Say Cheese

Eat, Sydney / 16 April 2014

A suited waiter with a cute smile placed a glass of chilled Chardonnay into my hand before I even stepped foot into the Opera Café. It was the first sign of a good night to follow.
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Lea Nguyen, the PR manager from the Intercontinental Hotel, welcomed us to their new  ‘A Taste of Dairy’ themed dining experience. This was followed by an onslaught of cheese-inspired Hors d’oeuvres including parmesan churros and tiny marinated quail wings, with layers of lemon foam cased in caramel chestnuts. It was like eating a cake out of an eggshell while the salmon roe and ricotta on sea salt pappadums tasted like the ocean.
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When we sat down at the beautifully-appointed table where the elegance was elevated to the ninth degree. Head chef Tamas Pamer spun us a little yarn about how the motto of the chefs at Opera was, “Try. Enjoy. Indulge.” He’s been working hard to make sure that the restaurant is a restaurant in a hotel, not a hotel-restaurant. The food is fresh, local and dynamic – the chefs are rather dynamic too – and the produce is sourced from regions in Australia that specialise in that product. His sidekick Julien Pouteau was equally enthusiastic, with the added bonus of a cute French accent. Tamas (below, left) and Julien met cooking French cuisine in San Diego “a fair few years ago”, and it was culinary love at first sight.
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A year in the making, the dinner is also designed to educate diners on where their food comes from before it hits their plate. All the dishes are unique and started out as nothing more than a concept. The talking wrapped up fairly quickly with a casual, “Let’s get this show on the road!”, which is the perfect thing to hear when you’re insanely hungry and surrounded by cheese and flowers. I was momentarily excited by the fact that the Pepe Saya butter was served inside a stone. In my hungry daydream, I thought that I could use it to defend myself if anyone tried to take my cheese.
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The first course, Tamas’ “girliest dish” was a beetroot cured trout with fromage frais, chive and pickled cucumber. All the colours in the dish – despite the fact that they were so bright they made me squint – were natural and delicious. The sweet biscuit, the smooth fish, the slightly bitter dill and spicy chive all combined to totally confuse my palate and make my stomach incredibly happy. The wine that was paired with it was a Logan Vintage ‘M’ Cuvee, a beautiful champagne made by leaving the grapes in their skins for longer than usual to create a richer colour and a creamier, nuttier flavour. The entire course was incredible and in hindsight, my favourite.
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Course two was a Jannei Goat Cheese Milk Pudding with young pine needle, caramelised turnip and buckwheat. The pine needles were deep fried and crunchy. Tamas shared his well-kept cheese secret: the milk is always better when the grass is greenest, because during the autumn rain is when the grass is at its richest. The milk becomes denser and the pudding becomes amazing. The Polin & Polin John Rook’s Rose from the Hunter Valley had an earthy flavour that complemented the pudding to perfection.
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The room went silent as the smell of the third course wafted from the kitchen and a Buttermilk Roasted Barossa Chicken with mushrooms, potato maxim and a cheddar emulsion was presented. The chicken was marinated overnight to make it sweet and moist and the mushrooms were a mixture of chestnut, king oyster and pine. The cheddar, all the way from Tasmania, was frothed with carbon dioxide and whipped into a delicious foam. With it came a glass of Montrose Stony Creek Chardonnay from the Mudgee Region, which had a beautiful lightness to it and a citrus flavour that made it my favourite wine of the evening.
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After a quick breather – and by breather, I mean another glass of Chardonnay – fourth course appeared. It was the first of two desserts; Baked Reblochon, aka the ‘Mountain Man’. A warm, soft confit fig with crunchy walnut bread was a base for the cheesy sauce that was served straight from the pot. (Figs are “so in season”.) The entire dish was warm, delicious, perfect for the winter season and oh so Swiss! The Ross Hill Pinnacle Series Cabernet Sauvignon was another great choice. Tamas assured us that the wine pairings were adventurous, but he wouldn’t call them experimental. I would, I’d call them experimental and wonderful.
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The most anticipated dish of the night was Brie Custard – probably because it sounded so strange. The Brie was from the Twelve Apostles region, and is probably what the apostles are bowing down to. It was served with apple, thyme honey, brioche, macadamia and ice cream. The salty brie was made sweet by the honey, so the custard had the perfect contrast of flavours. The custard was butter-based (I vowed to do a ten kilometre run the next day, which I unsurprisingly did not do) and the brioche was cut into soldiers to dip into the custard. It was nothing less than a stroke of genius. The macadamia nuts were candied in caramel and the ice cream was made from goat’s milk that was reduced into a dulche de leche, and then made into ice cream. I’m not sure that I’ve ever had such delicious ice cream. And the Small Acres Cyder Pommeau was the sweetest cider I’ve ever tasted – it’s made from cider and liquor mixed together. It was also the most photogenic drink of the evening.
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In case you don’t believe me about the custard, here are some genuine reaction shots:
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We were all speaking in Julien’s French accent by the time we’d finished eating, and we started singing Wrecking Ball at the table very enthusiastically. My friend and her wine were engaged in some serious PDA, and I wanted to make love to my Chardonnay. Not to mention to super-sized Easter eggs that made an appearance a little later.
A Taste of Diary is only the first in a series of three dinners all with a central theme; up next is ‘Top To Tail’, followed by ‘Foraging for Truffles’. I knew it was time to go home when the waiter asked, “Tea or coffee?” and I said, “Chardonnay.”
For more on the ‘A Taste Of’ Series at Cafe Opera hosted by Sydney’s Intercontinental Hotel, click here.