Dining at a Chef's Table has always been my idea of bliss. I'd much rather forgo the silver service of a dining room and be a fly on the wall of a restaurant's kitchen. It's here, in the inner sanctum, that the true heart and soul of a restaurant can be found.
I'd first spied the Chef's Table at Becasse during the launch party, and was immediately struck by how thoughtfully this feature had been incorporated into the kitchen's design. The u-shaped bench sits directly opposite the pass, offering diners a complete view of the plating process, as well as all the cooking action at the induction stoves. This isn't just a glimpse of the kitchen, but an intimate inclusion in a live dinner service.
I made a booking immediately.
But first, the entrance. The Becasse restaurant, recently relocated from its Clarence Street premises, can be found at the far end of the Level 5 Food Court of Westfield Sydney. Owners Justin and Georgia North were inspired by Thomas Keller's Per Se in the Time Warner Center in New York City, believing that they, too, could create a fine dining restaurant in an upmarket shopping centre.
A gate overgrown with greenery is the first clue that diners are about to enter a secret garden. Justin explained that he wanted to create a deliberate escape for harassed and harangued city workers.
The four season corridor entry to Becasse
The gate swings open to reveal a corridor that progresses through the four seasons. It's a magical moment when you first see the transition of colours. Justin says he wanted diners to feel like they were leaving their worries and cares behind as they move from spring to summer, then autumn and winter down the corridor, the branches changing in foliage with each season.
The willow branches that wrap their way around the ceiling were all grown for this entrance, planned a few months in advance and grown and cut at specific heights. All the leaves have been cut from silk and then applied by hand to the branches. Snaking fairy lights have been strategically positioned to provide ambient illumination. It's a corridor we're reluctant to leave.
Housemade butterpuff with green olive mascarpone
We step through the small and intimate 25-seat dining room and follow our waiter into the kitchen. The Chef's Table seats six, and we fit easily into the soft padded banquette.
A housemade butterpuff pastry is immediately presented to our table. The pastry is effortlessly light and flaky, topped with a quenelle of fluffy green olive mascarpone.
Salt bowl by Blue Mountains ceramicist Simon Reece
The aesthetics of the restaurant have all been carefully considered. Outside in the dining room, the tables are all covered with ostrich leather. Our bread plates and the bowls for salt have been designed by Blue Mountains ceramicist Simon Reece who uses inspiration from nature to create his works. His recent collection included an Iced Earth series, and the salt bowls make us think of profiteroles, biscuits or honeycomb covered in chocolate.
Justin North sharpening his knives
Oh look, here's Justin North. He says hello to us all before he starts sharpening his knives -- in a non-threatening way, of course. I've met Justin several times before, but it's still an altogether different experience seeing him in his element.
Monty Koludrovic, Head Chef
Monty Koludrovic, Head Chef, is keeping everything under control. We're surprised to learn that tonight -- a Monday -- is a full house, with the Chef's Table taken, 13 people in the private dining room, and all seats booked in the dining room.
Butter with wakame and black salt
The breads all come from the Becasse bakery next door. Most of the baking is done between 10pm and 6am, ready for deliveries at 7am, but there's almost always someone in the bakery kitchen at any hour of the day.
Our plate of housemade breads are delightful, and I'll admit I took childish glee in cutting miniature slices from my petit brioche loaf. The brioche is wondrously soft despite its size, and the poached quince sourdough is refined and elegant.
The amuse bouche is presented in a curved glass bowl set on a imprinted stone. The glossy dollop of duck liver custard is so satin smooth I have to pause and catch my breath. It's enhanced by a delicately wobbly pear jelly but it's the puffed buckwheat I love most, crunchy nuggets of cereal that make me think of chocolate crackles.
I'd looked across the table when the G-Man had started moaning in delight with his first mouthful, but when I dip in my spoon, I can only nod. Repeatedly. I cup the bowl in my hand, savouring and scraping every last mouthful, but really, I needed to be alone with this dish. It was that good.
Justin North using an espuma gun for the pea puree
We've ordered the nine-course degustation ($190) but I'm already getting worried about my stomach capacity and we haven't even officially started the first course. A natural silence descends over the table, and we marvel wordlessly over the intricate plating required for each dish. What stands out most is how quiet and calm the staff are in the kitchen. Computer screens installed in the kitchen are used to keep track of orders, but conversation levels are barely much above a murmur between chefs.
The bespoke Autumn vegetable garden is bewildering in its beauty. We'd watched it being plated from start to finish, a process that seems to take about ten minutes for each table. An espuma gun is used for the base of pea puree before teaspoons of olive crumb nut soil are sprinkled on top.
Long Japanese tweezers that wouldn't look out of place in an operating theatre are used to carefully and meticulously plate and arrange heirloom carrots, wafer-thin slices of radish and sprigs of celery leaves. Crumbs of dehydrated goats curd are scattered on top.
It's a textural playground that seems a shame to destroy, but we apologetically dismantle it anyway, savouring the contrast of pickled carrots and radishes with the sweet puree of peas and the salty rubble of olives and walnuts.
The second course of marinated yellow fin tuna is just as pretty. Cubes of Earl Grey jelly are almost microscopic in size, dotted on a plate with ribbons of celeriac and two delicate slices of abalone ham, made by cooking the abalone sous vide with vermouth.
Monty Koludrovic adding dots of extra virgin olive oil
Assistant manager Louise Tamayo
Watching the food being plated is mesmerising. By now, we've worked out that we're the only party of six in the restaurant, but even so, it's still a surprise to see our plates being picked up from the pass by waitstaff and then transported two steps away to our table.
The third course is a new addition the menu, a confit cube of ocean trout sheathed with a ruby red layer of pomegranate jelly. Its flavours are echoed in the seeds of fresh pomegranate that harmonise texturally with the briny bursts of fresh trout roe. Shreds of Noosa crab are sweet and succulent.
Dots of coconut cream, olive oil and Vietnamese dressing are visually striking but I find their flavours are lost in the dish.
Can't talk. Eating.
Our fourth course is fish, a moist fillet of hapuka cooked slowly in squid ink. The "fried egg" is the cutest thing in this dish, made up of cauliflower puree topped with a spoonful of miso paste. The cannelloni are filled with chicken and prosciutto, hovering on a mound of plump Coorong pipis and slippery curls of raw squid.
Watching the sauces on the induction stove
Justin North adding sauces
Justin North selecting micro herbs
Velvet chicken and prawn mosaic is presented as a slice of terrine, nestled against strips of battered chicken skin, earthy chestnut and pine mushrooms, and a disc of chestnut mushroom royale. Drizzled around the circumference of the bowl is a seafood bisque.
Justin North assembling the Forgotten Vegetables course
Justin North extinguishing the shaving of cedar wood
Justin comes over to personally tell us about the sixth course -- the Forgotten Vegetables -- and it's clear this one is close to his heart. This dish reminds me of my childhood, Justin says, and there's a tone of wistfulness in his voice.
I'd tried an earlier version of this dish last year, but it's clearly evolved since then. An assembly of purple congo potatoes, sweet potatoes, turnips and white radishes are carefully placed in a circle with tweezers. The rounded lengths are presumably meant to resemble a forest, but I find they look disturbingly more like bullets. A thin sheet of cedar is set alight with a blow torch to create a smoky fragrance. Justin blows out the flames, whereas I notice that Monty extinguishes his with a forceful wave of his hand.
It is interesting to compare the different textures of each vegetable, but I find myself pining for slow-roasted baked vegetables with caramelised edges. The yabby tail is fresh and sweet, and two squares of smoked pork jowl are deliciously fatty with a sticky skin.
Assembling the next round of Forgotten Vegetables
Serving decanted red wine (extra $70 for matched wines with the $190 9-course degustation)
The seventh course offers two options. The petite block of David Blackmore wagyu is melt-in-the-mouth bliss. You can almost hear the Barry White soundtrack as you
Glenloth partridge is delicately gamey in flavour, served with caramelised brussel sprouts and an artichoke puree. The boudin blanc is made with beef intercostal muscle, found between the ribs.
There is always something to watch in the kitchen, and as the evening progresses, we can tell when the kitchen is in full swing. The peak of service gradually tapers off and as the kitchen is scrubbed down, the action switches to the pastry section.
Holy Goat La Luna is one of the few Australian goat cheeses made in the traditional French soft-curd style. The cheese has a gentle creaminess that works well with the pickled rhubarb and burnt butter crumble.
The pre-dessert is a refreshing palate cleanser of apple three ways. Springy columns of soft apple mouselline remind me of marshmallow, and we dip our spoons into a cool apple sorbet and a tiny dice of fresh apple in zingy wine jelly at the bottom.
Dessert also offers two options. The lighter choice is a sunny mix of citrus jellies with lemongrass and lime caramel and a quenelle of vanilla yoghurt sorbet.
I'd chosen the chocolate option, a glamorous cocoa-dusted orb garnished with crinkled sheets of gold leaf. It's hard to detect the cumin in the salted caramel inside, and the crumble of chocolate and honeycomb starts to become a little sweet after a while.
A scoop of chocolate sorbet provides some relief, but it seems a little odd to have two components of a dessert presented separately.
Chocolate sorbet and 68% Alto Beni Zokoko chocolate cadeau and salted black cumin caramel
Autumn Still Life (ordered from the three course a la carte menu)
I'd been entranced by a tweeted photo of the Autumn Still Life, and the staff at Becasse are happy to accommodate my request to order this dessert in addition to our degustation. It's incredible in appearance, looking more like a piece of art than something you'd eat.
The dessert is an elaborate construction of cocoa soil, licorice parfait and armagnac sorbet. The mushrooms are made from meringue and "caps" of Baileys ice cream parfait and chestnut ice cream parfait. Spindly chocolate caramel twigs loop over cocoa tuiles and buried nuggets of confit chestnut.
Candied fennel fronds evoke images of a wintry Christmas, and even the licorice and cocoa combination somehow remind me of gingerbread.
Jaclyn Nichols is the head pastry chef at Becasse, and we're told that there are plans to conceive a Still Life for every season.
Raspberry and almond macarons; and lemon verbena dark chocolates
Chefs cleaning the kitchen as we languish with petit fours
We finish with a platter of petit fours and teas and coffees. It's been a long evening, but always entertaining. We'd started at about 6.45pm and are ready to leave at 11pm.
We're sent off with a farewell gift - carrier bags holding a Becasse crossiant. "Perfect for breakfast tomorrow!" Louise says. [It was deliciously soft and fluffy the next day]
Pastry chefs making crossiants
As we exit, we stop by the Becasse Bakery and watch the pastry chefs making crossiants in the kitchen.
Piping cream for Saint Honore cakes
Justin North in the kitchen at Becasse
Would I recommend the Chefs Table? Definitely. It was a memorable evening and worth saving those pennies!
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Level 5, Westfield Sydney
Corner of Pitt Street Mall and Market Street, Sydney
(take the express escalators from Pitt St Mall next to Sportsgirl)
Tel: +61 (02) 9283 4400
Lunch Monday to Saturday from 12pm
Dinner Monday to Saturday from 6pm
Becasse on the Westfield Sydney Food Tour - Stage Two
Charlie & Co Burgers
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5/11/2011 04:26:00 am