It was the third year that the Byron at Byron resort hosted the Vogue Champagne Dinner.
This time around, all ninety seats in the house sold out even before the resort had the chance to advertise. Easy to understand why: the sensational setting it boasts – canopies of rainforest glimmering beyond the wide wooden decks – and that easy-going glamour for which the venue has become rapidly renowned, combined with a night dedicated purely to drinking French champagne thoughtfully matched to food by a prominent chef of national repute.
The prominent chef in this case was Mark Best, of Marque restaurant in Sydney. Recently named the Vittoria Coffee Restaurant of the Year at the 2011 Good Food Guide Awards, it was also the recipient of the Breakthrough Award at the San Pellegrino World’s Best 50 Restaurant Awards 2010 ceremony in the UK.
I remember Mark Best from about 15 years ago: he was running a small restaurant called The Peninsula in Darling Street Balmain, next door to the deli where I was working at the time, and even though I never dined there I would periodically hear favourable reports. Leaps and bounds away from that era, he has now carved himself a reputation for a style of cutting-edge, innovative cuisine which, while based on solid (largely French) technique, has embraced the wave which is molecular gastronomy. And for this reason I approached the evening a little apprehensively. Over the past several years my occasional exposure to soils and foams, deconstructions and recompositions have led me to the private conclusion that, old- fashioned girl that I am, it is not to my taste.
The beautifully mild evening meant that we could all mingle outside over our first champagnes – Lanson served in weighty Waterford crystal – as the canapes circulated. Beetroot & Foie Gras Macaroons appeared as pretty sweet things until you bit into ethereally light pastry and lush rich filling; Tomato & Parmesan Marshmallows looked for all the world like ordinary marshmallows until the salty shock of cheese hit your palate in one melting mouthful. There were Salt Cod Pillows and large oysters lurking beneath a blow- torched ‘sea-foam’.
But it was inside at the three long fabulously-adorned tables that the real treats began. Highlights included local spanner crab with almond gazpacho, almond jelly, sweet corn and avruga (with Louis Roederer) – everyone raving over the contrast of salty caviar, sweet corn and crab on quivering jelly dome; and the Balmain bug and king prawn on roasted cos with lemon curd, all rich sweet bursts of flavour (with Charles Heidseick). There were four dishes, a sublime salad of local vegetables and at the end a frozen fruit salad which arrived in billowing clouds of smoke, pure theatre – and all of this accompanied by different types of champagnes and mercifully few speeches. The dark room flickered and glowed with candelabra and towering vases of flowers as Bollinger brand manager Paul Boothby cited Lanson as saying that a magnum was the correct size for two gentlemen, and attributed to Mark Twain the quote that ‘too much of anything is too much, but too much champagne is just enough.’
I wasn’t quite so persuaded by that sentiment the following delicate morning – but at the time there was no denying I loved every mouthful. As for Mark Best’s food: it was one of the most exciting meals I had eaten in a long time, and while not necessarily a molecular convert, I grant that it is an experience that every culinarily curious person should have at least once in their lives.