SYDNEY, Australia — The windows at Bar Patrón by Rockpool frame one of the world’s greatest views: the Sydney Harbour Bridge lit up in all its glory.
As I sat at the bar facing this twinkling wonder, drinking an obligatory but one-note margarita, I pondered how much money I’d be willing to spend on a proper Los Angeles street taco. In that moment, the price I settled on was $120. Give or take.
I’d been driven to this valuation by Bar Patrón’s al pastor tacos. They are better than most Australian tacos in that the tortillas are freshly made and pleasantly pliant, but are nonetheless wildly disappointing thanks to bland, dry meat and salsa that tastes of cumin and water.
“Tasteless” is a word often used hyperbolically, but it applied to many dishes at Bar Patrón.
Mexican food in Australia is an easy target for those of us who have eaten widely in Mexico or California or almost anywhere else in the Americas. Australia’s proliferation of terrible burritos — usually imbued with some kind of fruity salsa and mayonnaise or aioli — is a lesson in what can happen to a cuisine when it is taken completely out of its cultural context. The Mexican population here is relatively tiny. The types of restaurants that usually pop up to give a community a taste of home — and provide the basis for a cuisine to grow naturally in a new location — have not had the chance to develop here.
A recent boom of fast-casual burrito chains and trendy taco and tequila outfits have raised the bar considerably, bolstered by Australians’ heartfelt enthusiasm for the cuisine. But the most influential Mexican food brands in Australia have historically been Old El Paso and a restaurant chain called Taco Bill. (No, not Taco Bell, Taco Bill.)
With a few welcome exceptions, most of the Mexican food here is still a wan imitation — blander, sweeter, and more mayonnaise-y than the real thing.
Bar Patrón, in Sydney’s Circular Quay, has been marketed as the maturation of Mexican food in Australia, where it is presented in a fine-dining context and given the respect it deserves. But the restaurant is mostly notable because it is a collaboration between the Patrón tequila brand and the Rockpool Dining Group, an Australian behemoth led by Neil Perry, one of the country’s most famous chefs.
Mr. Perry sold his company in 2016 to Quadrant Private Equity Group, but he retains the role of culinary director at Rockpool — meaning that his name and reputation are used liberally when promoting new and existing projects.Mr. Perry opened the original Rockpool restaurant in Sydney in 1989, and he expanded the brand to the Crown Casino in Melbourne in 2007. In the early days of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, Rockpool was ranked as high as No. 8. His fame and influence stem from a reputation for quality in his restaurants, as well as TV appearances and corporate partnerships.
The restaurant group now operates more than 60 venues, and it recently announced it would open 11 new projects in Australia this year alone, while eyeing the international market. Despite this rapid expansion, there is still significant prestige tied to the Rockpool name, thanks mainly to Mr. Perry’s legacy.
As with any celebrity chef who acts as the public face of a large restaurant group, it is hard to know how much involvement Mr. Perry has in any one of Rockpool Group’s long list of endeavors.
According to company spokeswoman, Mr. Perry “plays a fundamental role” in the creation of new restaurants, and works on menu and recipe development. She said that he is a constant presence at their restaurants in the opening months, and that Bar Patrón is currently one of Mr. Perry’s “key focal points.”
I have eaten at a number of restaurants in the Rockpool Group’s portfolio; some do justice to Mr. Perry’s reputation, while others do not. It is hard to fathom how any chef, no matter how talented, could hope to guarantee quality across so many venues.
The Rockpool reputation is not borne out at Bar Patrón, though the place looks and feels the part. The windows are framed in white, lacy woodwork, and the blond wood and brown leather accents in the dining room provide an attractive setting for the restaurant’s stylish clientele.
You can get a “millionaire’s margarita” for $100, made tableside (with gold leaf), and a selection of special and aged tequilas, all of them Patrón. I did not try the millionaire’s margarita because I am no millionaire, but the classic versions (which ring in at $20, $30 or $40, depending on what kind of Patrón you request) are perfectly enjoyable. The Tommy’s margarita, made with only agave and lime, was watery and dull.
The head chef, Pamela Valdes, is from Xalapa, Mexico, and moved to Australia in 2017. She took on the role after a short period working at other Rockpool restaurants.
You can taste Ms. Valdes’s talent here and there: in a dark and subtle mole drizzled over otherwise uninspiring enmoladas con carnitas; in a pozole soup that had more soul in its porky broth than the rest of the menu combined. I’m not sure where or why her cooking gets lost, but so much of the food here tastes as though the lifeblood has been drained from it.
That is the overwhelming characteristic of so many dishes: the aguachile in a bright green sauce that tasted faintly of lime and not much else; the zucchini flower enchiladas that were subtle to the point of forgettability; the tuna tostada; the immensely mediocre tacos.
And so, I daydreamed about tacos on Los Angeles street corners, and all the thrilling modern Mexican cooking I’ve enjoyed. My dining companions spoke longingly about the delights they had encountered while living in Mexico City, and wondered at the trick Bar Patrón inadvertently manages.
“It’s pretty amazing,” one of them said. “How do you put so many ingredients on a plate and have it taste like nothing?”
Should it be all that shocking that a corporate takeover by private equity, aggressive expansion and a restaurant-as-marketing for a big liquor brand might result in lackluster food? Probably not.
But the dearth of quality Mexican cooking in Australia means that the public is even more reliant on its trusted chefs to provide worthy examples. The food at Bar Patrón is not awful; it’s just boring. It is just one example of an industry bolstered by celebrity and coasting on the good will of a dining public hungry for something new.