Native. Australian. Ingredients.
Mention these three words and you may see my ears prick up. Something that probably happened when I was invited by good friend Sara from Belly Rumbles to join her for a private masterclass with Thomas Heinrich at JPB in Sydney’s Swissôtel. It didn’t require much pondering, I tell you.
Thomas has been at JPB – Just Pure Bistro – for 4 months now, moving in as executive chef after a pretty good run at some top-notch kitchens around the traps. This is a Sydney boy that started out washing dishes at the age of 15 at a butcher shop and Italian restaurant. He cheffed locally at a few places before heading to New York to work, back to Sydney, then to Chicago and Vancouver. I guess that explains his multinational accent.
When working in Sydney he got his first taste of working with native Aussie ingredients at the now defunct Deep Blue Bistro in Coogee. A bit of a learning curve for someone that was more in tune with classic techniques and more accessible ingredients.
As Thomas gives us a bit of a run-through with the variety of ingredients that now pop up on the JPB menu, director of food & bev Martin Yeo knocked up a very drinkable Ned Kelly Gun Fire; a cocktail based on something the bushmen drank when this land was settled by Europeans.
Tea and rum, done fancy. Some local French Earl Grey tea combined with Holey Dollar Gold rum, over ice, with a pickled Illawarra plum, local honey, torched orange peel and a little syrup from the plums. Nice drop. And this coming from someone that isn’t all that “in tune” with dark rum.
Thomas decided to bring out all of his natives; explaining to us where he sources them, the unique characteristics and how he approaches them in the kitchen. And we got to taste each of the preparations.
Pickled riberries, bush tomato relish, candied riberries and a dropper filled with riberry and pepperberry vinaigrette. Something tells me our favourites were the chocolate-coated candied Illawarra plums and some very moreish riberry jelly that wouldn’t go astray on a petit fours plate.
I occasionally make damper at home using a variety of ingredients, so I was chuffed to see that Thomas had knocked up some black garlic and chive damper. And why not posh it up a bit with lobster butter?
Meanwhile, a good chunk of Cone Bay barramundi came out of the fridge and was delicately seasoned with lemon myrtle and ground toasted pepperberries. And this is where Thomas’ classic-trained techniques came into play. Once in the pan, it was a seared with red onion and garlic before some fresh lemon was squeezed over the fish. Some fresh thyme and a quantity of butter that came close to the size of the fish. It was at this point that I probably drooled a little.
The result – perfectly cooked barramundi with subtle hits of thyme, butter and Aussie flavours. And the fact it was saltwater barra rather than freshwater made for a cleaner mouth-feel, instead of dirty and muddy which quite often comes with those from rivers and lakes.
One thing that most people are unaware of at the Swissôtel are the beehives they have on the roof-top. High above the Pitt Street Mall are something like 200,000 bees buzzing about the city collecting pollen for the JPB hives. It was this honey that made it into the cocktail we drank earlier and it’s the same honey that makes it to the breakfast buffet at the hotel.
We couldn’t help but feel a tad wasteful for not finishing the fish, but we had an entire dinner ahead of us. We had a bit of a free-for-all with the menu and decide on the chefs tasting menu. 5 courses for $70 seemed like the way to go – research purposes, you know – rather than the smaller 3 course $55 option. Wouldn’t you prefer to see more food? Of course you would.
Thomas gives us a refreshing glass of gazpacho he whipped up. Not your regular gazpacho, mind you. This one’s made from cucumber and pepperberry, topped with a mint foam. I’m sure the words “this would be great with a shot of gin or vodka in it” wafted about my mind as I took each refreshing sip. Or perhaps I even vocalised it.
The first bite to arrive was a gorgeous little dish of octopus carpaccio (4.8) all prettied-up with snow pea tendrils, pickled carrot, petals and dabs of lemon myrtle gel. The types of uplifting flavours you’d expect from such a delicate dish, despite not much lemon myrtle coming through in the gel.
I have a bit of a soft spot for white asparagus and the following plate solidly reaffirmed my love for it. For something that was poached, the spears of white asparagus (22) retained the most juicy apple-like crunch that would have been heard at the next table. Poached in milk, the asparagus is joined with a peppery tangle of watercress, shavings of pecorino and deliciously pungent black truffle aïoli.
The more petit chefs tasting-sized portions seemed to increase with the Cleanseas hiramasa kingfish (21). It looked as if the kitchen was now sending out full-sized plates, rather than tastings. Was I complaining? Nah.
Across the square of grey slate is a circular arrangement of cucumber ribbons and delicate kingfish sashimi. Snow pea tendrils provide a green crunch, as do some crunchy little flaxseed crisps, with chunks of black garlic and uplifting ponzu dressing.
The was a slight Korean bent to the galbi braised Byron Bay pork jowl (23); a splay of tender and slightly caramelised meat with pickled radish and crunchy lotus root chips.
Juicy, plump and pan-seared scallops (36) joined a curious combination of honeydew brunoise and corn prepared similar to a velouté. Along with granules of pork rind and baby fennel, this was one unusual combination that really worked.
Less is quite often the best when it comes to these little creatures. As was the case with the banana prawns (32). Simply seared to opaque perfection, the juicy crustaceans nestle into a copse of rosemary with roasted cherry tomatoes and lemon myrtle gel. A delicious dish, despite the gel not really resembling lemon myrtle whatsoever.
Only two desserts managed to make it into our bellies after the procession of food we were presented with. Grandma’s pavlova ‘not’ (15) is a tarted-up version of the traditional variety. Meander Valley double cream layered with rafts of meringue and sheets of strawberry jelly. Fresh strawberry graced the top; something that quite possibly replaced the promised pickled strawberries.
Everyone knows that passionfruit is a pav requirement, so it comes in gel form that streaks across the plate. Nice touch with the honeycomb, as well.
Finally, a chocolate panna cotta (13) that, to me, was more akin to a set ganache than a silky, traditional panna cotta. A crust of finely crush pistachios coats the edge of the chocolate disc with a small mound of crumbled peanut biscuit. The mention of drunk orange jelly was probably what drew me to the dessert, and whilst I loved the presentation, there didn’t seem to be anything “boozy” about it.
hnf dined as guest of The Swissôtel and JPB (Just Pure Bistro)