Visited: August 31st, 2005 by Damien – The “old” Becasse in Surry Hills was a real gem. Housed in a converted terrace on Albion St just a short walk from Central, it had about a dozen tables, a tiny kitchen and large rack of wine along one wall. It had charm by the bucketful, an intimate yet sophisticated atmosphere in which one could easily imagine oneself in Paris, or New York, or Melbourne. And most importantly it had sensational food, sensational enough for it to quickly earn two hats in the Good Food Guide which placed it in the top ranks of Sydney dining.

With such a successful restaurant, why would the owners, chef Justin North and front of house manager Georgia North, move to much larger premises in Clarence St? Several possible reasons spring to mind: a desire to create a better restaurant, both in terms of the dining experience and kitchen design. A desire to reach more business clientele by having a CBD location. A desire to strive for the pinnacle of recognition, three hats. Or simply a desire for more money.

As with all such equations, the truth is probably a little bit of all of them. Certainly the new space is much more spacious with a few dozen tables on three split levels, with sublimely comfortable chairs, subtle décor, a temperature-controlled wine room and what looks like a much larger kitchen (it’s way up the back of the restaurant, so I couldn’t get a good look). With a reported makeover cost of $500,000 it would want to be special, and it works. The same friendly and professional waiters from the old Becasse are still in control, and it still has an intimate atmosphere, if differently so.

However it is clear to me they are very serious about winning three hats, and (perhaps inevitably) Becasse has lost some of its charm in the process. Take the wine list, for example. The old Becasse deservedly won the Best Small Wine List in NSW award several years running for its brief but incredibly thoughtful wine list. There were only a few choices for each category, at different price points and representing the best regions, and any choice was certain to provide a sublime accompaniment to the meal. My favourite fancy restaurant wine, pinot noir from Burgundy, was represented by just five or six wines ranging in price from $60 to the mid-$200s, with only a couple of more expensive versions. It was easy to ask the waiter for advice about unknown wines and be happy with the decision, whatever it was.

Now, the wine list runs to over 30 pages. The Burgundy section contains more than 40 choices, ranging in price from $60 to $1385, all grouped by the sub-region of Burgundy in which they were made. Even a budding oenophile like myself is daunted by this! I find this option-overload a fault of all restaurants at the top of the tree. Having a such a huge range of wines is brilliant in that it offers many options, however you need at least half an hour to make an barely-informed choice. This is not a realistic for most diners, hence a quick and possibly less-than-ideal pick is made. Having the wine list available on the internet is an excellent idea that resolves this issue, as the wine-chooser can peruse at their leisure and get a shortlist together that fits the likely food choices and desired price point. However, far too few restaurants offer an up-to-date list in this way.

A very extensive and very serious (think multiple vintages of Grange, think $1000+ bottles of Burgundy) wine list is a pre-requisite for three hat status, and chasing that status is the only reason I can think of why Becasse would so radically change what was a winning wine list formula. All other aspects of the experience, from silver service to the food, remain superb.
Oh that’s right, the food. I haven’t mentioned it yet because it is always exceptional and I’ll let the menu do the talking. On this night we had the full-on degustation:
Amuse bouche of confit quail
Veloute of smoked haddock and whisky with lemon sabayon and iranian caviar
Confit of marinated Petuna ocean trout and yabby tails with cauliflower pannacotta, horseradish and cucumber
Terrine of slow poached quail, confit celeriac and foie gras
Poached snapper with pea tortellini, chervil and iceberg veloute
Seared loin of Cervesa venison with beetroot puree, walnut and muscat jus
Strawberries and cream
Tarte fine of honey pear and almond frangipane with caramel ice cream
Each course presented and tasted better than they sound, with the smoked haddock veloute and foie gras terrine my standout dishes. A glass each of white wine from Sancerre accompanied the first few dishes, and a bottle of pinot noir from the Burgundy village of Volnay matched the rest. Yum.

Postscript One:
On Tuesday 6th September, the 2006 edition of the Good Food Guide was released, and Becasse did not receive a single hat. In fact the restaurant was not reviewed at all, apart from a short mention in the “Stop Press” section. The omission was not explained, and must be due to the change of venue. This seems harsh since the people involved are still the same, and to remain unrated for the next year must be a great disappointment for the Norths.

Postscript Two:
A new restaurant called Assiette has opened up in the old Becasse space in Surry Hills. Run by a colleague of Justin and Georgia North, it is reportedly excellent and offers the same style of food and atmosphere as the old Becasse. Stay tuned for a review soon…

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