"It's not much but it's ours"

Wednesday, May 23, 2007


So, after the relative disappointments of Sydney and a non food inspired (which is just as well given how uninspiring the food was) trip to Perth, I have spent the last few days in Melbourne.

There is a huge rivalry between these two cities and both have a great deal to offer. But, in food terms, there is no competition. Melbourne knocks its more braggardly neighbour (and, remember everybody needs good neighbours because that’s when good neighbours become good friends) into a cocked hat with corks on it to keep away the flies and ranks high amongst the best eating cities I have ever visited.

You can read about the foodie wonderment that is Melbourne on EAT MY GLOBE as soon as I get back to the UK and have chance to write about it. At the moment I am too busy shoving food down my gullet, but it is worth the wait to hear about Canoli and lobster claws at Brunetti’s, Bratwurst at The Vic’ Market, Baked Cheesecake at St Kilda and, best of all, the mother of all Souvlaki at Lamb on Chapel St.

However, Melbourne does not just win out on the ethnic cheap eats front, it also wins the battle of the high end dining battle, based of course on my limited and entirely unscientific approach.

Given my loose methodology, it was lucky that I was joined on my visit to Vue De Monde by my brainiac pal, Dr Adam Balic and his equally smart wife, Rebecca who had been kind enough to put a roof over my head for the week of my stay. I am pretty sure they are going to be well stretched considering ways to fumigate my room after I leave and I am also pretty certain I have heard the word “exorcism” mentioned.

Vue de Monde. Melbourne’s finest opened a little over seven years ago under head chef, Shannon Bennett and Adam, in his clinically analytical way had selected it not just for the food but because of its importance in the development of dining in Melbourne. It is true that the very mention of it makes most Melbournians go a little shaky at the knee with excitement at the thought of chef Bennett’s culinary creations.

It is an effort to get a table and, once you do secure a reservation, you receive at least six further phone calls to confirm, reconfirm and take credit card details. All a bit odious really and compounded by an equally silly attitude to Melbourne’s otherwise ubiquitous BYO policy which involved a further million phone calls and a breathless wait to hear if the sommelier considered a selection of bottles from Dr Balic’s cellar worthy of consideration.

All this tomfoolery makes me nervous as I find it hard to imagine that a restaurant can supply a decent experience with its own head so firmly inserted in its own rectum. However, when we arrived the unstuffy nature of the service belied the silliness that had gone before.

Critics had described the chef as “risk taking” and “experimental” which makes me profoundly uneasy when what we are talking about is my dinner and a bloody expensive one at that.

This “risk taking” comes through in the room too with school style chairs given little added comfort with the addition of padding, lamps swinging precariously close ot head level from red string and an open kitchen with angled mirrors so squealing diners can get a look at the food porn on the professional side of the pass.

Likewise, I had my doubts about the food. Doubts that were deepened both when I dipped my knife into a pat of Eschire butter that turned out to have gone stale and when our server came over to explain the menu. They don’t believe in such old fashioned things as paper here. They don’t have a menu, they have a “philosophy” a philosophy based on a Menu Gourmand of a minimum of five courses ((for AU$180) which can be supplemented by further courses for additional cost up into you burst or your wallet waves the white flag.

So, there we were in a restaurant harder to get into than a nun’s knickers. A restaurant that had called us more times than an ex girlfriend with issues and where the staff had acted out the menu philosophy by way of mime while we ate stale butter and I was prepared to hate every moment.

But, I didn’t. God help me I actually really liked it.

There were some dishes that did not work and there was a little too much of the test tube/teet pipette frippery that I dislike but, underlying all of this is a very serious kitchen creating an ever changing menu which offers, daily, over 40 dishes from which to construct a menu.

An amuse of snails was not well regarded by any of us. A little too hard to eat and not worth the effort for the small mouthful our excavations unearthed. But, the slick of Aloe Vera and Pea sauce gave a sign of things to come.

A dish of South Australian Abalone came with the mollusc braised for 12 hours and then served in thin meaty slices with its braising juices and an eight spice powder heady with star anise. An accompanying trip of melon discs with watermelon foam lacked crispness but the seafood was off the scale good.

By universal acclaim, the next dish was the star of the night. A risotto spiked with Madeira was made perfectly to point and, on its own, would have been memorable. When slivers of West Australian truffle were layered on top, it became unforgettable.

Rebecca eschewed things offally, so for the next course, she stared down a plate of tomato cannelloni with a garlic crumb and Iberico ham while Adam and I worked our way through a terrine with layers of confit carrot, foie, rabbit rillette and a pistachio mousse. Hers worked better in description than execution although I liked the taste of garlic crumb I snaffled. Ours was top of the tree good and the rabbit, in particular did not give his life in vain.

Fish dishes are where high end restaurants often get found out. Vue de Monde did not. A small red mullet came stuffed with local crayfish and while the carrot string binding added little the fish and filling were exemplary. The first appearance of a test tube obliged the waitress to give us some instructions on how to use its contents by dribbling a little of the juices inside over the fish to begin and then supping the rest when everything else was finished. Hardly worth the effort or the performance but the main ingredient won us over.

A little cleanser was out next, er, intercourse as small foaming glasses were brought out. I am always wary of things that foam. From the bath time in Matey Bubbles as a child to rabid dogs, they remind me of bad stuff. Below the dry ice inspired foolishness however lurked a clear tomato consommé that had us all arching an eyebrow like Roger Moore in one of his more expressive acting moments. Very, very good indeed.

Which is just as well as what followed was the misfire round. The first meat course saw Rebecca presented with two small squared of belly pork with some slivers of brussel sprouts and a small foamy mound flavoured with apple cider. As poor a dish involving belly pork as I can recall and, when she rejected it after one mouthful, neither Adam or I wanted any part of that action. The black pudding was good although, so as not to frighten the locals they called it “boudin” despite its very British style.

Our meat courses were precious little better with flavourless lamb loin and fatty belly in a greasy sauce of split peas being saved only by the addition of some fine small sweetbreads.

Fortunately, the next course more than made up for it. I normally despise smooth cheffy stylings on a classical theme, but Shannon Bennett’s take on Beef Wellington is an astonishing success. Rare red dear with a tarragon mousse surround comes enfused with a mushroom jelly and encased in a sweet brioche like pastry. With small “soldiers” of carrot and mandarin foam, it was as good a meat dish as I have eaten this year.

The second intercourse (which is a lot more than someone with a face like mine is used to) came in the lollipop shape of quickly frozen slices of kiwi surrounded by a strong peppermint jelly. So good that I got Adam to beg the waitress to bring me another which they happily did.

All of which cleared the palette for the next amusement. A small egg box containing three upturned eggshells stuffed with, in turn, pistachio Custard, white chocolate and orange mousse and a prune & armagnac eggnog. Each had its own distinct texture and clean flavours and we each chose a different one as out favourite.

Adam loves his cooking and his cookware. The final course made him give a little girly squeal of delight as small glass dishes containing raspberry soufflé were placed in front of us. The inside of the glasses had been dusted with dried crushed strawberry which also sprinkled the plate and the whole was topped with a small, sharp raspberry ice cream. Perfectly made and perfectly refreshing.

They failed the mint tea test which is shameful at any restaurant but particularly at one charging this much money but they aced the napkin test and the arrival of excellent petits made up for it. Standard and competent macaron sat next to small cake cases containing mini Pavlova which we filled with apricot from a teat pipette. Banana ice cream came covered in chocolate and on sticks and tiny tarte tatin finished off the plate as indeed, did we.

Adam had dipped into the Balic cellar for two exceptional bottles which met the sommelier’s approval. A 1998 Chateau Fuisse had aged, was buttery and worked well with at least two of the dishes. A 1990 Chateau Climens Sauternes did equally well against the puddings. We complemented these with the sommelier’s selection of small glasses for the first couple of courses which included a Fino sherry and a not entirely successful Vouvray. A bottle of 2002 Bandol held its own with the meat dishes.

That lot with a little corkage brought the bill to about AU$850 (about £120 a head) which is not insubstantial and, for a town where you can eat sublimely well for $10, pretty frightening.

But, this is a world class restaurant and,although operating in a small pond, would be 1-2* quality in places where such things matter.

Comparisons are odious, but then so am I, so I am going to make one. My other high end experience in Australia was at Tetsuya which, while a different style of cuisine is still fighting for the same “international diner” market. I enjoyed both but while Tetsuya is, to all intents and purposes, offering the same menu as he has for many years, Shannon Bennet is constantly recreating. Where Tetsuya offers comfort and recognition for regulars, Vue de Monde offers change and challenge which sometimes comes with the inevitable misfire. The misfires at Tetsuya were shameful for a place that does the same dishes day in day out. The failures at Vue de Monde come from taking risks some of which wont work.

Tetsuya is at No4 in the Restaurant Magazine’s specious listing of best restaurants in the world. Vue De Monde comes in at a lowly 70 something. I can only assume that is because most of the liggers, n’ eer do wells and hangars who vote have not been here

So, Melbourne has it at every level over Sydney. Poor souls in NSW, what are they going to do? I guess they could always let fireworks of that bridge again.

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Blogger Ed said...

Nice to see we get your thumbs up. Five years in Sydney and seven in melbourne an I agree. good to see you know where to go for the best kebabs in melbourne too. Respect.

Monday, May 28, 2007 12:40:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That very same rank used to put Melbourne's Flower Drum at 30-odd position. What could have not made them do the same with VDM ? VDM is unquestionably better than back-then Flower Drum.
Bizarre, isn't it?

Monday, May 28, 2007 9:06:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Having recently dined, and worked in Michelin starred restaurants in London, I believe that VDM has a definate edge.Certainly with the service and overall precision taken on the floor as well as the food; should probably command three stars, and yes, a listing in the top ten.
Tets' and London are boring in comparison on so many levels.

Thursday, October 25, 2007 7:46:00 pm  

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