Brae has three Good Food Guide hats. It was named 44th in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Its owner Dan Hunter could fill a barn with ‘chef of the year’ awards. So, you would expect this five-year-old country restaurant, two hours west of Melbourne, to be very, very good. What you might not anticipate is how great it makes you feel.
Two years is often a sweet spot in the life of a restaurant: the mania of opening is long past, wrinkles have been ironed out once, twice, probably thrice and, best of all, there's a settling of identity which means more attention can be focused on the diner experience. In short, it's less "look at me" and more "how are you?".
Sometimes a restaurant’s trappings are so many layers of distraction. At ESP, they serve to shine an ever more focused light on the food. Yes, there’s crisp service and excellent, interesting wines. Yes, you’ll be cosseted in a gleaming, comfortable dining room replete with gorgeous furniture and tableware. And yes, these accoutrements are all profoundly enjoyable. What you don’t get is smoke and mirrors. This is a chef’s restaurant and the trappings are there to support the sublime efforts of the kitchen.
It’s 2009. You’re a young chef working at a hot restaurant in London. You’re charged with a serious duty – making the bread sauce that’s served with partridge. Overtasked and distracted, you make a terrible mistake: you leave the sauce too long and instead of being smooth and silky it becomes sad and sludgy. The bollocking rings in your ears for days.
I was sitting in the grand dining room at Woodland House, sunset bathing my padded table in a luxurious golden glow, nibbling on a fried duck tongue, wondering if this kind of restaurant matters anymore. Fine dining has been buried a thousand times. I’ve written stories declaring it dead myself. People want casual. They want to get in, get fed and get out. They don’t want to spend.
The pork hock is gone. The sticky, spicy caramelised pig’s knuckle that’s been an Ezard signature for 16 of the restaurant’s 18 years made its last trot to the dining room in December. The hock’s departure is symbolic of a shift at this Melbourne fine dining institution.
Eating a multi-course tasting menu can feel like being bludgeoned by well-meaning butterflies. Each morsel is delicate and dancingly pretty, tickling the senses with glancing blows, and so modest in size it seems unlikely any pain could ensue. Then, all of a sudden, around course six, one notices deep bruising to the appetite, desensitised taste buds and general torpor. How can butterflies be so brutal?
Imagine running a restaurant for more than 30 years, opening every day for lunch and dinner, tallying more than 20,000 sittings and an awful lot of “Would you like to see the wine list?” That is the reality for Richard Maisano, who opened Masani in 1983, when Bob Hawke was prime minister and carpetbag steak (beef stuffed with oysters) was the height of sophistication. Maisano’s parents were hoteliers in fancy Italian resorts; they moved to Melbourne in 1971 when Richard was 13. He studied hospitality locally then boned up at Les Roches, a white-glove Swiss hotel school, and returned with the spit, polish and gumption to take on this handsome 1889 Gothic revival edifice.
A mature and satisfying restaurant culture needs buzzy newies but it also needs restaurants like Matteo’s. For 20 years, Matteo’s has balanced consistency and innovation, striving for high standards ahead of saturation coverage. Proprietor Matteo Pignatelli grew up in the northern suburbs, making pizzas in his family’s takeaway shops; he’s a genial presence here and in Melbourne’s broader hospitality scene. He’s watched them come, he’s seen them go, and through it all, he’s welcomed diners into his glamorous restaurant, a sprawling and venerable villa that once housed the legendary Mietta’s.
I won’t ever know what it feels like to be Sophia Loren, but I reckon the closest I’ll get to it is here, at Rosetta, where the glamorous, plush surrounds and sensual food are so overwhelming that I had to retreat to the toilets to practice batting my eyelashes. Unfortunately, my optical antics prompted a kindly lady in the powder room to enquire if I’d poked myself with a mascara wand. Ah well, at least the waiters still regarded me as though I’d just flounced off a yacht in the Riviera, thirsty for prosecco and hungry for linguini or love.