430 Little Collins St
Melbourne VIC 3000
+61 3 9691 3888
It has taken me quite a while to get this entry started. I mean, how does one go about writing about their epic dinner at arguably Melbourne’s best restaurant that failed to meet their (admittedly high) expectations? How can one say that some of the dishes that was consumed did not make her quiver in her loins, the same way that it did to other bloggers without being ostracised and potentially being called a ‘philistine’? Finally, how does one go about reviewing a $250 per head 10-course degustation menu that lasted four hours without trying to make the end product as long as an Arts Masters thesis? Well lemme tell you folks, it is just as difficult as attempting to reproduce one of Shannon Bennett’s desserts but here goes nothing:
The occasion was to celebrate Adam and my third year as a couple. Actually, the verb ‘reward’ would have probably been more apt than ‘celebrate.’ I jokingly said on facebook that our relationship had been so tumultuous (using various anecdotes ranging from SuperCoach scores to the ASX) that we deserved to treat ourselves to a night at Vue de Monde. Our reservation for 6:30pm was booked months prior and my head felt like it was about to burst from excitement during the week leading to the dinner.
Come Saturday night, we were standing in the marbled foyer of the historic Normanby Chambers. We were led to a table in the middle of the room, with a clear view of the open kitchen. I loved how they attached a mirror panel directly above the plating table so that we could actually see the chefs create their masterpiece a la Masterchef but without tantrums, Matt Preston’s gravelly voice and way too many ad breaks. The dining room itself was surprisingly less opulent and smaller than I thought. The muted lighting and bronze mirrors created a sense of class while quirky additions such as bold abstract art and fennels dangling in glass lampshades provided a somewhat down-to-earth feel to the restaurant.
The waiter explained the structure of tonight’s proceedings once we were settled. Essentially, the basic offering was a five-course tasting menu at $150 p/h, with each additional course attracting an extra $15 each up to a maximum of ten courses capped at $225. For the ultimate experience, however, the Gastronome Menu at $250 per head is the way to go with an extra $25 being charged for ‘premium ingredients.’ For some reason, I had thought that we were to get a totally different menu from the people who did not order the Gastronome Menu but it turned out that we were essentially getting the same thing bar the extra little tidbits such as the amuse bouche, palate cleansers and petit fours we received at the end. Oh, and we weren’t given a menu as such nor were we given a choice as to what we can get. All that was asked was whether there were any dietary requirements and basically, it was up to the kitchen to surprise us. I must have looked a bit freaked out at the thought of not having a menu to look at, but the lovely waiter assured me that he will email me a copy of the evening’s menu within a few days so that I can have “something to read with the photos.” Aww, bless!
No sooner after the sommelier came back with my 2007 Luis Pato Beiras ‘Vinha Formal,’ a complex sweet white from Portugal with a strong acidic finish, we were presented with some hand-cooked potato crisps, olives and some remoulade.
Our first of three amuse bouche: a Kangaroo charcuterie which was essentially four minuscule roo blobs on an oversized wooden circle (like the big centre wine table, I wondered if the board, too, was constructed from wood taken from the old Ponsford stand). One was a kangaroo sausage while the other was a kangaroo tartare on a sliced nashi pear. Both were unexpected finds in a French restaurant but were refreshing at the same time.
Next, we had the compressed cucumber, tuna and wasabi roll which looked nothing like its namesake. It was merely a 10 cent coin-sized piece of fresh tuna sashimi, the compressed cucumber being those little caviar-shaped balls and the wasabi in foam-form. It was very Verge, hence it was nothing special (I’m sorry, I really don’t like that place!).
Our final amuse bouche was the Kingfish with Osetra caviar sandwiched between two small pieces of thin wafer. Probably my favourite of the three – it was delicate yet full of punch.
At this point, butter, salt and pepper were presented as well as the offer of warm bread rolls – sourdough white, linseed and whole meal, all of which were regularly brought out throughout the meal.
And so it began: Salade de legumes verts (green vegetable salad), featuring fennels and apples drizzled with an asparagus juice. I loved the presentation of this dish but its prettiness did not detract from the fact that it was blatantly BORING and uninspiring. Yes, the veggies were fresh but the raw wild garlic. which was supposed to add flavour, just left a bitter aftertaste in my mouth, which I wasn’t too pleased about too. Not the best first course.
Our next course, the truite fume accompagne de caviar (Ocean trout and Osetra caviar smoked at the table) was covered by a dome which was lifted as it reached our table, the smoke wafting through the air. The ocean trout fillet flavoured with sweet beetroot, cooked overnight at 65 degrees, was a beautifully tender piece of fish which was a pleasure to eat from the word, ‘go.’
The next course was another vegetable one (“Again?!” exclaimed Adam, a Neantherdal carnivore). I do, however, have to say that the Jardin de Legumes (Heide vegetable garden) tasted as pretty as it looked. We were told that all the vegetables delivered to the restaurant are fresh from a patch up in Heidelberg and this dish was a celebration of the fresh flavours and colours of the said garden. The white stuff you see on the plate was dehydrated olive oil, which provided an interesting textural element in the form of white puffy clouds that disintegrated in your mouth… and also tasted surprisingly good with a little bit of salt.
More vegetables, this time a full-on mushroom dish. Mushrooms are my favourite veggies so I was pleased rather than pissed off. The dish, called ‘Champignons’ was a simple medley of wild mushrooms handpicked by Andrew Woof of Glenora Heritage Produce held together by a beautiful truffle jus. It was simple, yet the flavours were just so beautifully intense that I wished there was more. The waiter told us that the bit of pine was there for us to chew on afterwards which Adam did, in fact, do but he looked pretty joker-ish gnawing on a pine leaf and it really didn’t do anything so he stopped.
Our final starter was an ecrevisse rotie (roasted marron), which was presented on a hot river stone from the Yarra river bed in Heidelberg. This was another simple dish with very little garnishing apart from some celery and wood sorrel, the aim being to highlight the natural flavours of the Indigenous marron. This I found somewhat ironic because the marron does not have that much natural flavour compared to say, the yabbie and you really do need to jazz it up a bit in order to really experience its flavour. Yes, it was roasted perfectly but I did feel that it was a bit bland. Also, the presentation may have looked WOW but I had bits of celery slipping off my rock and all over the table, which wasn’t very good at all. This dish gets marks for presentation but minus points for taste and practicality.
Our next item was a trou perigourdin, a palate cleanser of grape shaven ice with frozen yoghurt which was the best thing we had all night. It was something that would not be out of place in a restaurants’ Summer dessert menu so I was surprised to see this as a palate cleanser but wow, it strangely worked. It was refreshing and tasty, and certainly got rid of the nasty raw garlic taste that had been lingering in my mouth since the first course while whetting my appetite for the two ‘main courses’ that we were about to consume.
First, the porc aux saveurs de la terre (Western Plains pork with flavours of the earth). I am not much of a pork person but this dish impressed me tremendously. Enter a pork chop, a piece of juicy pork loin and pork neck, all of which were juicy and tender, to showcase the best from the porcine world with a strip of crispy bacon to round things off. The pork flavours were then intensified by a cep mushroom powder and a sauce made from the pork juices. Delicious.
Our final ‘big’ dish was the Wagyu boeuf de Blackmore, which was just a pretentious name for David Blackmore’s famed wagyu beef. It was presented on one helluva gigantic rectangular plate to our amusement. “Pretty big plate, eh?” teased Adam as one of the chefs presented a plate each in front of us. The chef, who looked almost embarrassed to be presenting it to us (but looked like he had no choice but to follow the master’s orders), explained that the dish was a metaphor for “a cow running around the forest” and that the sorrel, dried berries and earl grey parsnip was meant to represent the greenery. While it was cute, I couldn’t help but notice that no one else had the same enormous plate, instead their wagyu was served on normal round dinner plates which I thought was strange but never mind.
Taste-wise, the dish was unbelievably good. The grade 9 sirloin was so beautifully tender, its juices so intense and wondrous. It was a shame that it had to be so damn small, but I guess that was to be expected.
Our tables were then cleared to make way for dessert. While waiting for the cheese course, a toothpick dispenser was placed on the table – the coolest thing I’ve seen in like, forever. Basically, you press down on the end of the silver man-looking thing and it bends over to pick up a toothpick from the little slot on the wooden box. Trust me, it’s cooler in real life than on paper. It’s designed by Alessi and at $229, it’s not something I’d buy for myself willy-nilly but would make a perfect wedding gift *cough cough*
Our cheese course was a Bruny Island ‘Saint’ on sherry and mushroom, a camembert-like artisan cheese made in Tasmania. This oozy cheese had a soft and delicate flavour – my kind of cheese, really *dies happy*
We then received our final palate cleanser before our final two dessert courses. Called the entremet sucre, it was a frozen raspberry lollipop that was rolled in ‘fruit snow’ and covered in popping candy – you know the ones that you bought in little packets as a kid? Yep, those. An eye-popping treat that was both refreshing and tasty, which was washed down by lemonade.
Our gateau a la carotte. How’s this for presentation?! Dubbed this ‘the Carrot Patch dessert’, Shannon Bennett’s interpretation of the humble carrot cake was presented on top of a flattened empty wine bottle and all elements were arranged on the flat plane to resemble an actual carrot patch. It was the most amazing study of textures, flavours and detail I’ve seen on a dessert (baby heirloom carrots, spiced ice cream and carrot-cream cheese puree were only some of the elements) – and this is coming from someone who doesn’t have a sweet tooth. In addition, Adam was unusually quiet as he ate his dessert, a testament to just how good it was.
Gives new meaning to the term ‘rabbit food’, don’t you think?
Our final course was the soufflé au chocolat (chocolate soufflé, duh) with chocolate mousse and crème anglaise, which was poured on the table. For some reason, we were the only table in the restaurant to get this dessert and I wasn’t sure why. The table next to us got some kind of dessert in egg cartons which I would have actually preferred seeing as I LOVE eggs and I’m not a huge fan of chocolate desserts. That said, the diners on that same table clearly had food envy when they saw that we had chocolate soufflés. I don’t know why we got different desserts, considering that everyone seemed to have ordered the $250 menu and we weren’t actually allowed to pick and choose our dishes (I actually asked). The thought that the extra $25 we paid for having the gastronome menu (as opposed to just a standard 10-course meal, no bells or whistles) was just so we can have a chocolate soufflé and not the egg dessert did cross my mind. However, I seriously doubted that a soufflé would attract a $25 supplement over the other desserts. Anyway, it was indeed a competent soufflé that was sweet, rich and fluffy in all the right places. I guess someone who would be into chocolate desserts would enjoy it but I just didn’t like it as much as I would have and nether did Adam.
Finally, we were given a plate of petits-fours when the bill was presented. The waitress explained that all the little goodies on the plate were meant to represent an artist’s palette and inside the tube was some raspberry jam to counteract the sweetness of the absolutely gorgeous chocolate macarons (I said I didn’t like chocolate desserts but I could handle them in little doses!) and lamington cubes.
And there you have it: Melbourne’s best restaurant in just over 2,000 words. Whew. It was one helluva dinner but whether it was worth the $530-odd that we forked out is something that Adam and I debated hotly on the way home. Apart from the first course, there was really nothing horrible about the food. Some courses were amazing such as the beef and the mushrooms (and the palate cleansers in between) but others were just good without being overly brilliant. Overall, the presentation was great and the service very efficient without being overly pretentious but at the end of the day, it all comes down to the food and I’m afraid I couldn’t justify the hefty price tag and heck, I wasn’t even sure we had super premium ingredients like we were promised (I certainly didn’t get any truffles as others have received in the past).
Then there was the issue of not being able to choose what we received as well as different tables getting different desserts which certainly put a damper on the night’s proceedings. I later found out that there are in fact sixty dishes on the VDM repertoire and the dishes we consumed on the night was to be stored in the restaurant’s database. That way, the next time we’re here we will get an entirely different menu. Hence, there was a chance that I just happened to go on a night where the dishes just didn’t agree with me and that SURELY, the next time I go I’ll have a much better time.
There was also the possibility that I was being extremely fussy. On reading an article about Greg Doyle wanting to lose his Sydney restaurant’s three-hat status because of mounting pressures, my workmate Sean said that it was “people like you, Libby, who create all sorts of stress on these sorts of restaurants so don’t go crying when they fail to meet your expectations.” I guess Sean did have a point but on the other hand, I had an equally-high standard for Jacques Reymond, other three-hatted restaurant, and they wowed me completely. While it was true that Vue de Monde did have more style and more pizazz, Jacques Reymond was more humble and homely in its approach to French food and subsequently came out the better of the two. Still, I can’t say that I will not be returning to VDM because chances are that in spite of the not-worth-the-$250-price-tag dinner, I do want to come back. More specifically, I do want to try some of their other dishes, including their famed truffle risotto, before I write this place off as over-hyped.