He’s a pretty chirpy bloke, our George. And what’s not to be happy about, with a string of hit restaurants, a hugely popular TV show, and getting to do what he loves every day. “I’m pretty lucky” he tells us, standing in his Projects Kitchen, a small experimental space where he and his team combine science with creativity and the whimsical. And indeed it does look like a bit of a science lab with centrifuges and distillers, and a couple of oversized operating table type lights he tells us he got from a hospital in Brisbane.
He’s hanging on to fine dining –the decline is a global trend not just an Australian one in his view – loving that it enables him to test the boundaries of what is possible with food, to take simple childhood memories and turn them into something new and inspired. He tells us of one afternoon when he walks into the Projects Kitchen and finds Luke Croston, his head chef, trying to make a cocktail that comes down a long string.
While he and Luke are chatting to us, along with one of his waitstaff from Press Club – who incidentally, are an impressive and incredibly professional lot – they whip up some goodies. Luke comes up with a meringue (created using dry ice) rolled in beetroot then puffed wild rice on the outside, while George gives us these delicious little lollipops of chicken liver mousse, which he pipes onto another piece of heavy duty science equipment which freezes them almost immediately. If only Chupa Chups were like this.
After having a chat and a bit of a laugh, we move next door into the Press Club. He renovated in late 2013, with a bit of musical chairs – putting Gazi in the large space where Press Club used to be, and turning what was a bar into the intimate fine dining space which became Press Club mark two, a degustation only 38 seater.
We start off with the “Hills Hoist” series of snacks – George tells us it is a throwback to his childhood, when he used to get in trouble from his mother for running around pulling the clothes line. Working our way along the pegs we find a sweet potato crisp, puffed black rice puff with miso melitzanosalata (my favourite), kolrahbi, pear and walnut cone, sesame pastelaki with fennel seed fetta, and finally a saganaki crisp
Meanwhile, through a small window we see the kitchen is running like clockwork. From the outside, it seems intense yet calm and measured, everyone knows exactly what they are doing and does it with precision.
Our next course is prawn with almond milk and strips of whitebait. The mosaic type layer on the plate looks like octopus but is in fact finely sliced prawn. It gives the previous dish a run for its money.
Then we have the Greek Green Salad that appeared in Masterchef. A few of the table proclaim this their favourite, saying that they’d never had good tasting Brussel sprouts before, but for me it had pretty steep competition from the dishes above.
Our last course at Press Club is the Winter Greek Salad (Horiatiki) with some wagyu braesola. George tells us that his traditional Greek customers that come in often give him a hard time. Where’s the tomato, they ask him, Greek salad must have tomato. Like most chefs George runs with seasonal produce, and you won’t find good tomatoes in Winter. “But Coles has them”, his cheeky Greek clients quip.
Our final stop that night is Gazi, his thumping Greek street food venue; it is constantly busy, and it is most likely this that funds the fine diner and the Projects. We are all really full by now and can’t imagine eating the nicely sized soft shell crab souvlaki that is placed before us. But then we all take a bite and realise how delicious it is, and proceed to polish it off. Such feather light pita, crispy crab and a great sauce, I love it.
…with an Espressotini to wash it all down. It’s a great night of Greek hospitality, which is what fundamentally George wants to share with his guests, whether its street food or high end. We look forward to seeing what he comes up with in Sydney at his Surry Hills venue mid next year.