About Me
I'm a Melbourne boy, hailing from St Kilda with one ex, one current wife and four kids. Love the outdoors and making new discoveries. I cook a lot at home (cheers from wife) and do some preserving, mostly jams, pickles and fruit liqueurs. This is the diary of a cooking journey.

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Saturday, September 08, 2007
Rockpool Bar & Grill
Just south of Gironde in France, is a town called Bazas and around here they breed cattle known as bazadais. This particular breed were ancient working cattle, but due to their fine grained meat which has tons of flavour as well as tenderness, they have become renowned as beef cattle, there is even an appellation system of sorts in place. They amazingly raise the cattle to five or six years of age before slaughter; compare that to supermarket meat, which is 12 to 18 months at most.

What this breed and system of raising cattle ensures is meat that is full flavoured, but what happens next is critically important. The meat is dry aged to allow its natural enzymes and certain friendly bacteria to work their magic and tenderize the meat. Without this step, the meat would be very tough and chewy and not as flavourful. Unfortunately, dry aging meat also means a lot of wastage and these days has largely been replaced by wet aging whereby the meat is sealed in plastic (cryovac) and left to age, but this system doesn't concentrate the flavour as there is no loss of moisture and badly done, can impair the flavour of the meat.

I love a good steak and always have, so it was with some interest and anticipation that I noted the opening of the ponytailed one, Neil Perry's, Rockpool Bar & Grill at Crown Casino, his first venture south of the border from his Rockpool restaurant in Sydney. It would be easy to dismiss it as just another steak restaurant, but this sure isn't another Lone Star steakhouse, anything but. Firstly, they take their meat very seriously here. Apart from having 9+ marble score Wagyu, there is the grass fed beef from 2 to 3 year old beasts that have been traditionally dry aged for up to 40 days, which apart from a few restaurants in the know, is practically unheard of. Secondly, there are seafood choices, Perry's forte, from produce that has been as carefully handled as the meat. This is most definitely a produce driven restaurant, produce of the highest order.

However, there were some minor quibbles, the first of which occurred when trying to book. Our attempt was at short notice (two days) for a Friday night and we were turned down as they were fully booked. I booked another restaurant that we'd been wanting to try and when I told my wife D, she told me that she really wanted to go to Crown, so I thought perhaps there might have been an earlier sitting and called to find out. When I explained myself, I was told that they would have informed us of the earlier sitting if a table was available, but then went on to mention the attached wine bar where they didn't take reservations, but we could order off the main menu if we were early enough to get a table. Why didn't they mention that the first time?

We took the punt and arrived at 6.30 pm and snagged the last table. We were led to a wide corridor that had a long banquette down one side and comfy armchairs the other; from where we were seated was a good view of the young chefs at work in the kitchen, smoke billowing from the wood fired grills, and glimpses of the main dining room. It was quite darkened and with soaring ceilings, gives a strong likeness to a place of worship, which in a way it is, we were here to pay our respects to some of the finest beef in the land. There are some excellent choices of wine by the glass and we started with Chandon blanc de blancs while we perused the main menu rather than the more limited bar one.

There were several wonderful sounding entrees, but we settled on sharing a plate of Joselito Iberico ham ($50). After only a short wait, a bare, wooden serving board appeared, topped with three large, oval, slices of the ham. It was here that another quibble arose. Both the tables to the left and right were served with bread, an organic sour dough light rye, but even with the arrival of our entrees no bread was offered to us, which the Iberico ham was crying out for. A waiter was offering a second helping of bread to the table next to us, when I hijacked him. Let me tell you, it was so worth it, their homemade bread is wonderful and served with unsalted butter. It was also the very first time either of us had experienced Iberico ham and from the first taste we were blown away by the creamy, sweet, melt-in-the mouth ham, which had just a hint of gaminess. We managed to make those three slices last for a full fifteen minutes of unadulterated pleasure, accompanied by a very classy Bindi composition pinot noir.

You can tell a lot about a restaurant just by looking at the food passing by and everything looked so inviting; there wasn't a dish that I didn't want to try and it was easy to spot the Rockpool inspired dishes. The couple next to us were so taken with the entrees, they ordered and shared three of them, as well as their steaks. The waiter that I'd earlier hijacked reappeared to ask if we would like more bread to which we aquiesced, then disappeared, never to be seen again.

Then our steaks arrived.

This was it, the reason we had come, to experience meat of the highest quality, expertly handled and cooked. Mine was a sirloin on the bone ($60 for 400g), off a three year old, grass fed steer, dry aged for 38 days, D's was a rib eye steak on the bone ($45 for 330g) also grass fed and aged for 38 days. The only accompaniments were a wedge of lemon, horseradish cream and Bearnaise sauce. With things this simple and spare, there is no room for error. My steak was cooked rare, as ordered, and sliced into thick segments, with the small bit of bone detached and resting alongside. First impressions count for everything and mine were not good. As I turned the first piece of meat over to cut it, there was a piece of fat, 1" thick (2.5cm) making up half the section, it looked awful and subsequent sections all had a large amount of fat attached up until about halfway along, from where the amount of fat was more acceptable. When you pay by the gram, so much fat doesn't look good.

With the meat trimmed of excess fat, it was time to try and I have to admit being somewhat shocked that my steak carried absolutely no seasoning of any kind. I have watched countless chef's bollock their staff for inadequate seasoning of meat and here was a piece that deserved a bollocking of Gordon Ramsey proportions - in a restaurant of this quality and expectation, it was unacceptable, highlighted by the perfect seasoning of my wife's steak. The wait staff were unable to explain either the lack of seasoning or the excess fat and were unwilling to approach the kitchen brigade with these concerns, which was disappointing, chefs need this type of feedback.

After some judicious seasoning from the salt and pepper mill provided, I can say the steak was the finest I've ever tried. The flavour was deep, rich and lingering, the meat had perhaps a touch more resistance than that from a younger specimen, but the dry aging had worked its magic. The Bearnaise sauce was cloud light, with just the right acidity and the horseradish for the cream was freshly grated. We had side orders of onion rings, which were crisp and light and a mixed leaf salad dressed with a palm sugar vinaigrette, which was perfectly judged.

We declined dessert and settled our bill. Overall impressions are, this could be a world apart from other steak restaurants, it's a wonderful space in which to have a meal, but in order for it to be perfect, the little things will need some attention, still, it's early days. As we left, I noticed more senior chefs moving into position, perhaps that would have made all the difference, I'm sure time will.



  posted at 9:49 am

At 8:46 am, Blogger MyKitchenInHalfCups said...

Always fascinating to try a new place and have an experience like this and return in 6 months to see how things have gone. Love that the ham could light you both!

At 9:35 am, Blogger Lydia said...

It's always tricky to try a new place so soon after it opens. Most restaurant owners I know say they would rather have your feedback than have you not return, so you might call or email and let them know of your experience.

At 1:11 pm, Anonymous John said...

Very good write up Neil. I too find it hard to believe that the finest beef is not seasond in the so called New Restaurant of the Year, awarded by the Gourmet Traveller with two stars!!!! With more senior chefs moving into position does this mean it's not such a good idea to try to get in early? Shouldn't every customer experience 'the best' at anytime. How did you spy that anyway? It is truly a tough industry to please people in with every one being a food critic. Regards John

At 1:45 pm, Blogger neil said...

Hi tanna, I couldn't believe that ham could be that good, now I need to find the supplier!

Hi lydia, you must be in RSS, I had to change the text after I discovered that it opened October last year, it wasn't properly dated on their website and even though I knew it had been open about a year, it didn't click when I was writing, but picked it up later...perhaps I need a sub editor.

Hi john, it was strange about my meat not being seasoned, everything else certainly was and perfectly too. You're right about consistency, it ought to be, no matter what time you eat. We had a great view of the wood fired grill and I was able to watch the chefs the entire time, the chefs at the start were younger and seemed quite relaxed, you could notice that change when the older looking chefs started up somewhat later. It is a tough industry and so far I've avoided reviews for the very reasons you mentioned; I tried to make this piece observational rather than personal.

At 10:50 pm, Blogger thanh7580 said...

I can't believe they didn't put at least a little bit of salt on the steak. Just that bit of seasoning makes all the difference.

Why is that Iberico ham so expensive. $50 for three slices of ham sounds very steep. Is this ham aged or something?

At 6:02 am, Blogger gigi said...

I find so often that when service is poor the entire evening suffers, no matter how heavenly the food ~ probably the result of too many years spent waiting tables. Although the steak was ultimately wonderful, paying by weight for so much fat is really an issue. I agree with lydia that you should email notes of your impressions both good and bad; it's always positive to get feedback from knowledgable sources, I think. In the end, everyone benefits.

Kudos to you on such an even-handed and insightful review. :)

At 3:58 pm, Blogger neil said...

Hi thanh7580, I can tell you, apart from the fat, it was the very first thing I noticed, I was stunned by it. The iberico comes from a special breed of pig in Spain that are fed on acorns, I don't think they make a lot of it. It has been available at Casa Iberica, the Portuguese grocer. The last time I asked, about a year ago, it was retailing for $300kg.

Hi gigi, you're right, it's the little things that have to be right in order to have a great meal. I did as Lydia suggested and emailed the restaurant and received a courteous reply, some of what they said made sense, but we certainly disagreed about the amount of fat and they didn't address the issue of seasoning at all, even though as I write this, I've asked twice.

At 1:34 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi. Just a little insight into Rockpool bar and grill from someone "in the know". Steaks at Rockpool are seasoned liberally before being put on the woodfire, with generous amounts of murray river sea salt. There is no pepper used to season any steaks or fish, this is just something Neil wants, and Neil gets! Secondly, when a steak is served, it is seasoned again with a sprinkling of sea salt, Extra Virgin Olive Oil, and garnished with a wedge of lemon. Once again, no pepper. As for the fat issue. I beleive that there is left on for flavour purposes. As the meat ages, this fat develops, and deepens, in flavour. Having your steak cooked rare, not alot of the fat will be lost on the woodfire, as opposed to having it cooked medium, alot of the fat will be lost. You are correct about the issue of charging for weight, and obviuosly, the steaks are weighed before being cooked. If someone has a steak cooked well done, they might feel a little annoyed at paying the price for weight, but a well done steak loses alot when it is cooked! Hope some of this helps you out here. Oh, also, as for young chefs in the kitchen, there are a few that are 3rd year apprentices, or just recently qualified, but beleive me, the standard does not drop when the "young ones" are cooking. The executive chef there makes sure everything is always right, and if its not, he will defeintaely let the younger ones know. Im sure you know, like in any kitchen, if you dont want to get a hiding from the chef, dont make mistakes!

At 1:56 pm, Blogger neil said...

Hi anon, I promise you that my steak wasn't salted, whilst my wife's was, it was really obvious from the first taste. We raised the issue with our waiter, but he didn't take our message to the kitchen, where I'm sure it would have been sorted. The lack of pepper was of no real concern as it can scorch during high heat cooking, leading to acrid flavours on the meat. I also emailed Rockpool Bar & Grill with my concerns and they have accepted that in my case there was too much fat and there was also a problem with the salt. I don't have a problem with fat on the meat and I understand what you say about it, but if you turned over a few segments of steak and they were half fat, half meat, you may feel a little cheated too. Mentioning the young chefs was just an observation, it is just as possible for an older chef to forget about seasoning too, but my point was that the kitchen looked to be carrying more experience as we left than when we arrived.


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