12-Micron, Sydney review
Author: Pat Nourse
Photography: Rob Shaw
I'm afraid "12-Micron" is not an accident. I thought the name might be just a quirk, a sort of tic of branding, a slub in the fabric of its ID work. But no. I have a feeling someone got paid well to come up with some of the "concepts" that inform the look and feel of this new, very large restaurant. Things may have even been curated. And some of these things are very silly indeed. Real forehead-smackers. But fortunately, in the middle of it all, lurks some surprisingly good food.
To find the place, you walk past the hoardings labelled DANGER ASBESTOS and the stunning battlefield of drills and cranes that marks the site of the new casino. Ride the lift up to level two of Tower One - aka The Big One - at Barangaroo and as you step out you may spy a sign that says the venue is licensed for 500. It seats closer to 230, but that gives you an idea of the space we're dealing with here. This is clearly a big investment.
12-Micron's interiors, designed by SJB.
Which makes things like the way the menu is structured all the harder to understand. If you were to spend a lot of money to open a large and ambitious restaurant, would you run with the tried-and-true method of entrées, main courses and desserts? Would you go with the more modish shared-plates approach? Or would you divide things instead into Earth, Ocean, Land, Air? Would you put cheese under The Milk Artists?
The Milk Artists?
Between each of these headings and the dishes is a line in italics - a line with a purpose that's hard to fathom, unless it's an experiment to see how diners will react: will you clutch your head in agony, or simply laugh heartily? I'm hard-pressed to say which of these lines impresses me most. Is it the one accompanying Ocean: One who swims free, and consumes the weak? Or is it Air: To fly free and be obsolete? Clutching your head and laughing at the same time is also an option.
This isn't simply a matter of aesthetic delicacy. It's a question of clarity. Of efficiency. It's not especially clear which dishes are entrées and which are main courses. It's not something all the staff appear to be across, either. (And don't, for god's sake, ask them what the distinction between Earth and Land is.)
They're also not all that great at explaining the name. A micron, or micrometre, is a millionth of a metre: 0.001 millimetres. Spider-web silk is usually between three and eight microns in diameter, while human hair can range from 17 to 181 microns. Twelve is apparently a desirable thickness for a fibre of wool, 10 being about as fine as it gets in fleece. What this has to do with the restaurant is not immediately apparent.
There's a lot going on decoratively speaking: in an effort to put the palette of the bush to work, Sydney firm SJB has brought stucco panels and many pieces of timber dowel to bear. Silver leaf and leathered granite evoke the grey-green of a eucalypt forest, and the various spaces teem with Resident and Casamania lounge seating, Expormim dining chairs and stools by De Padova. The fittings are at times quite splendid. The kitchen pass is done in lovely spotted gum. The coat-hooks on the back of the toilet doors are small works of art in themselves. Not much wool to speak of, though.
There is a lamb dish on the menu - just the one - but I don't think that's the hook. So I delved deeper, dear reader, and unearthed this piece of information from one of the restaurant's publicists: "The name 12-Micron is a nod to Australian farmers who are dedicated to producing the very best products that we source for the kitchen." Okay, then. Glad we could clear that up.
The pass at 12-Micron.
Nourse's third law of restaurant common sense: if your concept or name is too convoluted to be readily explained by your most junior floor staff, it's probably time to go back to the drawing board. I'm also not sure how all the designer Italian furniture and the lovely Cutipol cutlery square with the celebration of Australia. Besides, wool is not something I want to think about while I'm eating. And that goes double for when I'm eating sheep.
But eat the sheep you should, because it's cooked beautifully. It's under the Land section (To graze on the land the gods gave them) and, just to really gild the lily, it has a special name in italics: Homage to Flinders Island.
The meat has that fine, pale grain that makes the Flinders stuff so appealing. "Shoulder, loin and lamb gland," intones the young man who brought the plate from the kitchen as he points out the three cuts on the plate. The shoulder is a neatly cut, burnished tile of a thing, the loin cooked with just as much care. The lamb… gland is a sweetbread (the thymus, I'd guess), a pretty little chicken nugget of a thing, its bounce a clever complement to the varied textures of the other cuts and the attractively scone-like damper on the plate. There are leaves of some sort of native spinach in the mix, a ribbon of zucchini and a trickle of sauce with not too much ironbark honey in it. Nice.
Also nice: fat little baby root vegetables baked in paperbark, with a slick of goat's curd. And the careful curl of tortellini piped with goat's cheese and dressed with brown butter, cut with the sweet-sour tang of fresh currants and charred radicchio. There's a lobster omelette that's been done in the French way seldom seen in Sydney restaurants - the egg a pure pale yellow on the outside with no hint of browning. A scatter of finely cut chives cooked into the inner side is an elegant touch.
Rôtisserie-roasted duck with duck-fat potatoes, spinach and pan juices.
Can chickens fly enough to justify a place on the Air section of the menu? Sidestep the argument and order the duck instead. Their ability to fly is not in dispute, and they come off the 12-Micron rôtisserie in great nick. Many Sydney restaurants cook their duck bagged in plastic in a water bath, giving it a quick sear afterwards to try to crisp up the skin and impart some flavour. It's an approach that helps these kitchens offer consistent results, but they're not generally that great. The fat doesn't render out much and the meat often has all the textural appeal of pink Hubba Bubba. The duck at the Micron, though, has been roasted emphatically, and has flavour and texture for days. Where so much else in this restaurant is overdone, there are pleasing moments of restraint in the food. The choice to let the duck stand on its merits simply with potatoes cooked in duck fat, a little spinach and a splash of roasting juices is one such grace note.
Restraint is not a word I'd use in the context of the dessert menu. For reasons known only to the Microns, it's called Scented. You might encounter a bit of a spiel from the staff at the restaurant about it being all about Australian produce, but I don't think the team at the dessert bar got the memo. Over my visits to 12-Micron, I've seen the dessert list offer cherry blossom, mandarin and yuzu, all out of season and quite possibly sourced from well outside Australia. Maybe they're singing from a different song sheet because it's a different team.
Gin & Tonic dessert with Four Pillars gin, lime and cucumber.
Justin Wise, 12-Micron's executive chef, is a transplant from Melbourne, as is the pastry team. The Scented list is designed by Darren Purchese, of Melbourne pâtisserie Burch & Purchese. I've never been to Burch & Purchese, but based on the evidence of some of the dishes I've tried - "Cherry Blossom / Cherries | Miso Caramel | Milk Chocolate", for instance, or "Mandarine / Salted Caramel | Tonka Bean | Chocolate" - I can surmise that they're a techniquefocused mob. Lots of shiny blobs, broken biscuits, crumbled chocolate and lovingly quenelled ices, and blips of flavour that for me play better on Instagram than they do on the palate.
The $22 Gin & Tonic dessert comprises Four Pillars gin, lime, lemon, cucumber and juniper expressed in the form of jelly, lozenges of ice, and various other blobs, powders and, yes, quenelles. (Some of the quenelles have also been sprayed and/ or drizzled with other things along the way.) Tasted individually, some of the components on the plate would not have me calling for seconds. Tasted together they fail to answer the simple question of why anyone would order a gin and tonic at the end of a meal rather than at the start.
Service is so wildly variable and, at times, just plain lost that rather than be cross when a member of staff fails to do something so basic as offer to take your umbrella or coat, or bring your wine promptly enough to drink with the course you ordered it for, you'll likely be moved to pity. If you happen to be seated, as I was on my second visit, at a banquette slung so low the table is above the nipple-line, I am confident they'll eventually respond to suggestions that you'd like to move to somewhere better set-up for ordinary-sized humans hoping to eat a meal in comfort. I am yet to see the restaurant full, but so far the food has come out fast. They mean well.
Interiors designed by SJB.
The wine list doesn't suck. It tilts local: everything by the glass but the fizz is Australian. If you want a good French white under $100, you might count them on one hand and have fingers to spare. On the list at Banksii, right on the Barangaroo waterfront, you'll find maybe a dozen. A few doors up at Cirrus, it's more like two dozen. Stick with the Australian stuff, they seem to be saying, and you'll be okay, covering the spread from the hipper newer players (Charlotte Dalton sémillon, Latta sauv blanc, an orange Arfion Smokestack Lightning gris) to the unassailably classic (riesling from Grosset, chards from Vasse Felix and Leeuwin Estate). It's good wine, but it faces some stiff competition in this neighbourhood.
I don't want to talk you out of going to 12-Micron. It's my hope that you can look past the issues with the branding, the eye-watering name, the coordination on the floor and the tangle of gratuitous "concepts" that it has been saddled with, and see the good cooking and nice wine beyond them. The one thing Barangaroo doesn't need is more hype. Let's hope these guys stick to their knitting.
Level 2, 100 Barangaroo Ave (entry via Watermans Quay), Barangaroo, NSW, (02) 8322 2075, 12micron.com.au
Open Daily noon-11pm
Cards AE DC MC V EFT
Prices Earth/Ocean $18-$32, Land/Air $27-$43, Scented $14-$22
Vegetarian Five dishes
Noise Loud, generic music
Wheelchair access Yes
Minus Too much concept, not enough service
Plus Some real and gutsy cooking under all the hype