In a parade of shops in up and coming Surry Hills is Marque, where Mark Best turns out elaborate modern food for 50 diners at a time with just half a dozen chefs in a tiny kitchen. Mark, an electrician before becoming a chef after helping out one night at the Macleay Street Bistro, worked for a time with Alain Passard at Arpege, and also at Le Manoir Au Quat' Saisons, but has found his own style at Marque. The menu is a no-choice tasting menu at AUD 150. The room has a dark carpet, banquette seating along one wall and mirrors on the opposite one, and dark wooden chairs. There was very murky lighting from table lamps (there were no directed ceiling spot lights).
The wine list featured around 400 wines from around the world. Examples included Craggy Range Kidnappers 2010 at AUD 68 for a wine that retails at AUD 20, Ostertag 2006 Pinot Gris Zelberg at AUD 145 for a wine that you can pick up in the shops for AUD 42, and J.J. Prum Wehlener Sonnenuhr Kabinett 2007 at a steep AUD 172 for a wine you can find for AUD 34 retail. At the upper end of the list, Didier Dagenau Silex 2004 was at AUD 295 compared to a shop price of AUD 117, up to prestige wines like Leroy Vosne Romanee 2004 at AUD 887 compared to a shop price of AUD 423, and Chateau Lafite Rothschild 2001 at AUD 1,660 for a wine you can find in the shops for around AUD 1,217.
The meal began with bonito, foie gras, and olive truffle sandwiched between two thin potato crisps. The fish and foie gras flavours married well, the potato adding an earthy dimension as well as its crisp texture (8/10). Blue swimmer crab, sweet corn custard with almond gazpacho was served with almond jelly, avruga and popcorn powder. This again worked well as an overall dish, the delicate crab combining well with the sweet corn and almond flavours (8/10). With this I had a glass of the enjoyable Okonomierat Rebholz vom Muschelkalk Riesling Rrocken 2008 from Pfalz.
Goat curd, globe artichoke and citrus salad was garnished with cocoa powder; this was pleasant enough but it is hard for me to get excited over goat curd (6/10). Steamed calamari with lardo was served with black radish, crystalised black vinegar and calamari consommé. The squid avoided chewiness and the vinegar gave a balancing note of sourness to the dish (7/10). With this I drank 2008 Daniel et Martine Barraud Pouille Fuisse.
Next was crab custard with foie gras frozen in liquid nitrogen. The silky richness of the foie gras worked quite well with the crab, still a rich dish overall but a successful one (7/10). This was followed by marron (local crayfish) with hot avocado, Iberico ham, wakame (edible seaweed), pepper and ham-flavoured dashi. The marron was perfectly cooked, the shellfish and ham a fine combination, the avocado adding an additional dimension and the dish being lifted by the pepper (8/10). Next was duck egg (slow cooked in a water bath for 50 minutes) with macadamia, stout sabayon and button mushrooms, fried brown mushrooms and purple cabbage powder, with soda bread. The slow cooking gave an interesting texture to the egg, which was nicely complemented by the fried mushrooms (7/10). With this I drank 2009 Beatrice & Patrice Lambert Tradition Graves Cabernet Franc Chinon.
My favourite dish of the night was celeriac papardelle with truffle and dill stock sauce, grated black truffle, mustard flowers and Parmesan paper. This dish cleverly combined the earthiness of the celeriac with the richness of the Parmesan, the truffle adding another layer of flavour, the hint of mustard lifting the dish, and the delicate Parmesan paper giving a crisp textural contrast (9/10). Next was pigeon with mullet roe, sautéed cos lettuce, dill, cucumber and borage. The pigeon was again cooked sous vide, tender and with the lettuce and herbs balancing its richness (8/10). With this I drank a glass of excellent 2007 Wantima Estate Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot Cuvee Amelia from the Yarra Valley.
Wagyu was grade 6 beef but a bavette (flank) cut so not over-fatty, slow cooked to bring out its considerable flavour. This was served with black onion, black rice, sorrel puree, stem salad, black tea and a dusting of liquorice (fortunately this was not an intrusive flavour) and black rice. This came with a rye and caraway bread (made from scratch). This dish was quite rich, though the salad and onion helped counter this (7/10).
After all this it was not surprising that the cheese course was not just a hunk of cheese from a board. Roquefort was served with guava, raspberry and beetroot crisp. This was actually a successful combination, the salty taste of the Roquefort easily able to cope with the acidity of the fruit and the earthiness of the beetroot (8/10). Sauternes custard served in an egg shell had a caramel layer intentionally providing a hint of bitterness to counter the richness of the custard (8/10). Roast pineapple was offered with Szechaun pepper and Manjimup truffle ice cream with a little grated truffle. This sounds odd but the pineapple was a strong enough flavour to handle the truffle, while the Szechaun pepper added a little heat but in a small enough quantity that did not numb the tongue (7/10).
Chocolate mousse was served in three forms. First was traditional, the second with a layer of sprayed chocolate to give a different texture, the third a mousse that had been frozen in liquid nitrogen. These were accompanied by a smooth coconut sorbet and candied mint leaf with a hint of eucalyptus. The chocolate was rich and went well with the controlled mint flavour and the coconut from the mousse (8/10). With coffee came a neat set of petit fours, reflecting bitter, salty, sweet and sour elements: Campari Bon Bon, salted caramel, apple jelly and finally a lemon drop.
The bill came to AUD 274 (£180), of which the food was AUD 150 (£98), which seemed pretty fair to me given the amount of work that had gone into it. Service was hard to fault all evening, the staff friendly and knowledgable, dishes arriving at a steady pace. I was impressed with the French sommelier, who seemed very switched on. Although in my heart I am always likely to prefer a classical meal to a modem one, the food tonight showed considerable thought and skill. There were a lot of elements to the dishes, some not intuitive, yet at no point did these seem to be introduced gratuitously or to shock. There were no technical slips and the dishes had balance, while the flavours of the meal progressed logically throughout. Impressive.