Don't look for a seat belt. Restaurant Arras is simply one helluva ride. Head chef and co-owner Adam Humphrey believes that all food should be fun, injecting the British dishes of his childhood with whimsy and humour.
A historic former bond store houses Restaurant Arras, awarded one hat in the SMH Good Food Guide in 2008, 2009 and 2010. The heritage-listed building is a moody mix of exposed brick, caramel carpet and comfortable padded chairs in chocolate brown.
House spiced almonds and olive twists
The menu isn't cheap here, with entrees starting at $26.50 and mains hovering around the $42 mark, but, as we'll soon discover, each dish is wondrously complex, and complimentary tidbits are provided generously throughout the meal.
Service is well-considered and seamless, starting with a plate of complimentary house spiced almonds and olive twists that are provided for our party of four to nibble on as we peruse the menu. The descriptors are vague and cryptic, like "Fruit and Veg", "Ta Jean" and "A Plate of Mirepoix". Waitstaff will happily describe each dish in detail, but we have some fun in trying to guess them first. Billy correctly guesses that Ta Jean is a tajine.
House onion bread and malted sourdough
We decided against the $130 nine-course degustation, and choose a la carte instead. Once our order is placed, a bread basket arrives with six different breads - warm from the oven - to choose from. They're all made on the premises. A miniature turret of onion bread comes with slivers of caramelised onion, and though I delight in the petite loaf of malted sourdough, the slice of fruit bread is the winner, soft and fluffy with chunks of walnut and a nibble-worthy caramelised crust.
Amuse bouche: tomato, sardine and buckwheat salad
The complimentary dishes continue with an amuse bouche, a velvety fillet of sardine nestled within a forest of micro greens and hiding behind a peeled cherry tomato that bursts with flavour. A rubble of buckwheat salad is chewy and toothsome, and a delicate trail of yellow powder offers a mysterious sweetness that the waiter eventually identifies as lemon dust.
Crab eggy bread, dressed crab, jelly and custard $31
Billy starts with the crab eggy bread for entree, a finger of French toast topped with a "sausage" of crab meat wrapped in gelatine. The plating is exquisite, from the thimble of crab jelly to the quenelle of crab custard, holding aloft a tree-like sprig of dill. Spherified pearls of crab consomme are a little soggy but the dots of crab sauce are intense.
Plate for Mr. McGregor $30
I'd ordered the Plate for Mr. McGregor, enamoured by its description as a tribute to Beatrix Potter, author of the children's book Peter Rabbit. It arrives as a riot of colour on the plate, dots of puree in-between leaves and flowers and the preparation of rabbit three different ways.
"Look! It's a rabbit lollipop!" Billy laughs. I also find rabbit rilletes and slices of a rolled rabbit loin. This dish takes me ages to eat, as I tenderly explore each component. I savour each edible flavour, dab gently at each dot of puree and slowly crunch on undulating slivers of dehydrated carrot.
Beef, dripping, nasturtium and "aligot" $48
Suze and Pete have both skipped entrees and gone straight to mains. The beef has been cooked in its own dripping, a stack of pink slices that are quite lean and not as juicy as we expect. To the left is a portrait of garlic cloves and nasturtium leaves, framed by a rectangle of aligot. This traditional French smooth and stretchy potato is usually made with garlic and melted Tomme cheese, but due to lack of access in Australia, Adam uses only Quickes Cheddar, and omits the garlic.
Monkfish, charcuterie and spices $43
Billy's main is another spectacular artwork, wheels of superbly cooked monkfish resting among edible flavours, vegetable curls and chewy strips which taste like fatty pork skin.
Pork belly, whey, head cheese and rice $46
My pork belly comes with pork crackling prepared in three different ways: as crackling, deep-fried as a cracker, and crumbed. The smithereens of pork crackling have set in a thin straw of toffee that tastes like the best kind of pork brittle you could possibly hope for. It's another playground of textures and flavours and I dip my fork in and around the plate, making wild guesses at what I'm eating.
Beneath the pork crackling straw is the head cheese, delicate shreds of flesh taken from the head of a pig. Traditionally head cheese is set in aspic, but here it's cleverly sandwiched between two paper-thin discs of pink gelatine.
The plank of pork belly on the left is meltingly soft, the top layer of crackling made even crunchier with a sprinkle of crackling dust. On the right is an equal length of leek and potato terrine, made up of microscopically thin slices that beggar belief.
In the rear corner of each plate--oh yes, it continues--are slices of mustard fruit made with apple, and black crackers that the waiter reveals are made from rice dyed with squid ink and deep-fried.
Restaurant Arras reception desk
The dessert menu is even more puzzling, and when we ask for a description of the dishes, our waiter asks "Do you really want to know, or would you rather be surprised?" He can tell from our faces we really do need to know. We take our dessert very seriously.
Pre-dessert: Caramelised fig with hazelnut ice cream
We segue to a complimentary pre-dessert, a simple serve of caramelised fig, a crumble of praline and a scoop of hazelnut ice cream.
Revel in it $20
We share desserts, starting with Revel In It, a dish I correctly guess is based on the UK confection Revels, bags of chocolates containing mystery fillings of orange creme, toffee, coffee, raisins or Maltesers.
Adam's version is a similar take, a series of homemade chocolates served with chocolate sauce, foam, vanilla ice cream and a thin twig of crisp pastry. There's a sense of excitement as we reveal which flavour we each received -- I ended up with the coffee creme.
The Cinematic Souffle $20
The Cinematic Souffle was the one dessert we'd been looking forward to, previewed in blog posts and tweets before our arrival.
The popcorn souffle boasts some serious height, a foamy cloud of elegance bursting forth from its copper pot. It's an orgy of popcorn, with popcorn ice cream, toffee popcorn and plain popcorn reminiscent of the movies, served in an Arras-printed paper bag.
A jug of caramel sauce is meant to be poured into the souffle but we douse the plain popcorn with it instead. The entire masterpiece is deliriously good.
Petit fours platter $10 with coffee or tea
The petit fours platter at Arras is legendary, and we all order teas and coffee in breathless anticipation.
It's an impressive sight, rows of chocolates, jellies, toffees and honeycomb lined up with precision on a slate tile. The waiter rattles off the name and ingredients of every piece, but by the end we've forgotten them again and pick them out mostly based on visual instinct.
"Take as many as you like," we're told, and we giggle like little kids as we steadily take more and more pieces. The chocolates are delectable.
Eating here can be a little perplexing for those who like to be in control, a mix of elusive menu descriptions not helped by mysterious unidentifiable components on the plate. However if you let go of the steering wheel and simply enjoy the scenery, you're guaranteed a captivating and sometimes hare-brained adventure.
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3/14/2011 03:45:00 a.m.