Hands up who remembers the old Gowings department store? Somewhere in the back of a cupboard the Prick still has an old shirt from there bought maybe ten years ago, a durable bastard it was if it’s still around, and given the fiscal exigencies of those days, it would have been a cheap bastard, too. When Gowing’s finally shut down in 2006 there was much predictable wailing and gnashing of teeth about the death of an Australian institution … but the dogs bark, and the caravan moves on.
Today, Gowings – the name, at least – lives again at its old George Street HQ, which last year finally emerged from its chrysalis of insolvency writs and builder’s hoardings to reveal a hotel and restaurant and spa a hundred times hipper than anything that had ever been before.
There’s a New York vibe to the place, but also a London one. In the restaurant and the hotel the crew is dressed in a weird sort of hooker-chic by way of a Bob Fosse dance routine as translated through a sequel to Fifty Shades of Grey in which Austin Powers shows up as the protagonist. At any moment it feels like they could start cruising for trade or burst into a dance number: Yeah, baby!
The party continues on the plate, which winds up at the table via a big, open kitchen complete with wood-fired ovens and more shiny brightwork than the A-arm of the Cruising Yacht Club. We had to have a bit of a smash-and-grab meal as a show in the State Theatre next door awaited, but could just as easily have built our own little four-hour feast off the menu, which seems made to encourage sneaking in a few scallops here or a half-dozen oysters there as palate cleansers and appetisers.
Crab cakes came more like croquettes than the big Maryland-style patties of the Prick’s youth, but very meaty yet light nonetheless. A steak tartare of ox and beef was a winner: the Prick is a traditionalist about this dish (and most other things, really), and so was a bit concerned after reading another blogger’s account that suggested it missed the mark. But the meat was rich and properly chopped by hand, with enough zing to cut through and keep it all together. There was just enough Lea & Perrins in there to make its point, but not so much as to clobber you over the palate.
A minute steak stayed rare in the middle when all too often grill stations turn such cuts to shoe leather, and a veal schnitzel was large enough it would not have fit in an economy airline seat without a lap-extender belt. And it came topped with a fried egg and some really lovely anchovies, like a deconstructed anchoiade. Simple and great, this may be the Prick’s new at-home dinner-for-one when Mrs Prick has a work function. An inch-thick Berkshire pork chop was tender in so many ways, and helped along by a sharpish mustard sauce: again, very old school, but very modern, and very good indeed.
In many ways, the meal was just the tonic for a poor Prick who has lately been addled by events and feeling a little low.
At a time when favoured restaurants are shutting down or being converted into cafes, when one of Sydney’s greatest and
most unique wine shops has been bought out by a corporate monolith whose marketeers are sure to crowd out the Vieux-Telegraphe with bargain-bin De Bortoli, and when the city is drowning in a sea of South-of-the-Border taqueria barns whose walls groan under the weight of Mexican kitsch picked up in Frida Kahlo’s yard sale, it is hard not to feel the weight of corporatized vulgarity pressing down. Tricky thing when one’s general worldview is basically a tory-ish libertarianism.
But Gowing’s Bar and Grill affirms that change isn’t necessarily bad and that big money corporate fit-outs can also deliver the goods. OK, we don’t have Gowings’ cheap polo shirts and novelty shaving crap anymore, but we do have the internet to solve that problem. And where Gowings once was we now have this damn fine restaurant. Schumpter’s “creative destruction” at its best.