Our visit to Neil Perry's Melbourne Rockpool Bar & Grill occurred back in October (2007) so apologies for the delay. But the experience wasn't without its flaws, which needed to be mulled over...okay I was just
I will admit to being fairly excited about the prospect of dining at Rockpool although I'll qualify that Neil Perry wasn't really on my top ten list of celebrity chefs whose culinary mastery I'd needed to sample before I die (unlike my visit to Rick Stein's Padstow Seafood Restaurant in England many years ago). But nonetheless excited I was, because this is the very same Rockpool awarded The Age Good Food Guide's Restaurant of the Year and The Australian Gourmet Traveller 2008's Best New Restaurant. Lofty credentials surely. We visited on a cool rainy Wednesday evening right on time for our 8:30 booking, meeting up with our tourists after they'd spent a few days at the Grampians. Like many before us, we were all struck by the atmosphere of carnivorous anticipation as we walked down the restaurant's long entrance hallway with see-throughs into the meat ageing and fish preparation rooms along one wall, and a line of caged lockers for hanging coats along the other (more on this later...). The dining room itself had a visually impressive pass framing the grand open kitchen. Scanning the rest of the layout with its dark polished floors, multitude of dark chocolate leather chairs and wood-grained tables with little brushed steel table-top lamps, the first impression was of a dining equivalent of an airline members' club lounge, though admittedly with a moodier air of stately class. And in the middle of the week for the late sitting, the vast room was bustlingly full. A waitress later told me that the place averages between 300-400 sittings per night on a typical week! Our group of six was led to a long (but too narrow) table near one of the large windows looking out onto Crown Promenade. As we were seating, a staff member offered to take our multitude of coats and jackets to be hung elsewhere so we were freed from having to drape them across the backs of our seats (but more on this later...). From our vantage point it was big-end dining at its most surreal, as we sat through hourly over-the-top displays from one of Crown's gas-fueled plumes that fired off just outside, its fiery exhaust all but muted within the restaurant. Certainly wowed the visitors.
As is the norm in such establishments, we were offered a choice of (free) tap water or mineral water (Santa Vittoriaa acqua minerale at $10 a litre). We were fine with the stuff from the tap but my gripe was that it was served tepid throughout the night and wasn't in the least cooled. The free option relegated to an afterthought? The presented drinks list was a hefty tome but for unsophisticated wine palates like ours choosing was relatively easy, scan the list for the rare bottle that wouldn't cripple the bank. The heathens among us thus decided against the 1969 La Tache Domaine de la Romanée-Conti burgundy ($8,500!) and got a bottle of 2005 Gembrook Mayer pinot noir ($55!) instead...same grape different soil, let someone else decide if the difference is worth it. Though in relative terms the markup for the local drop was probably more horrendous! The meals menu which is printed daily listed a good selection of hot and cold starters and sides but mains were largely divided into cuts of prime beef cooked on the wood-fired grill or seafood related offerings. There were also a couple of bird dishes there but I'd suggest not to bother with Rockpool if you are vegetarian and want choices.
We decided to share tastings of a selection of the entrées on offer. This time choosing was more difficult as the starters were numerous and all tempting but we settled on the Sashimi of Ocean Trout, Tellowfin Tuna, Whiting and Hiramasa Kingfish with Organic Soy Dressing ($26), the Ham and Salami Tasting Plate ($35) mainly for a sample of the Joselito Ibérico cured ham, and the Duck Ragú with Pappardelle Noodles ($19) to introduce some richer flavours. I must say that these were all great in contrasting ways and had the lot of us wishing for more than the meagre morselfuls we shared around. The fish with their garnishing of grated daikon and ginger stood out in their delicate freshness and I really thought that the ham tasting plate was the right way to go to experience the so called "world's best" Joselito ham. The single rasher stood well out in front of its counterparts on the wooden serving board in its burnished oily texture and depth of fine porky flavour, definitely was very good. An entire (expensive) plate of the same ($50), and there would be no reference point to highlight its superiority. The ragú was full gamey, tomato and deep winey flavours tossed into rather good fresh egg pasta.
For mains, most of us were of course there for the wagyu but those that did not share a similar infatuation for beef chose the Woodfire Grilled Pigeon with Parsnip, Pears and Radicchio and the Roast Herb and Parmesan Crusted Hapuka Fillet with Jerusalem Artichoke Sauce (both $39). I had a taste and can confirm that the pigeon was excellent, done to still slightly pink with sweet moist flesh and skin smokey from the grill, and well complimented by the bitter-sweet mix of vegetables. The fish in our opinion was not as successful, which was disappointing given the seafood pedigree of Rockpool. It was a dish designed for those who would like to choose fish for a change but had no desire to taste it. The hapuka simply failed to compete with the cheesy crust and richly creamed sauce. On to the steaks! The wagyu cuts on offer were rump (at $90 for 200 g) and leg cut ($49 per 200 g). The beef at Rockpool B&G are sourced from local Blackmore Wagyu, dry-aged at the restaurant, all apparently from 9+ marble score cattle, and qualify as the most expensive steaks I've had. But our visitors didn't bat an eyelid (okay maybe the once) and all ordered the rump, while for the sake of differentiation I decided to try the cheaper leg cut. I think everybody knows by now that a steak at Rockpool comes to the table undefiled by anything else on its plate, bar a wedge of lemon. Which is fine but at these prices I don't see why a shared bowl of plainly steamed vegetables or a plain green salad can't be offered to complement the protein. It used to happen. However, a selection of accompanying sauces and condiments were proffered from which I chose some horseradish cream and a dollop of harissa. Alas my first taste of wagyu was, as much as I pondered for some better description, underwhelming. Yes, the steaks were cooked expertly and exactly as ordered to just past rare and the sliced meat looked appetisingly grill-marked and tantalisingly juicy but...the flavour did not blow my socks off. Not totally bland since it was juicy and I could taste some beef but definitely lacking in seasoning and deceptively looked to be more grill-seared than it tasted. A couple in our group who've had wagyu before, very expensive Kobe sourced beef at a promotion in some schmick multinational hotel overseas, said their previous experience won hands down so the disappointment was unanimous. To be perfectly honest, I've had tastier and infinitely cheaper woodfire gilled steaks where they come served with a giant foil-wrapped spud slopped with sourcream and a side mount of coleslaw! A taste comparison revealed that the leg cut was definitely chewier than the very tender rump but this would be expected and it was still by no means tough. So were our expectations for Rockpool's steaks turned up too high? To go with our mains we also had sides of the Potato and Cabbage Gratin ($10), Roasted Mushrooms ($12), Onion Rings ($6) and the Sauteed Brussels Sprouts with Bacon, Onions and Burnt Butter ($8). They were all delicious though my favourite was the exceptionally flavoursome but simple dish of brussels sprouts.
Rockpool's rare and rarefied steak of wagyu served tantalisingly with only a wedge of lemon
Attention to table service through dinner was passable for this calibre of restaurant but by no means as personable as it should be. I'll concede that this was probably due to the high numbers of full tables overstretching the busy staff, but is that any real excuse to individual diners most of whom are paying in excess of $100 per head for the experience? A far more interesting insight was presented after we'd left our table and were milling around the reception area trying to find someone to locate our coats, which we erroneously thought would be brought to us after settling the bill. After meeting with further inattention, we nabbed a scurrying waiter who led us to the lockers where after some searching we pointed to a recognised jacket. He then proceeded to retrieve our items of clothing which were hung on top of one another on a single hanger when rrrip, velco tabs that were on a friend's heavy weather jacket were torn away from the silk of KB's favourite and more delicate Charlie Brown evening coat, causing severe burring in the areas to which they were clinging. KB was understandably a little upset at this but the waiter had quickly disappeared so we went back to the reception desk to make a complain with one of the front-of-house staff in black uniforms. Don't get us wrong, of course we knew that the accident was nobody's fault and just one of those things, but felt that we needed to suggest (in the most civil manner) that perhaps heavy weather jackets (including a leather jacket and shell-layer rain jackets) should have been distinguished from lighter and more delicate evening coats (the material differences were pretty obvious if some consideration was paid) and not all hung together in a great big mount. The attitude from the staff member was eye-opening...no apologies or commiserations, just a recalcitrant insistence verging on rude that it was in no way their fault, that coats from the same table had to be hung together due to space restrictions, and the implication that we had only ourselves to blame because the rough jacket that caused the damage belonged to one of our party. WTF! Excuse me but I suggest that if they offer the service, then they should also have some responsibility in doing so with some care. After five minutes of getting nowhere we dropped it and by sheer irony, as we turned around to leave I caught sight of the man himself, Neil Perry looking a bit tired and taking a fiver in the corner of the kitchen but by then we were all rather over it and didn't much care. Had we been offered a simple apology or even perceived a feeling of regret from the supposedly professional hospitality staff, we would have put the incident behind us and may even be inclined to return for a future experience. Unfortunately as it was, I'm left with the impression that if you're simply limpet no. 300-and-something in Rockpool's typical evening, it's doubtful whether they much worry whether you'll be inclined to make a return visit or not. The next tide will simply wash in another crowd (like we had been) eager to fill any vacant spots...for now.
Which begs the question, what values and expectations do people out there place as being important to them in an expensive fine-dining experience these days? Do media-crowned big-end 'restaurants of the year', and particularly ones associated with celebrity chefs, become immune to customer disappointments because we will either forgive or even provide excuses for their lapses whether it be the food or service? Somewhat like the populace made to critique the Emperor's new clothes?
Food: 4 spots - Selections from the cold seafood bar and small-dishes were a highlight but I'll give the wagyu a miss if there's ever another visit, and my wallet will thank me for it.
Service: 3.5 spots - Front of house staff needs lessons in people skills. Efficiency of floor staff okay but need to seem like they're enjoying their jobs more to make the experience memorable for diners. You're there for a special dinner at very special prices but treated like no one special.
Value: 3 spots - A moot point in such establishments but the upmarket prices of some menu items really make value hard to see. Rockpool B&G prides itself on the lengths it goes to in sourcing the finest produce and treating it with the utmost respect, though what self-respecting fine restaurant wouldn't have that same philosophy?
R-Factor: 3 spots - Sadly marred for us but...I'm still no dead horse that will need to be flogged too hard! Wouldn't be leading myself there to 'water' in a hurry though.
Spot Score: 14/20
Rockpool Bar and Grill
Crown Complex, Southbank, Melbourne, VIC.