45 Collins Street
Melbourne VIC 3000
+61 3 9654 8545
Before the financial year was over, Dave and I had been working extremely hard at our respective workplaces. Dave had a multitude of work that needed to be done STAT while I had to deal with an imbecile who got on everyone’s nerves. Of course, hard work leads to great rewards so we decided to treat ourselves to dinner at acclaimed Sydney chef Mark Best’s inaugural Melbourne restaurant, Pei Modern.
Best has taken Sydney’s fine-dining scene by storm with his Surry Hills restaurant Marque. Not only has it picked up six three-hatted awards, it has was also voted Sydney’s Best Restaurant in 2011 by the Sydney Morning Herald. Oh yeah, and Marque sits on #61 in San Pellegrino’s list of best restaurants. Not bad for a former sparkie, hey? So when Dave and I heard that he was opening up a restaurant in Melbourne, we knew we had to go.
You could be forgiven into thinking that Pei Modern serves Asian cuisine (Marty thought the name sounded very ‘Chinois’). While its cuisine steers towards the ‘Mod Oz’ direction, there are hints of French cooking techniques and ingredients. And here’s another French link: the architect who designed Collins Place, where the restaurant is located, happens to be the same genius who designed the Louvre’s glass pyramid. And he happens to be a Chinese-American. His name is I.M. Pei and that, my friend, is where we get the restaurant’s name.
At the time of writing, neither of us had been to Marque so we had nothing to compare it to. All we knew was that it wasn’t going to be going Marque Mark II (bwah!), though we were nevertheless looking forward to seeing what Best’s Melbourne team could do. I’ve heard that Best flies into Melbourne every fortnight to assist in the kitchen but when he’s up in Sydney, he leaves everything to head chef Matt Germanchis. Gerhmanchis used to work at Movida and Movida Aqui, so we knew we were in good hands.
Dave, as usual, was there early so he was already halfway through his glass of red when I rocked up. I chose a lovely glass of 2011 Crawford River ‘Young Vines’ Riesling, a local white from Henty ($12) to go with my meal.
The food at Pei Modern, in comparison to Marque, was reasonably priced. Entrées don’t go beyond $20, while mains are priced around $30-35. In my opinion, this represents decent value for a Mark Best restaurant and for a restaurant at the top end of Collins Street. That said, we both thought that the seven-course tasting menu was a much bigger steal at $90. So we went with that.
Pei Modern bake their own bread and churn their own butter, so it goes without saying that the breads were delicious. While I did like the little canvas sack that the bread was placed in as well as the Perceval knives that were to remain by our side for the duration of the meal, I didn’t like the fact that we didn’t get any bread plates. I asked a waitress for a plate and to my surprise, she rolled her eyes and said that Best doesn’t ‘do bread plates.’ The reason behind this was that plates prevent sharing and interaction (or some bullshit like that), hence why they don’t give them out. That said, she did offer to give us a plate each – probably because I was making too much mess.
We started off with an anchovy shortbread that had blobs of parmesan custard on it. The bread was appropriately sweet and the salty anchovies and parmesan custard provided a great counterbalance.
For some reason, the waitress took away our bread plates and they were never to be seen again. It was also annoying having to leave our cutlery sitting awkwardly on the table in between courses, too. Bleh, I thought, let them deal with all the crumbs on the table.
The brandade croquettes (four for $8) weren’t part of the degustation, but I wanted them so badly so we ordered them separately. Each croquette was crispy on the outside, and rich and creamy on the inside courtesy of mashed potatoes. Brandade is essentially a mix of salted cod and olive oil and when eaten in croquette form, it reminded me of Grossi Cellar Bar’s salted cod croquettes.
Our next course was an almond gazpacho with blue swimmer crab. In my opinion, this was one of the highlights of the meal. A gazpacho is usually lightly textured, but this was one creamier. The cold and slightly nutty gazpacho blended well with the sweetness of the fresh crab meat and the grapes. What a simple yet beautiful dish!
Next, we had the bonito, foie gras and citrus. Both Dave and I are used to eating bonito in dried form so we were surprised to receive fresh, raw bonito.
The bonito tasted like a cross between a white fish and a tuna. Combined with the sinfully luscious foie gras and piquant grapefruit segments, each forkful was fresh and delicious.
The beetroot tart with horseradish came next. The horseradish actually came in the form of spit-like foam that partially covered the tart so that only the baby beetroot slices were shown.
When you remove the foam away, however, you can see the actual layers of buttery puff pastry and caramelised onions. Sadly, neither of us really enjoyed this dish. We ain’t avid beetroot lovers to begin with, but we also thought the onions were too full-on. This was definitely our least favourite dish of the night.
Pei Modern did, however, redeem itself with its Dutch Creams dish. We were told that this was one of the few dishes that were imported from Marque, so naturally we were excited. And boy, it was amazing!
A thick layer of potato cream covered several pieces of potatoes. Amongst the mess, there were blobs of lovely bone marrow and the whole thing was topped with a bit of coffee and mojama (air-cured tuna). It was sensational! The fatty, creamy and luscious ensemble was perfect on such a cold winter night and although Dave was initially worried that the coffee would keep him awake, there was only enough ground coffee in the mixture to add a little bit of edge to an otherwise sinfully delicious creamy dish.
Our main came from the grill, a spatchcock with black cabbage and roast grapes. This was another dish well done. The spatchcock, cooked beautifully all the way through, was covered in an intoxicating mixture of spices including cinnamon. According to Dave, that plus the grapes made the whole thing smell ‘like a raisin toast’ which made me giggle. He wasn’t far from the truth though and I loved how the spices drew out the gamey flavour of the bird.
I was hoping to get the caramelised tomato stuffed with twelve flavours and star anise ice cream for our dessert course as it’s a Marque staple. Instead, we got the milk chocolate sorbet, quince, chestnut and dehydrated sponge. Not that we were disappointed, though. The chocolate sorbet tasted rich, but was still light enough for me to enjoy with the accompanying chocolate cake and poached quince.
Apart from the stupid ‘no bread plate’ protocol and the disappointing beetroot tart, we both enjoyed our Pei Modern experience immensely. If we took the ‘no plate for you’ waitress out of the equation, the service we received throughout the night was generally pretty friendly and efficient, even during the peak dinner rush. We will certainly come back again to try some of the dishes on the a la carte menu. Pei Modern may not be a Marque but it has certainly made a mark in Melbourne.