It is not very often that I get to sneak out of the office for a lunchtime assignation with a couple of alluring French twenty-seven year olds. But just as every roué eventually gets to write his letter to Penthouse Forum (as an aside, when I lived in New York I was quite social with the editor of Penthouse and his wife, and he always insisted that the letters were not made up, at least not by his staffers) …
…so too every Prick With a Fork eventually gets to write about drinking some of the finest wines in the world.
Thus a few weeks ago I was plowing through another day at the office when the call came from an old friend and occasional intellectual sparring partner: a friend from London was in town, a food and wine writer no less, and would I care to join them for lunch at Bentley in Surry Hills to talk about the local restaurant scene? Oh, and the friend added, I’ll be bringing some wines that a relative recently gifted to me.
Now I’m not sure if the Bentley is, strictly speaking, BYO, but in our case they made an exception. Those bottles, if your screen resolution is poor, are a couple of 1985 Burgundys: A La Tache, and a Grands-Echezeaux. The bar and dining room were all but empty this lunch service and Airegin from Miles Davis’s masterpiece quintet-eraalbum, the appropriately-named Cookin’ , provided the soundtrack as the barman got to work on the corks. Everyone in the restaurant stood with silent anticipation as the corks were slid from the bottles: it was as tense as a bomb defusal, and for a moment an explosion would have been preferable to the unmistakable tainted smell of must and vinegar. Fortunately neither eventuated.
As expected, the Echezaux came out strong right off the blocks: We had a sniff, swirl and sip at the table. This was, even after lying dormant for 27 years, a big, big wine. Earth, terroir … France! … hit me square between the eyes, followed by what I can only describe as taking a bite of brioche coated in the greatest berry jam in the world right after exhaling a mouthful of smoke from a Montecristo #2. Then: the silky reliction. The La Tache was, unlike her friend, more restrained, uptight, and even acid, but she would come around.
On to the table, and the food. To start, a perfect cylinder of smoked eel parfait wrapped in a kombu gelee for an amuse.
It wasn’t a match, particularly, for the wine, but it was a damn fine bite of food, combining a surprising lightness of texture with a satisfying blast of umami. Bentley does that progressive presentation thing very well, and it is a fiddly business. I have their cookbook at home, and I know they love these cylinders. They must go through more of the PVC piping required to achieve the effect than Richard Gere.
For starters, foie gras, because I can never go past the stuff. It was, again, a parfait. But this time it came out as a rectangle, appearing with cocoa “chips” and carrot. This was a far better treatment of the produce than the last time I had been to the Bentley: The night Julia Gillard deposed Kevin Rudd as prime minister, we had come for my birthday, and what I remember of the meal (we were all too busy receiving text message updates and skolling Wendouree in our manic, political-junkie excitement to pay much attention to the food) was that I had received a fairly dense cylinder of liver (those PVC pipes again!) atop some puffed rice bubbles. It was an attempt in texture contrasts that just didn’t work, but I’m pleased to report that since then Brent Savage has restrained and refined his cooking since June, 2010, only doing things because they make sense and not just because he can. If only the Prime Minister had learned the same lesson in the intervening time!
(Oh, and the wines? By this point, the La Tache was pulling ahead. It had opened well in the glass, and while daintier than the Echezaux was displaying all sorts of complexity).
Mains were, for myself, a roasted duck breast, and for my friends new and old, filet of beef. The duck was good, though oddly tough – and in a joint like this I would have figured such a meat would have spent a fair bit of time in the immersion circulator. It did look as though it had been sliced lengthwise, rather than crosswise, for presentation; could that have changed the mouth feel?
In any case the beef was the clear winner, and while I didn’t take a photo it was a really lovely plate of food: beautiful meat treated sympathetically with few distracting flourishes, and a perfect foil for the wines.
Also on the table was a Jenga of chickpea flour chips with aioli, which were frankly amazing, and so good that I tried my hand at making some to go along with some short ribs a few nights later: obviously, I’m no Brent Savage, but I do what I can.
No dessert for us, just the dregs of the bottle – which we drank happily. By the end the La Tache had retreated and the Echezaux had come back in full force. It was by this point ethereal and transcendant, and I could not help thinking how this fermented grape juice had waited patiently for 27 years just to bring an afternoon’s joy to three gents. It was, if not quite a religious experience than perhaps a Gatsbyesque one: We beat on with the wine, and were borne back ceaselessly into the past.