Once upon a time, the front door to the hallowed halls of 10 Oxford Street remained closed to passers-by. To enter, guests pressed a buzzer and waited for the door to open. Like today however, the menu of the restaurant was declared under glass outside.
Once again people are stopping outside to look at the menu. Now the menu once again has a classical French core, but 40 years on, the restaurant that was once three hatted restaurant institution Claude's has a lighter feel, with contemporary cuisine updates of Japanese influences, and the front door remains open.
More than just by name St Claudes pays reverence to the history of the restaurant that was first established by Claude Corne in 1976, later uplifted by Damien Pignolet from 1981, then his one time apprentice Tim Pak Poy purchased the restaurant in 1993 and sold it to Chui Lee Luk in 2004, after she had been working at the restaurant for four years. They say history repeats itself. And now, it is Cameron Johnston the one time Claude's apprentice of Pak Poy that has returned to lead the tiny kitchen. Johnston has also spent time under the Manfredis at Bel Mondo, and Greg Doyle at Pier. On the pans, with Johnston, Pier colleague Josh Lips adds his credentials.
The St Claudes opening menu sets things simply with entrees all at $20, mains $35, salads and sides $10 and desserts $15. To start we sampled Salmon rillettes ($10) playfully hidden in brique cigars. All the other starters need to be tried too: Sweet corn, ricotta and lime beignet ($6), Cabernet poached egg, elk leaf, toast ($12), Chicken liver parfait, rhubarb jelly, witlof ($19).
Like the starters, there are so many tempting menu choices in entrees and mains that multiple St. Claudes expeditions will be demanded. And on a first visit, although the menu is well sized with five choices in each entrees and mains, it can be challenging to decide. Sashimi of kingfish is a perfect example, given the talented hand of the chef with pickled melon, Japanese radish, togaroshi (which leaves a sensational peppery back bite) and miso. Just sublime. Buttery house puff sandwiches a delightful thin slice of boudin noir topped with textbook seared scallops. Superb. And the opening menu also offers Confit rabbit and cos lettce terrine, ale jelly and cornichon which we are aching to try.
Across the selection of five, free range chicken, bavette steak, braised lamb neck, steamed blue eye with smoked eel, and the creative vegetarian salt-baked celeriac with hay cream are all more inventive than are normally presented in mains. The bavette (or skirt) steak is from Rangers Valley (via Vics Meats), tender and juicy and pink, with an ethereal siphon of miso and potato, cured egg yolk shaved atop, chargrilled asparagus on the side. All of the elements of composition harmonise across textures and flavours. It is classic and sound, and yet modern.
To finish, desserts include the original Claude's classic recipe of Chocolate indulgence. At some time in life this is a must. Add it to one of those "things to do before you die" lists. But not to be sweetly outdone, from the dining room, the sounds of whisking of egg whites in the kitchen for the a la minute rhubarb and ginger soufflé start the anticipation. And summer is captured in Lemon verbena parfait with cassis granita, white chocolate and blackberries.
More than one person this week, Chef Cameron Johnston included, has commented that Claude's could at times be a little stuffy. Sure. But rightfully so. It elevated Sydney dining to new heights.
The food and service at St. Claudes is exquisite yet is fresh and contemporary, and a welcome addition to the Sydney dining scene.
St Claudes in a move away from bistro trends thankfully reintroduces plated food, white tablecloths, correct and knowledgeable service, but in a gloriously not-stuffy kind of t-shirts and blue jeans way. The famous translucency of Limoges on mint pastel walls is replaced with olive green stucco. The playlists could be your own. And so far the average age diner is 30. Well, almost. Nearby, the lads on the table of 6 chose St Claudes for a 30th birthday celebration. When Claude's first opened they weren't even born, and on the night they celebrated blissfully unaware of the history of where they were seated.
In Claude Corne's SMH 2013 obituatory, writer Scott Bolles says that "Corne was proud of the legacy he created at Claude's. He paid attention to each of its owners and their ambitions on the plate. Indeed, his interest in the restaurant was such that his family kept the news of its impending closure from him in his final months." Corne must be resting easy now. One of the most important restaurants in the history of Sydney food has come home.