Oncore by Clare Smyth review Barangaroo Review 2021

1 Barangaroo Avenue

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Opening hours Lunch Fri-Sun 12pm-3pm; dinner Wed-Sun 6pm-11pm
Functions Tasting, Licensed, Views, Accepts Bookings
Prices Expensive (mains voltage over $40)
payments eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard
Telephone 02 8871 7171

Well, this is exciting. Dressed, resting elbows on a leather-bound table, overlooking the Harbor Bridge. Not to mention legions of waiters clad in black, marching trays of intense, precise, tantalizing food for three hours at a time, having to say things like Chambolle-Musigny again.

Sydney has waited two years for Clare Smyth’s Oncore (pronounce Smith, not Smythe), and even now the first female British-born chef to have three Michelin stars is making us wait. Her people say she will stop by sometime in February to visit her first restaurant outside Britain.

Not that she would ever be here full time, pandemic or not. That role goes to New Zealand-born chef Alan Stuart, who has worked with Smyth at both Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant and her own Core restaurant in London’s Notting Hill.

Oncore looks and feels like a luxury residential apartment. Photo: James Brickwood

Make yourself at home

On arrival at Crown Sydney’s 26th floor, each guest is taken into the kitchen to meet the chefs, who toil behind glass. Some have no idea how to respond to this welcoming gesture; others embrace it.

Like Core, Oncore looks and feels like a luxury residential apartment, with its deeply cushioned dining room chairs, long chef’s table, blond parquet and Guides to good food and Art Deco vases scattered over superfine glassware on the plank walls.

Restaurant manager Michael Stoddart and the floor team move smoothly between guests and quickly sense who needs attention.

There’s something of a botanical theme, with strange branch-like fixtures creeping across the ceiling, their flower lamps casting soft light over just 68 lavish guests.

Chicken liver and madeira parfait.

Chicken liver and madeira parfait. Photo: Edwina Pickles

Much of the food is nestled in bouquets of greenery, which sounds, and may be, kitsch, but it has great charm. A blizzard of snacks shows the finesse of the kitchen: the wafer-thin quality of the cake under an emulsion of “jelly-eel”, the smoke wreaths around chicken wing lollipops, the pea-green cream enclosed in a small gouge dough.

Another pie, of chicken liver parfait under a madeira gel cloak, is to be plucked from a gnarled old vine decorated with moss and small seasonal flowers like a forest scene from bambi.

Potato and Roe.

‘Potato and roe’. Photo: Edwina Pickles

It’s all about the potato

The seven-course tasting menu unfolds through kingfish crudo curled in a flower with radish petals, loosened by a kingfish bone broth. Then it’s time for the critically acclaimed Potato and Roe, Core’s signature dish since day one in 2017.

A tribute from Smyth to her Northern Ireland childhood on a potato farm, it is truly delicious, each whole potato slow cooked in kombu butter, then topped with herring and trout roe and small fermented potato chips planted amongst baby shoots of sorrel, chives and arugula.

Bred by the Hill Family in the Southern Highlands, the hoe is dense, waxy and briny, with an umami-rich seaweed beurre blanc with a perfect nappe consistency (rich, light, but still runny). All right, did I just write the word “nappe”? What’s next, the word “kitchen”? This brings me back to my classic French cooking days (oops, I just said kitchen).

A thick slice of syrupy, cake-like, malt sourdough is served with a splash of Victoria’s Long Paddock Cheese butter, making me say to the whole room “this butter is so good it doesn’t need bread”. Fortunately, the tables are well spaced.

The fish course is Murray cod, in a broth that is light and spicy. Good thing, because we’re about to get meaty.

Lamb Carrot.

‘Lamb carrot’. Photo: Edwina Pickles

The meat of the matter

Each dish brings a different chef and a different story to the table. The Lamb radish is quite full, a single root slowly cooked in lamb glaze to evoke the delights of a real lamb navarin, with a little sheep’s milk yoghurt and carrot pesto in lamb gravy. That would suffice, but it’s also topped with shredded lamb and lamb fat crumble, and comes with a small bun filled with more lamb. Delicious, but threatens to lose the fun of that carrot.

Beef and oysters.

‘Beef and oyster’. Photo: Edwina Pickles

Another classic Clare Smyth dish is the beef and oyster, faithfully recreated here with a perfect square of rare Shiro Kin wagyu topped with thick, warm Wapengo Appellation oysters. On the side, a dramatically deep oyster shell is a so-called “pie” of tender beef stew, silky mash and oyster, topped with a crispy oyster.

At this stage, my stomach begins to tell me that my work here is done. I say it to pin down and get serious; the restaurant industry is back.

Three thousand bottles, no waiting

Head sommelier Remon Van de Kerkhof has a great love for Australia’s most classically crafted wines – Pikes, Grosset, Balnaves – and shows many of them on the wine pairing. Yes, you guess right; we are not in a funky, wild, natural wine country here.

If you’re feeling good, now is a good time to order the 2017 Michel Noellat Village Chambolle-Musigny ($98 glass/$550 bottle) or even the Comte Georges de Vogue Musigny Grand Cru ($4850).

Core apple.

‘Core apple’. Photo: Edwina Pickles

Sweetness and light

Pre-dessert is a stunning visual play on a toffee apple with a flummery-esque Pink Lady mousse enrobed in apple gel that is tinged both red and green.

Pear and lemon balm.

‘Pear and lemon balm’. Photo: Edwina Pickles

Dessert is a very tempting concoction reminiscent of a Christmas tree, made from soft and crunchy meringue that conceals a wonderful Poire Williams sorbet and lemon verbena jelly. I love the way it’s built almost as much as the fact that it hasn’t been deconstructed.

There are also petit fours, but I don’t want to make a spoiler on every little thing.

The verdict

Oncore is exactly as I imagined it – completely over-the-top, over the top, luxurious, a little bit boring and damn fun. The food is unabashedly shaped, formal and playful, refined and refined to breathtakingly consistent by one of the strongest kitchen teams in Australia. It’s a “nicer” experience than I expected, and more nurturing. The potato dish alone is worth the entrance fee.

There is reason to think that sitting for three and a half hours with seven courses of fine dining at three Michelin star level is untenable, somewhat absurd and more of an event than a dinner. However, I defend to the death their right to bring it to Sydney. And our right to get excited about it.

the low-threshold

Cost Three-course a la carte $200 pp; seven-course tasting menu $300 pp; wine pairing $190pp

Vegetarian Seasonal menu available

Drinks Champagne by the glass, custom cocktails and a 3000 bottle cellar

Pro tip Bookings open January 1st at 9am for March and will go like hot potatoes and trout roe.

Terry Durack is chef restaurant critic for The Sydney Morning Herald and senior reviewer for the Good food guide. This rating is based on the Guide to good food scoring system.



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