I’m far from what people would call a decisive person, and these days we are so spoiled for choice that even deciding what to eat for lunch can turn into a lengthy process of elimination to figure out exactly what I want.
It was a pleasant surprise then, to walk into nel. to find that there was no choice to make. Nel serves an 8 course tasting menu for $88, and we were more than happy to leave our meal in the capable hands of chef Nelly Robinson.
We were ushered to our table in the small, underground space where the restaurant was situated. The 8 course menu for the night was already placed on the table when we sat down, and aside from asking whether there were any food allergies or intolerances, there were no more questions and we were ready to get started on the food!
Our first course was a series of snacks which came out in quick succession. The first snack was a cloud-like vinegar marshmallow rolled in airy pieces of grated parmesan. It dissolved in the mouth so quickly it just left an impression of sour vinegar and cheesy parmesan on the tongue.
The next snack was a black, gnarly-looking cigar, which actually turned out to be a beef cheek and ox tongue croquette with charcoal. Each cigar was dipped in the goma (sesame) hollandaise topped with bits of ham, which had a nice salty and nutty flavour.
The last snack consisted of two parts – a truffle and rabbit pastry and a rabbit consomme. These were surprisingly light in flavour, but a good warm up for the dishes to come.
I usually don’t bother taking photos of the bread and butter, but here at nel it was pretty exceptional. First of all, the bread was a dark black colour, and the waitstaff explained that this was black pudding and onion bread. To be honest I couldn’t taste a definitive black pudding flavour, but it was delicious nonetheless and I could have eaten a whole basket of it!
But instead of filling up on bread, we decided to save room for the main part of the meal. The second course was a gorgeous disc of colours, almost too pretty to eat. Right at the very bottom was picked crab meat, layered with a cucumber jelly on top, topped with cucumber, dehydrated strawberry and mint. There was a sprinkling of strawberry dust on one side of the plate, and a thick gel of Pimms on the other side. I felt that the Pimms overpowered the subtle flavours of the dish, so enjoyed it more without the gel. It was a really well executed dish that tasted slightly sweet and refreshing.
The next course came with some table-side theatre, as a waiter came around and poured a garlic broth from a teapot into our bowls.
This created a soupy seafood dish, studded with mussels and cockles. A sail of dehydrated lettuce sat on the side of the dish, which had to be eaten quickly before it went soggy. Hiding underneath the delicate garlic broth was a huddle of squid ink pasta which was a nice chewy component to the dish. I loved the combination of the seafood and the garlicky soup, and even though the flavours weren’t super punchy, this was one of my favourite dishes of the night.
Our next course was a vegetarian dish, with a garden of spring vegetables scattered on top of an Italian hazelnut crisp, perched on some artichoke mousse. There were lots of different flavours – the nutty hazelnuts, the umami from the gruyere, sweetness from some of the raw vegetables and some tangy flavour from the eschallot vinaigrette. At times it felt like there was a bit too much going on, but individually, each component was executed perfectly.
More table-side saucing came along with the lamb course, with the steaming hot jus being poured onto each person’s dish.
This course was quite hearty with a braised lamb belly, carrot puree, crispy potato strands and a tempura oyster. It was a deliciously rich dish, but thankfully there were some pickles which counteracted some of the richness. There was nice textural contrast with the crispy potato, slightly crunchy carrots and smooth puree, but we were definitely ready for dessert after this dish.
For the first dessert course, the waiters came around and placed glass baubles in front of us filled with our dessert. Inside the bauble was a colourful garden of purple and green colours and textures.
It was almost too pretty to dig my spoon in, but I was so glad I did because the flavours were amazing. There was a sweet blueberry ice cream, tangy yoghurt crunchy things, and a herbaceous flavour from the basil. I loved the textures as well – a mixture of smooth and crunchy with the occasional burst of juicy blueberries.
Our final dessert course was not quite as beautiful, but that charcoal soil was hiding chocolate ganache, banana ice cream and yuzu cream. There were also camouflaged nuggets of charcoal-covered honeycomb which were a crunchy and sweet surprise.
And as if we hadn’t consumed enough food already, we finished on a series of petit fours. I started with the raspberry and liquorice macaron because I’m not a fan of liquorice, but luckily the flavour wasn’t too strong. We then moved onto the eccles cake which was bright and lemony from the curd, and then the dark chocolate sphere with liquid passionfruit gel inside.
The tasting menu at nel is really good value, with 8 amazing, interesting courses coupled with excellent service from the waitstaff. All the dishes had great flavours, even though sometimes they sounded a bit weird and we had no choice in the matter. But that was the beauty of it – that we placed our trust in the chef and as a result, received an impeccable dinner without having to do a thing!
75 Wentworth Ave
Sydney NSW 2000
Ph: +61 2 9212 2206
Lunch: Thursday to Saturday, 12pm – 3pm
Dinner: Tuesday to Saturday, 6pm – 10pm