This article was also published in the Financial Times.
I learnt six years ago on my first visit to Melbourne that its citizens are as obsessed with food, wine and coffee as those in Singapore, New York and San Sebastian, north-west Spain.
On a recent trip I was stunned by the even greater concentration of cafes, bars and restaurants around the centre. When I mentioned this to a friend who lives there, she countered by saying, 'I suppose so. But there are several good galleries in between.' We both laughed.
That first trip had also introduced me to the exciting cooking of two of the city’s most admired chefs, Shannon Bennett and Andrew McConnell. In the intervening years both have moved on to even more exciting locations that are, in their very different ways, highly expressive of this currently bullish city.
Whereas McConnell was cooking at Three One Two, named after the restaurant’s address in the suburbs, he has now opened four very different restaurants: Cutler & Co, Cumulus Inc – the last two close to one another on Flinders Lane – and, most recently, Golden Fields.
The style of Cumulus Inc, with an open bar directly opposite an open kitchen could hardly be more casual, but this has to be matched with a vital precision. In a room where the light floods in from a series of large windows, everything and everybody is on show. There is simply no hiding place for either the cooks or the waiting staff.
McConnell uses his considerable experience to ensure that the service works as smoothly as possible. Once we had stated our preference for tap water, our waitress promptly told us to head over to the water table to help ourselves. This sensible approach in such a setting must ensure that his waiting staff have considerably more time to spend time with their customers.
The menus that we enjoyed at breakfast and lunch are also models of clarity. From the former came shakshouka eggs (baked in a pan with tomato, cumin and chili peppers) and feta cheese; lemon bread, soft ricotta and berries; and excellent coffee. On the lunch menu were two very different salads of grilled octopus, paprika and almonds and another of cos lettuce, buttermilk and anchovies alongside fried, soft-shell crabs with kimchi, Korean pickled cabbage. They also offered a drink that finally could revive that long neglected aperitif Punt e Mes, a bottle of which must languish, rarely broached, at the back of every bar in the world. Here it is served most refreshingly in a tall glass with ice and mixed with freshly squeezed citrus fruits.
There is no need for any extra stimulation at Bennett’s new Vue du Monde that opened in June 2011. The excitement is initially provided by the express lift in the lobby of the Rialto Tower that seconds later opens up on to the 55th floor to reveal extraordinary views across the city (see picture of the bar). These include the cricket ground, the Mornington Penisnsula and the Dandenong mountain range in the distance and, more temporarily, an electric storm fortunately bypassing the city centre.
Bennett has created an equally dramatic kitchen and in the 20 minutes I waited happily for my guest my head swiveled constantly from the window to the area he and his sous chef, Corey Campbell, were supervising. It is open, hi tech and pristine with the chefs switching openly and immediately from talking to one another to communicating on their iPhones.
This contrasts memorably with the physical layout of the restaurant. Bennett’s collection of art; the wool on the chair backs and the worked leather table tops which hark back to Victoria’s much longer established industries; and the purpose-built cheese trolley which neither squeaks nor allows the cheese aromas to permeate the room as so many others do – all these contribute to a very classy setting.
And all this is in keeping with the menu, the cooking and the style of service that are all of a similar refinement.
The menu is an A3 single sheet folded into three and labeled CHOICE, of which there are four different dishes at each of the three courses aside from the obligatory cheese (somewhat disingenuously, the price of Aus$150 per person is omitted).
The cooking repertoire ranged from cutting edge to interpretations of classics. Among the former were a slice of warm venison on a block of Himalayan salt, a slow-cooked egg with onion rings and black truffle; and a cucumber sorbet, served in a mortar, onto which a chef poured liquid nitrogen and we then crushed with a pestle that released the vapours and sent droplets scudding across the floor.
The kitchen was equally adept with their interpretation of what I was reliably informed is the classic combination of kangaroo meat with beetroot and a main course of long fillets of flathead, a native fish, cooked so that its skin was a deep, crisp brown but the rest was a translucent white. This was a stunning combination any amateur chef would long to replicate at home. Finally, among the petits fours came a small piece of wood carrying two edible penny pieces with a liquid honey and ginger centre, in homage to the game of two-up that Victoria’s gold miners played long ago.
What impressed me above all was the team spirit Bennett has instilled into those who work alongside him. For a chef this is a remarkable and unusual achievement.