Josue Lopez can exhale. The star chef’s new restaurant at the soon-to-open Emporium Hotel South Bank finally has a name and an opening date.
In early August, Lopez will unveil Opal. “It’s been an absolute labour of love to get to this point,” he says. “Just settling on a name, you breathe life into a venue. The excitement is palpable.”
The name Opal, developed in collaboration with his wife Krystal and Emporium owners Tony and Francine John, references Lopez’s love for the Australian landscape and using native produce, something he learned to appreciate during his time working alongside René Redzepi at Copenhagen’s Noma in 2011, and mastered as executive chef at GOMA Restaurant.
“The whole process is to put something unique on a plate,” Lopez says. “The culinary world now demands that. Focusing on native ingredients allows me to tell new stories in a culinary way. Opal being our national gemstone really reflects that philosophy.”
The menu will lean towards a degustation offering and feature dishes such as Minjerribah (the Indigenous name for North Stradbroke Island), with baked prawns and knobby snapper arranged to reflect the coast of North Stradbroke Island (“it gives you a sense of the blue waves hitting the shore,” Lopez says) and Father and Son, which pairs local beef and veal with saltbush and adult and baby beetroot.
“My time at GOMA really inspired me with the artwork,” he says. “Just the messages you can transmit through a piece of art … there’s a real movement in cooking now [to capture] a transformative experience where the name and concept of the dish can elevate you.”
The menu will be backed by a wine list featuring Tony John’s own collection of Burgundy wines, along with drops from Australia and Italy.
Still an empty shell, the restaurant’s 40-seat main floor will be rendered in stone, fabric and metal. A recessed ceiling with feature lighting will star, as will Emporium’s signature stained-glass Parisian shopfront, taken from the Fortitude Valley hotel and installed in a private dining room with views of the kitchen. Almost a requirement for any restaurant these days is a walk-in cellar; Opal’s will be a six-and-a-half-metre number that stretches along one whole side of the restaurant.
Backing up Lopez in the kitchen will be Englishman Matthew Blackwood, long-time Lopez right-hander Connie Jeoun (recently returned from her own stint at Noma) and Callum Grey, just arrived in Brisbane after working at London’s acclaimed The Clove Club.
As for fine dining in Brisbane, the more rarefied end of the local market seems to be in a funk right now with the closure of Esquire and Esq, and the impending departure of Urbane's Alejandro Cancino. Is Lopez anxious about unleashing a restaurant in this environment?
“No nerves at all,” he tells Broadsheet. “This is the culmination of at least 14 years of my culinary career. In the context of this hotel, a luxury boutique hotel, it absolutely works.
“It’s about good value,” Lopez continues. “There’s good value in cooking for $200 a head, and good value in a $20 burger. It’s all about perceptions and your expectations and your experience.
“If you’ve got good food, good wine in a lovely location, I think that works in any of the great cities of the world, and Brisbane is really on the verge of making that leap. It already has in many ways.”