You can do a lot of good eating in Melbourne. I know, because I did it all. Over five late-summer days in February, I went from the theatrical to the po-faced, the everyone-welcome to the literally inaccessible, out to the city’s far-flung suburbs, and back in to the dining room at the centre of the city map (and 55 floors above street level).
All in black, they glide like models over the floor, faces fixed, personalities suppressed. Who died?
Famously a city of suburbs – its city centre is compact and walkable, its urban sprawl vast – Melbourne has seen some of its formerly far-out areas grow, change and develop idiosyncratic personalities. One such is Northcote, whose high street, when I first came up here to visit friends who’d bought a house here in 2011 in the most central suburb they could afford, boasted little more than a Japanese restaurant and a culty pizza parlour, but now houses one of the city’s best restaurants. Around that time, local Scott Pickett – a protégé/survivor of The Square in London – opened his first restaurant, Estelle, and he has remained loyal to the area as his reputation has grown and the restaurant has morphed into Estelle by Scott Pickett (a bit like “But you can call me sir”). Northcote has certainly up-and-come around him, but ESP remains a slightly surprising presence – a top-quality restaurant set into an unassuming row of high-street shops. Pickett cheerfully admits he’s been approached innumerable times to move to city centre locations, but this is where his home is and where his children go to school – so why would he?
The room is not particularly large – maybe forty covers – and has a sort of shrug of a view out onto the trams and traffic of the high street; with no blinds, late low summer sun streams in to give the room, all greys and blacks, a bit of warm colour. In the large, open, black-tiled kitchen, copper pans catch the light, spiking the monochrome. The room is not, in and of itself, rich in atmosphere; the staff, however, are rich in… seriousness. All in black, they glide like models over the floor, faces fixed, personalities suppressed. Who died? The Gosset champagne poured as I sit down is said “to calibrate the palate”, which seems an unnecessarily androidy way to describe an aperitif. Inevitably, I spent the whole evening trying to provoke a human expression from any of them. I did, finally, coax a smile out of the sommelier.
There wasn’t enough of this dish, but they could have filled a washbowl with this stuff for me to glug from and it still mightn’t have sated me
This is funny – in the sense of peculiar – since the food here can be quite playful, with a strong cordon bleu influence (dishes montéd with butter, a consommé to show off cooking chops) that dishes frequently subvert. That consommé – of kangaroo – is paired with madeira wine; and amid dishes of kingfish with crunchy roe and Moreton Bay bug with jamon de serrano, melon and chickpea there is a sudden left turn into comfort food par excellence: risoni pasta with parmesan espuma and loads of grated black truffle. The old paradox: how can I eat this slowly enough to savour while still getting spoonfuls into my mouth as quickly as possible? There wasn’t enough of this dish, but they could have filled a washbowl with this stuff for me to glug from and it still mightn’t have sated me.
As Pickett shaves truffle at the pass, sprinkles pinches of herbs, polishes fingermarks off plate edges and spoons over sauces, he keeps up a calm, stentorian and occasionally mystifying commentary – “Get me the cherry, I want a look”; “Three more barramundi”; and, climactically, like a bingo caller: “Two and two – kangaroo.” (I don’t know what this means, but it’s very nice to say.)
Back to the city centre for lunch the next day, and to Kappo, the contemporary Japanese restaurant on Exhibition Street. The large glass front door that faces the Treasury Gardens is printed with stylised birch trees, and firmly locked against anybody actually wanting to get in. I rattled at this door for a while, glimpsing silhouettes of unresponsive figures through the frosted glass. Signage is there none, but by a process of elimination, one eventually finds a nondescript side door on abutting Flinders Lane; ringing an unmarked buzzer finally gives access. Periodically throughout one’s meal here, one hears the thunk and rattle as another frustrated wannabe makes the error of trying to enter by the front door. This makes Kappo either the most Japanese or the most Melbourne thing imaginable, and it is an unpromising start to lunch. (It doesn’t stop there. “Is the way to the toilets self-explanatory?” I ask mid-meal. “No,” comes the answer.)
Inside, there’s a neat, sleek, 20-cover restaurant with most of the seats at the bar, and an enamel box from which you’re invited to select the most aesthetically pleasing set of chopsticks. There are three drinks pairings available to accompany the set menu – all-wine, all-sake, or a mix – and most guests opt for the third, entrusting staff with the drinks decisions. The wines are Australian, including a Chardonnay made on owner Simon Denton’s family vineyard and, accompanying a mizuna salad with sesame, tomato and black vinegar, something called “Thick as Thieves: The Love Letter” redolent of your laundry basket the night before washday. Terrific dishes follow: a set egg custard with abalone, a salad of pear, smoked trout, nasturtium and buckwheat, tofu on dashi with spaghetti-cut squash and pea – fresh, light, summery and perfectly balanced dishes.
It’s possible Kappo is a bit too confident
It is always fascinating to watch a sashimi chef at work: preparing petals of tuna belly, whiting and wagyu, Chef Masa grips his knife like a pen, steadying forefinger pressed to the top of the blade. The watcher enters a Zen-like state, which is fortunate if it allows him to tune out the truly awful soundtrack of Leanne Rimes, jazz funk, and leopard-print fetishist Shania Twain’s “That Don’t Impress Me Much”, a song that should never be heard, least of all in a restaurant. It’s possible Kappo is a bit too confident: fortunately, the food is excellent, but the ambience is peculiar, and that initial hassle of getting in means I knocked a point off before I was even inside.
Initially more theatrical, Vue de Monde (pictured, top) is the grand uncle of all these restaurants. Shannon Bennett’s flagship has been among the top-ranked Melbourne restaurants for well over a decade, and his influence on this city’s cooking has been huge. Having moved twice already, and now located on the 55th floor of the architecturally unremarkable Rialto Tower, Vue at last has a home as stratospheric as its reputation.
I had one of my favourite meals ever at the old, ground-level Vue de Monde some years ago, and maybe my expectations were skewed a little high. Initial signs were promising: the new(ish) Vue is a huge, handsome room with deep dark parquet flooring, grey-black walls, tabletops finished in burnt-sienna tanned kangaroo hide, and tear-inducingly beautiful views across Melbourne’s night skyline. This is a serious restaurant, with prices to match (tasting menus are $230-$275, before you choose a wine package). Famously, a bunch of lads with parachutes in backpacks jumped from the window of the cocktail bar in 2012 rather than pay their bill.
What this means is that Vue is operating quite a straightforward take on dining as theatre, in which simply coming here for dinner is the theatre. Aside from some elaborate table-setting – and the easygoing but not overfriendly charm of the wait staff – there is surprisingly little playfulness in the presentation compared to some of the other top-drawer Melbourne restaurants. A mid-meal palate cleanser involving edible flowers nitro-frozen for the diner to pestle down to dried-herb consistency and mix with a lemon myrtle sorbet is one gesture towards the kind of innovation that I’d expected more of. The cooking is almost all unfaultable and almost all “fine” rather than outstanding, at least until a beautiful and very savoury dish of kangaroo tail, cooked in red wine and served with zucchini and mint, and another of home-made wagyu brisket – purists bristle – served with plums variously diced, dehydrated, made into chips.
yes, it is both decadent and indulgent, but it isn’t much fun
“And now,” shouted a server I hadn’t seen before, “it’s what you’ve been waiting for! The decadence! The indulgence!” The dessert, that is: a chocolate soufflé with Valrhona cream and nitro-frozen custard “powder”. And yes, it is both decadent and indulgent, but it isn’t much fun. Who ever looked at a perfectly risen soufflé with delighted, lip-smacking anticipation, rather than just with admiration for technique?
As if to reassure that my palate isn’t as jaded as I feared – nor does familiarity have to breed contempt – my third visit to Attica (a biennial treat) is as spellbinding as my previous dinners here. A great deal has been written about Attica, the endlessly charming Ben Shewry’s overnight success story a decade in the making, that almost all that needs to be said about it in 2016 is that it is just as good as it was four years ago when I first went. Like other restless restaurateurs, Shewry has retired a number of his more famous dishes since then, though the emphasis remains on a still almost unique take on “national cuisine” that riffs on contemporary trends but uses unique native ingredients. Presentation, too, remains clever, fun, and always in service to the food. A “taco” of chicken thigh meat and herbs is wrapped in pressed carrot; tiny clams called “dippies” are served as though washed up on a stone “beach” contained in a hollowed cross-section of tree bole, and there’s a “lamb pie” that is the most delicious thing imaginable.
Yet Australia is the land of “tall poppy syndrome” – also known as telling people they’ve got too big for their boots – and on a couple of occasions I felt that I detected an intriguing thorniness in dinner at Attica. Those lamb pies are named as “Gazza’s Pies”, for the Prahran Market butcher from whom the meat is sourced: is this celebrating Gazza, though, or slyly lampooning that almost aggressive Aussie first-name chumminess? Wallaby-blood pikelets – a take on bush cuisine – are accompanied with an ersatz handwritten recipe that is either celebrating macho blokeyness (“She’ll be right maaaaate”, it concludes) or poking rather bitter fun at it. Is Shewry, a New Zealander embraced as Australia’s own, finding that hug a little stifling?
Fortunately, whether or not his feelings about his adopted home are conflicted, Shewry’s cooking is exemplary. His famous potato dish has undergone an evolution and appears here baked, smashed and coated in yeasty cream sauce, maximal in savour and paired with an unapologetically unfashionable oak-thick chardonnay. A none-more-Australian dish of red kangaroo, bunya nut paste and frozen native berries recalls and remixes Shewry’s first round of most noteworthy dishes, pushing the flavour combinations even further.
These four are among the culinary lightning rods that will draw enthusiasts to Melbourne, but the city of course teems with smaller, weirder, more offbeat restaurants, cafés, popups, collaborations, and – yes – food trucks. Between courses at Kappo, I watched as a wedding party in the Treasury Gardens packed up its equipment and set off en masse for the next photocall, doubtless against the graffiti-thick backdrop of Hosier Lane. The bride-to-be, trailing behind the rest, had the train of her dress in one hand and, in the other, a Subway sandwich that she managed to devour in three big, relishing bites in the time it takes to cross Exhibition Street. Up high, down low, al fresco, or behind excessively closed doors, Melbourne is a city that can’t help cramming in one more meal. C
Attica, 74 Glen Eira Road, Ripponlea, VIC 3185
61-3 9530 0111; attica.com.au
ESP by Scott Picket, 245 High Street, Northcote VIC3070
61-3 9489 4609; estellebysp.com
Kappo, 1 Flinders Lane, VIC 3000
61-3 9639 9500; kappo.com.au
Vue de Monde, Level 55, Rialto, 525 Collins Street, VIC3000
61-3 9691 3888; vuedemonde.com.au