cheerfully arranged plastic blobs. I'm not sure that the persimmon was seasoned with Quatre Epices as described on the menu, or with "four peppers", as the Sommelier explained. I'm sure it had a tang of pepper, but I detected no nutmeg or the other expected spices normally found in Epices. Regardless I felt this was a clever flavour pairing.

7th: Malted chocolate mousse with native hibiscus.

Three hours down, and we were exhausted. In rolled the dessert. I enjoyed this, but Ondine not so much. It was like a giant ball of Ovaltine with fruit on the side. The roselles were slightly sweet and tart, and completely overwhelmed by the chocolate. The paired Seppeltsfield Cellar No.7 Tawny Port was likewise mismatched and died a horrible death under the sticky chocolate ball of fun.

8th: Sauternes custard.

Marque's other signature - served in the open egg shell - bitter caramel sauce poured over the Sauternes custard. I really did enjoy this, and wish it had been a full dessert size, and not the single egg-sized serving.

In conclusion...
There is no denying that chef Mark Best is one of the leading chefs in Australia, but there is some serious ego here, and an equally large dose of inconsistency. The feeling I got was that the restaurant is all about the chef and not the guest, and the staff seemed happy to follow that lead. Never had we experienced a place so soulless and passively aggressive towards the customers, and frankly the service was not what I would expect from a three-hat place.

Even the ridiculous $5 per person charge for filtered tap water calls into question why Marque rates so highly in all the guides. Myself, I question; why not retain the sustainability statement, but simply include the charge in the degustation tariff?  It's not making me think about the reasons for sidestepping the bottled water industry (which as an aside, is one that I personally believe is incredibly wasteful). This is what is known as greenwashing.

The choice of produce served is neither sustainable nor friendly - there is flip-flopping from "organic" labels, to serving species that are either threatened or known to contain high levels of mercury on the next course.  More inconsistency. 

And on the subject of menus, I don't know about others, but I like to read the document and the list of the wines matched to it. I like to think about how the chef has magically made a combination I would never have considered before. I like a positive sense of expectation. I do not like the feeling that I am dining at a restaurant because the chef allowed it.

Marque set me high expectations, and I just left confused and feeling like they were taking the customers for a ride. This is why while I rate Marque highly, I didn't like it, and would not recommend it. 85/100

Marque on Urbanspoon

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