There is something a little whimsical about standing on the bank of a river, waiting to be ferried with the love of your life to a waterside restaurant for lunch. So it was one recent Saturday. The clock had just ticked into afternoon, the autumnal sun was shining, and Berowra Waters Inn – on the stunning Hawkesbury River – was beckoning us from somewhere upstream.
We were the only diners to be picked up by the restaurant’s private ferry, which added to the air of exclusivity around lunching at one of Sydney’s landmark dining destinations. Berowra Waters Inn is a 45-minute drive from Sydney and the showpiece of esteemed chef Dietmar Sawyere, of Forty One Restaurant fame. Our expectations were high.
We boated up river for a few minutes before arriving at the restaurant’s private mooring. Window-seated diners watched our arrival.
The main dining room is long and narrow, with floor to ceiling louvre windows running the full length of one side of the room. Each glass louvre reflects the river, creating a dazzling light-filled dance down the room. A neat row of tables lines the window side of the room. Leather banquets along the opposite wall face another row of tables and leather chairs. Along this side of the room, a line of low hanging, basket-style light shades dangle directly overhead.
The set, $160, six-course degustation menu meant most of the decisions were made for us. Did we wish to match each course with wine? The drive back to Sydney ensured we declined. We settled on a bottle of Glandore Estate Chardonnay from our favourite NSW winery.
A canapé kick-off of bacon, egg and mushroom on toast paid tribute to the breakfast we had wisely abstained from. Ceramic appetiser spoons were the perfect receptacle for this bite-sized take on brunch: a quail egg, golden crouton, and lardons of bacon. Another canapé of chilled prawn, watermelon and cucumber relish was a back-up taste-bud wake-up call.
From there, six courses cruised out of the kitchen over an unhurried, four-hour spell. Citrus cured salmon, accompanied by two firm yabbie tails with slow baked aubergine, sour cream was a light and refreshing start. “Don’t fill up on bread,” we said, before devouring fabulously crunchy, warm sourdough rolls that we smeared liberally in Échiré butter.
Chilled vichyssoise, with oscietra and salmon caviars, and beignets of Hawkesbury oysters was a decadent homage to the river. A tiny teacup of chilled vichyssoise – a thick soup of pureed leek and potato soup – had been whipped, frothed and discharged through a cream whipper canister until it was seductively light.
A contemporary take on a classic dish, it delivered surprise, salty bursts of caviar when slurped. I could have consumed a bucket-load of the stuff. The crunch of warm beignets – a deep-fried pastry – complimented perfectly the soft, succulent oyster innards. The golden parcels sat on a bed of sweated, buttered, sweet leeks.
At this point our waiter noted our long-empty wine glasses. He touched one and commented that he had thought, at first, they were unused because they were so clean. “That would be because they are so empty,” I refrained from saying. We felt certain of a refill. Unfortunately our amicable, but distracted waiter, wandered down our end of the room on several occasions, checking tables, before we eventually called him over and asked for a top-up. “Oh, you didn’t tell me you had a bottle,” he reprimanded. Why it hadn’t occurred to him to refill, or remove, our empty glasses was beyond me.
I got a flash of his bare leg as he walked away, courtesy of a large rip in the seam of the low hanging crotch of his trousers … at least I hope it was his leg. It’s not often you go to a high-end restaurant to see a waiter’s clothing unravelling at the seams. A little later he confessed he was “quitting” the following day.
Fillet of wild barramundi, peppered oxtail croustillant, and a smear of French onion soup puree was sophisticated affair. The barramundi was slow cooked until the flesh was buttery, and the scored skin almost as crispy as that usually found on pork. The croustillant – the French term for crisp – lived up to the translation. Fat cigars of brik pastry were filled with rich, peppered oxtail that was big in flavour and oozed naughtily out of each end of the croustillant when it was cut into.
Truffled cauliflower soup with aged Gruyère cheese foam was a surprise in-between course. Like the vichyssoise it was comfort in a cup – a warming herald to the not far off winter.
Roast quail, white asparagus, hazelnut, salted grapes, foie gras veloute was the least spectacular dish of the day. Quail can be flavourless at the best of times, and whole hazelnuts over-powering. The salted grapes – an unusual touch – gave a pleasant burst of fruitiness. White asparagus was overcooked and watery.
Roast rack of lamb, baby cos lettuce, puree of baby green peas, lemon myrtle played a redeeming role: the lamb was vacuum packed and poached to perfect pinkness. Lemon myrtle foam was a nice touch. A scattering of sweet, teeny-tiny peas and the bitterness of wilted cos lettuce brought the savoury courses to close.
We were full to the brim well before the desserts were rolled out, and we’d even abstained from the two optional $25 dishes.
A pre-dessert of lemon and goats cheesecake, figs, and hazelnut ice cream was a nice, but unnecessary additional extra. The cheesecake wasn’t overly rich. Served at room temperature it had the texture of squidgy goats cheese. Raspberry coulis was vibrant and fresh and a pleasant accompaniment to the subtle hazelnut ice-cream. A shortbread and pistachio crumb was sprinkled on top.
Peaches, jelly and custard brought the meal to a close. It was a trio of desserts on one plate: first a puff pastry with peach sorbet and peaches on the side. The pastry, brittle and flaky, got the thumbs up, and the sorbet was superb. The fruit was cloyingly sweet. Sauternes jelly with marscapone cream and amaretti biscuit crumble had some nice elements too. However, we weren’t the only diners to scoop off the cream and leave the jelly, which was overly strong in flavour. A crème caramel was the clear winner, just the right amount of squelch when a spoonful was scooped up.
Staff were to be on a constant collision course with the low-hanging light shades, forced to shuffle around them, ducking and weaving, to retain eye contact with customers. They look fantastic, but are totally impractical.
That aside, there is a simple elegance to Berowra Waters Inn, in both restaurant and menu design. But equally there are layers of complexity, technique, and textures to each dish, which is a mark of a fine restaurant and an even finer chef. There is a huge generosity of spirit here, too.Though i believe there was simply too much food.
Clasping a plastic tub of petit fours that we were too full to consume – plus extras that were thrown in – we were ferried back across river. As the sun dropped and an afternoon of eating caught up with us, it seemed like a long way home.
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