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by Sally Hammond
It’s a long time since I last enjoyed Chef Raita Nodu’s food at his former Japanese restaurant, Rise, in Darlinghurst. I remember a dark and crowded, bustling room, a sushi bar at full speed, and some of the most sublime food I have ever tasted.
Ocean Room, Nodu’s latest restaurant where he is Director and Executive Chef, right on the waterfront is more relaxed, more open, less overtly Japanese, with a centre-stage view of the Sydney Opera House and all the activity of Circular Quay. That’s if a cruise ship is not berthed right in front! Well, this is the Overseas Passenger Terminal so that can be expected occasionally.
The night we visit, though, the harbour is in full view and we are constantly entertained by RiverCats and water taxis as they zoom alongside the wharf. The occasional stately appearance of a Manly Ferry is an almost low-key diversion.
I am compiling list of ‘absolute waterfront’ dining experiences in Sydney and I make a note to add this one. The outside tables are even closer to the water than we are behind the floor to ceiling windows, and there is another row of tables beyond them, right on the edge of the walkway. How good is that?
“Chef suggests the Tasting Menu,” our waiter mentions before we order, but 11 courses, even of this chef’s food, seems too extreme tonight – same with the Ocean’s Eleven (11 sashimi shooters) – so we go for the a la carte, and I take advantage of the market special of ocean trout, grilled. It arrives simply presented with a tiny fuzz of dill and micro leaves to one side and two lines of condiments, one of which is a most interesting ‘charcoal salt’. The dish needs neither and I pair it with a salad of tomato and greens, and fries – but what fries! Here they come crunchily perfect and generously topped with wafer thin slices of truffles! The later are from the Himalayas, we are told. I have to tell you that unlikely as it seems, this is a match made in the heaven of chef Nodu’s imagination.
Gordon’s main course was an even more stunning creation. Billed on the menu as a fried New Zealand flounder basket with a herb mixed salad we are still unprepared for the presentation. The flesh of the fish had been removed from the bones and the pieces separately battered and fried. These were then tossed through the leafy salad that was heaped back into the fish skeleton, which in the meantime had been deep-fried to a crisp, and somehow curled to create the ‘basket’. A waiter hurries up to make sure he understands that he can eat his basket as well.
I should mention that before these dishes, my entree of school prawns dusted in semolina and deep fried, served with a smoky chipotle aioli was also delicious. Only once have I ordered school prawns before and that was many years ago at a restaurant owned by Peter Kuruvita who is now the chef-extraordinaire at Flying Fish another Sydney restaurant I am very fond of.
“Don’t hold back,” I am instructed when I ask if I can eat the entire prawn, head, tails, shell and all. This is the prawn equivalent of whitebait and I eat them that way – with my fingers too, because it seems the only sensible way –and they are sweetly crunchy. Gordon’s entree of calamari pops, plump nuggets of calamari, comes with two dipping sauces – one creamy, one more fragrant.
Ocean Room is lofty, the bare dark timber tables well spaced, and unintrusive music plays. In the open kitchen to one side, a brigade of chefs toil at the counter. Upstairs is another room, obviously for private groups or functions.
Personally, I liked the Ocean Room’s décor the way it is, a little art-deco with tall silver padded-backed banquettes on one side under elegant fringed red hanging light shades and with magnificent pom-pom like chandeliers in the centre. But a month-long closure of the restaurant saw a stunning refurbishment recently.
Currently Chef Nodu is strengthening links to the tuna industry in South Australia. He has been able to capture a regular quantity of export-quality tuna for his diners and he is justifiably thrilled about this. Ocean Room will become the only restaurant in Sydney to be able to offer this particular high quality tuna.
We can see he is already devising wonderful ways to use this prized fish. With his culinary magic, who knows? It may even eclipse the fries with truffles!
Ocean Room, Ground Level, Overseas Passenger Terminal, Circular Quay West, 02 9252 9585, Licensed. Open for lunch from 12pm Tuesday – Friday and dinner from 6pm Monday – Saturday.
GPS: -33.858878, 151.2095695
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