This review of a restaurant we recently designed was published in the Sydney Morning Herald.
BLUE PLATE BAR AND GRILL
By Jacqui Taffel
July 17, 2010
A southern belle sheds light on US cooking.
There’s something thrilling about a good chandelier. Sadly, you don’t see too many of them about, especially in Neutral Bay. Blue Plate Bar & Grill has one – a gigantic beauty hanging above the restaurant’s bar area.
Blue Plate is part of the suburb’s new dining precinct on Grosvenor Street, set well back from the roar of Military Road traffic. On Saturday night this stretch is jumping, from old hand Firefly to the line-up of three newbies – Garden Brasserie, Blue Plate and Enopizzeria. They’re all packed.
Blue Plate’s chandelier sets the tone for this fancier, more ambitious offshoot of a much humbler restaurant. Around the corner on Military Road, South has been doing brisk trade in comfort food from America’s deep south since chef-owner Leo Brereton opened it in 2008. With South seating 22, Brereton was turning away diners and decided it was time to rev things up.
Blue Plate holds 100. The tables are white-clothed, the ceilings are high, the walls are tastefully flock-papered and graceful drapes with gold tasselled ties hang in the ceiling-to-floor windows. Mini-chandeliers line the dining space and the effect is a refined 21st-century take on antebellum style.
There’s a cosy bar with artily mismatched armchairs, a blue velvet chaise longue, well-stocked shelves and its own barman. If you don’t have a booking, you can order a mint julep and eat at the bar, or perch on a tall chair at the bench along the dining room windows.
When we book, Brereton sets a friendly, relaxed tone on the phone. When we arrive, the welcome from the floor staff is a little more harried. While our table is set, we are left standing longer than expected, with no apology when seated. Our waiter also seems harried. He takes our food order but we need more time with the mostly Australian wine list. He doesn’t return and we have to ask to order drinks.
We have a good view of the elevated open kitchen, with a practical art installation of hanging stock pots, bay leaves and shiny black mussel pots piled up. The menu has southern favourites, such as gumbo, jambalaya and Maryland-style crab cakes. Brereton has also mixed in some northern staples, such as clam chowder (New England), deep pan pizza (Chicago) and New York cheesecake. Then there are the mussels, which the chef says were big in New Jersey, where he grew up.
It seems downright ornery not to order ribs, so we do – a half rack that comes with a thick blanket of barbecue sauce, Brereton’s special recipe. The meat is tender and the sauce a good balance of spicy, smoky and sweet. Gnawing the bones is part of the pleasure.
The mussels don’t disappoint – hot, plump and succulent – and the fragrant sauce demands bread. The shellfish cost $15 but bread ($9 for three of us) should surely come with this dish, built into the price.
The star of our mains is the salmon, brushed with a maple bourbon glaze and served on a small hill of spicy blackened corn. The fish is perfectly cooked and the glaze subtly sweet, so it doesn’t overwhelm the dish.
The drunken pork chop, soaked in a beer marinade, doesn’t taste beery but the chop is big and juicy. A hearty hit, it comes with a generous serving of garlic mash, vegetables and cranberry apple sauce that tastes light on the cranberry.
Jerk chicken is, however, disappointing. The three breast fillets are dry, with little evidence of the marinade of habanero chillies, ginger, garlic and ”other secret ingredients”. The coarse pineapple salsa helps it go down but the red beans and rice are bland.
Of our desserts, pumpkin pie is the winner. According to the menu, this version ”has converted hundreds of Aussies. Try a piece … you’ll like it – guaranteed.” They’re right: the dense, brown slab is surprisingly light and creamy, with subtle spices on a biscuit base. The bananas foster bread pudding is not as successful, an odd concoction of bread cubes with dry, hard bits of banana.
All up, it’s a good night out under the chandeliers. Blue Plate is classier and more comfortable than South but the sophistication of the surroundings makes the food seem a bit coarse in comparison. The appeal of both places is ordering dishes not commonly found in this city. Giddy-up.