The more things change, the more they stay the same.
I have a confession to make. It had been eight hundred and ninety nine days since my last visit to Esquire. The date was 6th May 2014.
It might sound strange that I remember the last time I went to Esquire so vividly, and that I know how long it had been between visits; but if you’ve followed my blog, then you know that it was a very long time between visits.
You see, I’d always been an avid fan of Chef Ryan Squires, right the way back to his days at the helm of Urbane, through his short but eventful stay at the Buffalo Club, up to the point where he opened his own restaurant, just a few metres from my apartment. I was there the week Esquire opened, before the fanfare and before the multiple Hats and recognition that Esquire was in fact, the best restaurant Brisbane had ever seen.
You could say that Esquire and its little sister restaurant Esq were my regular dining haunts and I was there often (ummm, that’s an understantement). Then, one day, I stopped going and six months later moved to another country.
It’s hard to say why, but let’s just say it felt like I had worn out my welcome.
In the intervening time, I’ve been fortunate enough to live in one of the world’s most glamorous food cities; last count there were eighty Michelin starred restaurants, six of them three starred (thats a couple more than London by way of context). I’ve travelled the world on food tours and visited some of the very best restaurants in the world.
But I’ve always had a soft spot for Esquire, so when I was back in Brisbane for a flying visit recently, I took my brother in for a degustation dinner.
As I said, it had been almost nine hundred days since my last visit; would I still enjoy and would it compare to the best restaurants the world had to offer?
Before I get into any detail about the meal, some of the basics. Esquire is a degustation only restaurant, with each day different from the last depending on the whims of the kitchen and the produce on offer. You’re as likely to get a twenty four course tasting menu as you are a twelve.
Our meal kicked off with a trio of ‘plates’ dropped off at our table; I use the term plates loosely as one of the items was carefully placed on a polished black rock. We’d just been given a raft of small bites to whet the appetite; the cheesy parmesan delight were donut shaped crispy bites sitting on the boulder and were a little crumbly and oh-so-cheesy.
Smokey house-made kettle chips were large and sensational, crisp and crunchy with a strong smokey flavour that slapped you in the face but was still delicious; next to some of the most amazing wild Northern Territory buffalo jerky that had been air dried for four months before being let loose on the world; another intense set of flavours that lingered on the palate, leaving you wanting more.
Last of the small bites was a pickled baby cucumber, deceptively simple yet with more intense flavours that almost made your face ‘pucker’ but in a good way. The last of our bites was almost too subtle for the strong flavours we’d had to begin, air dried pork loin looking like uncooked bacon and having a slightly waxy texture. It was still nice, but I feel we should have started with the pork loin and built the flavours along the way.
The first of the major components of the degustation wasn’t too much to look at, in fact it was downright boring; the only hint that there were some punchy flavours ahead was the burnt edges to the ultra thin pineapple and a little liquid pooling at the bottom of the bowl. Now, let me say this, if you see any sauce or fluids in any dish at Esquire, prepare yourself for a treat. Inside the burnt pineapple was some pumpkin and Iranian lemon fried sage, the whole dish super sweet, almost honey like in its sweetness.
Dried out coconut husks acted as plates for our next dish, a coconut sorbet with Madras lime concocted as a zesty foam. I found the texture perplexing, challenging the senses; it wasn’t a sorbet as such, but it was cold and creamy and the Madras spices adding a little bit of heat that contrasted beautifully with the subtle coconut and lime.
A super simple serving of oysters was given the Esquire treatment, a sweet tomato oil added to help enhance the taste of the plump and creamy oysters. The medium salinity levels perfect for the sweet acidity of the oil.
One of the most intensely pleasing flavours I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating was next; the gnocchetti with dill and clams was immersed in a prawn bisque that was insanely sweet and almost addictive in its intensity and flavour. I normally love a bisque anyway, but the combo of the perfect gnocchetti pieces and the seafood finished off with the bisque was a marriage made in heaven.
Though I thought the gnocchetti and bisque was amazing, it didn’t prepare me for what was to come. Raw and dried Kobe beef was presented in a butter hollandaise sauce, then covered with shaved horseradish. O-M-G, the beef was melt in your mouth, sweet and simply irresistible. The sweet on sweet flavour of the beef and hollandaise was contrasted by just the right amount of heat from the horseradish and after consuming, and I wondered if food could get any better! I suspected not; my brother confirming it was the single greatest combo of food in his life.
Completing a trio of dishes that was as good as food gets was a dish of sun-dried tomatoes in a burnt butter smoked hock. There was a touch of shallot and basil oil that helped to cut through the sweet acidity of the tomato, the chef somehow extracting a depth of flavour from the tomatoes that didn’t seem possible. It was a flavour that lingered on the palate for a while and was only erased by the next dish, which was actually a drink.
Out came a bottle of fermented apple juice and juniper oil, which was punchy and had quite an overpowering hit of juniper; I have to say, I much preferred the mandarin soda that used to be on the menu.
I didn’t get a photo, but we were given a slab of warm malted sourdough with a thick molasses butter, which was interesting and quite filling. The molasses sitting heavy on the palate and giving a weird coating to your tongue; it was something that I could have skipped.
Our main course was quite ironic, given my time in Hong Kong; Peking Duck with radicchio caramelised in the juices and sugar. It took us ages to figure out that the black mass sitting along side the duck was intact caramelised radicchio, the normal red colour completely gone. The duck was expertly cooked, moist and had that sweet Peking flavour that I’ve become accustomed to in Asia. I was pretty conflicted though, the bitter radicchio wasn’t super pleasant to eat, event the caramelisation process not taking the bitter taste away. It was important to not have too much in each bite, otherwise it killed the flavour of the duck; and you certainly couldn’t eat it on it’s own.
I was fairly underwhelmed with the cheese course, but then again, I’m not a fan of cheese courses at the best of times. The cotton cake cheddar with sweetcorn, whey ‘soup’ and smoked almond was simply too overpowering for my palate and I couldn’t process the flavours. My brother actually quite liked the dish, so as a bonus he got to eat part of mine.
Dessert was an interesting affair; given that Esquire has one of the most amazing desserts in its repertoire, the mandarin curds and whey, it was a little underwhelming. Macadamia milk was the centre point for mixed fruits including apple squares, ginger, grapes and dehydrated blueberries; served with tarragon and deep fried apple pieces for dipping. It wasn’t sweet, it wasn’t sour, and it was a bit on the bland side overall. Yeah, I was perplexed about it and just wondered why…
The very final plate of the night, and I’m assuming something approaching a petite four, was the chocolate biscuit with porcini cream. Looking a little sad and lonely on our plate, the biscuit was ok, but eminently forgettable and a strange way to finish off an incredible degustation.
I have to say, after not having an Esquire tasting menu for almost nine hundred days, the meal was almost perfect. With some flavours and dishes that would have been home in any three Michelin starred restaurant in the world (but especially some of the Nordic nations), I very much loved the meal.
However, it wasn’t perfect and for me, lost it’s way just a little from the cheese course on; for my palate and personal preferences, the menu lost the plot a little; such amazing and strong flavours needed a much more enticing climax to be considered perfect.
My brother on the other hand, was effusive in his praise for the meal, declaring it the greatest of his life. He enjoyed every bite, every step of the way. I was glad to be able to treat him to such a meal for my flying visit.
I didn’t see Ryan in the kitchen on my visit, which was a shame, I’d loved to have said hello; especially given all the coin I’d dropped in the place over the years :).
One of the big changes to the restaurant since my last visit was the change of head chefs, with Ben Devlin going on to do his own thing and being replaced by Brenden Gradidge; ironically a chef who’d also worked at Urbane like his new boss.
I felt a huge sense of deja vu during my meal with my brother; it was hard to believe that it had been almost three years between visits.
As I said at the beginning; the more things change, the more they stay the same