Monday, August 21, 2006

Doyles at Circular Quay

Doyles Restaurant Circular Quay - picture from Doyles website
Last year Matthew Evans, the Sydney Morning Herald’s former restaurant critic and editor of the Good Food Guide, severely panned Doyles, giving it a single digit score out of 20 and a scathing review. At the time I thought it churlish of him, yet brave, because this was prior to the changes in NSW’s defamation laws. I feel slightly protective of Doyles because I’m a member of the family. Jack and Alice Doyle, who started their business in 1948 at the old Watson’s Bay tea rooms and Ozone Café site, were my Great Uncle and Aunt.

In their defence, I like to think of one of the principles of reviewing espoused by the current SMH food critic, Simon Thomsen – that you should judge a restaurant by what’s it’s trying to achieve. Personally I don’t think Doyles is trying to manufacture a world class dining experience in the sense of hat awards, stars, or whatever. Their publicity talks about being ‘world famous’ which they probably are as an institution, and the views, the availability of live seafood and plenty of it, that you can get coffee and tea, the views, what credit card you can use, how spectacular the views are, the five generation history of its management and did I mention the views? They’re great.

Tempura battered prawns
If you’re just off the airbus from Old Blighty, clutching your Visa card because it’s the only thing they’ve let you take on board the plane, your luggage is en route to Venezuela, and you fancy being waited on while you have a nice sit in the sun and some fish and chips (with a great view) … well need I say more. You don’t scour the dining guides and start a spreadsheet comparison, you go to Doyles. When you want to take Granny out for an airing for her 85th and everyone including the great grandkids are lobbing in, you don’t look for the eight course degustation with white linen napery, you go to Doyles coz then Gran knows it’s a special occasion and you can get everything from live lobster to fish nuggets with tomato sauce. You pay for the ease, the convenience, the options, the history, the location, and the view – and quite often they give something decent to eat as well.

Calamari, beer battered and deep fried
Any time I’ve taken friends from far off climes, who are not total food sluts like me, out to lunch to really show off the harbour, I take them to Doyles. They always say they’ve heard of it. Half the time they don’t taste what they’re eating because they’re too busy gawping and taking pictures. Once they’re used to the whole Sydney thing and want something more exotic, we try somewhere else. Doyles serves a purpose. If it wasn’t already there, we’d have to invent it. So it was that G chose Doyles at the Quay for his farewell lunch before moving to another country. An adieu to the harbour on a sunny day.

Cold Mixed Entree plate.
I adopt the KISS principle when dining at Doyles: the simpler, the better. If you want oysters or prawns stuffed with all manner of foreign objects and smothered in sauces before being baked to death, you only have yourself to blame. Just have plain prawns, or at a pinch tempura battered, natural Sydney rock oysters, grilled Bermagui John Dory fillets, or barramundi. Classic fish and chips. Forget the sauces and be prepared for enormous servings. I’ve never actually been able to eat a whole serving of their fish and chips. And you know the saying ‘cheap as chips’? Well this isn’t, but it is a fairly reasonable, albeit upmarket, price for the food and service.

Grilled snapper with spinach, capers and chilli
G had the cold mixed entrée ($19.50) which comprised prawns, smoked salmon and oysters. I don’t know what they were thinking with the orange slice, but it seemed to be the garnish du jour. Apart from the ubiquitous curly parsley, a touch you rarely see at fine diners these days. Clearly Doyles keeps the fragile curly parsley industry from collapsing. Not a lot can go wrong with putting cold seafood on a plate if it’s fresh, and it was, and very nice too. Tick. MN had calamari ($17.70) – as you can see a triumph of food styling – but despite the aesthetic, perfectly tender with a crunchy crisp batter. Tick. I had tempura prawns ($18.20) which I couldn’t resist re-arranging slightly for a picture because they obviously came from the same plating hand responsible for the calamari. Sweet, juicy and tender, crispy batter, but not a bit like proper Japanese tempura. Half tick.

Grilled crayfish with garlic and lemon butter
G had the South Coast snapper, grilled with white wine, capers, garlic and a little chilli ($37.40) while MN and I shared a whole live crayfish, grilled, with garlic and lemon butter ($91.50). The snapper was moist and tender, the sauce bland, the spinach sadly plopped on top. Half tick. The cray was firm to the bite, sweet and flavoursome, you can add your own butter so it wasn’t pre-drowned in it. MN had doubts that it wasn’t local live, but Western Australian frozen. She may have been right as the legs were a bit dodgy when cracked, but it tasted fine to me. (Let's face it, give me salt and pepper lobster at Golden Century any day for preference, but only dedicated eaters like me will endure a full and noisy room with no windows, being barked at by staff, while you watch the next table’s cray scurry up the back of the tank to avoid its fate.) Conceded tick. The wine list is large, and one definite plus is that they are one of the few restaurants who consistently stock one of my favourite NZ sauvignon blancs from Nautilus in Marlborough. Double tick.

Doyles do some things really well – the plainer, unfussy things that simply show off the seafood for what it is. I imagine some of the other choices are on the menu because they’re popular and trendy, but they’re not better than the old fashioned things. To this day I still make Auntie Alice’s seafood cocktail sauce, as per her recipe, if I serve cold seafood. It’s a classic and always will be. Kind of like Doyles. Curly parsley, doilies, iceberg lettuce. It represents a particular choice for the superannuated and tourist alike. It's reliably open and has attentive staff. It's consistent. It serves seafood. That’s what it’s trying to achieve.


Blogger neil said...

Prawns in batter, yes please!!!

Is it your photo or is that batter golden rather than pale, the way tempura batter should be?

11:20 AM  
Blogger Helen (AugustusGloop) said...

And yet no fish and chips?

It is a spectacular view. You've been lunching quite a bit around sunny Sydney Harbour!

12:41 PM  
Blogger Reb said...

Hey Neil - no, it's not the photo - that's how it was. Crispy, but it weren't no tempura. Prawns were good though!

No F&C this time, Helen. We decided to go the luxury option and enough batter already! Yes lucky me and the harbour. Good weather too, but I'm not tempting the gods to punish me again :)

1:53 PM  
Blogger Julia said...

That view is superb, and their seafood chowder on a cold winter night, when you think you can brave being out but really can't, is a godsend.

PS your Aunty Alice's seafood cookbook is superb :-)

3:19 PM  
Blogger Reb said...

Thanks Julia - Alice did know a thing or two about fish :) Peter was pretty handy at it as well.

7:21 AM  
Blogger foodkitty said...

Hi Reb, I wandered in from Tomato's site, and got engrossed. As an occasional Sydney visitor, I love going to Doyle's, not because I'm going to get a foodie experience to die for, but because it's dependable and fresh. The fish market Doyles has fab atmosphere and views. It just seems quintessentially Australian to me. Blog on!

9:45 AM  
Blogger Reb said...

Thanks foodkitty - it does have a certain something, and it's such a tradition. Thanks so much for stopping by and having a read!

2:54 PM  

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