Monday, 10 March 2014

Restaurant Amusé, East Perth, Western Australia (Alissa and Don Eat Australia)

There was a time not so long ago when the 'best' restaurants in Perth were dated, white glove service, expensive destinations that were more about stunning views and location rather than genuinely good or innovative food. Dining at these kind of restaurants was (and is) more a signifier of status rather than taste, and these restaurants operated with an air of geography-based entitlement that meant they didn't have to be contemporary or innovative. Of course, many of the best restaurants in Perth do still follow the classic approach of an opulent design aesthetic to project a sense of classiness, but its no longer a prerequisite for success, with the most extreme example of the new good food paradigm being Restaurant Amusé in East Perth - quite possibly the best restaurant in Perth.

Its incredible just how unassuming Restaurant Amusé is - if you didn't know any better, you'd assume this was a house rather than a restaurant. Alissa used to work in East Perth and she said she probably walked past it numerous times without realising what it was.

Even the doorway is a far cry from the entrances of other high end restaurants - compare that utilitarian aluminium and glass door to the entrance of Jackson's in Highgate or Caprice in the Four Seasons, Hong Kong.

Entering the space, its moody low lighting projects the aura of a very contemporary restaurant. But as much as the tables and chairs look like the kind you'd find in expensive furniture stores along Stirling Hwy, they were more like super-fancy cafe tables and chairs than what I would have expected.

Alissa astutely pointed out that the vibe of the space seemed like the lovechild of somewhere like Bread in Common and Iggy's in Singapore. Alissa and I appreciated the vibe very much - being graduates of Contemporary Performance and Fine Arts respectively, this more comfortable, relaxed and contemporary vibe is probably more our thing than crystal chandeliers and hard and impractical leather chairs. Its the kind of place that would be approachable for someone curious about fine dining, but hesitant due to the potential stuffiness and any anxieties about correct fork usage.

We were here on the occasion of Alissa's birthday; her first since our wedding, and something I booked two months ago to ensure we got a table - Friday nights are generally booked out for 2 months, with Saturdays stting between 3-4. We started the evening with some pre-drinks of Alissa's favourite - Gin and Tonic. The gin was supposedly from WA's South West, but I've not been able to ascertain which distillery they were referring to.

Amusé is a degustation-only omnivorous affair, though as with most high end restaurants they are happy to cater to dietary requirements. After being asked if we had any such requirements (we had none) and whether half-cooked egg and raw marron was fine (they were), we were presented a folded over paper menu we could choose to open or leave to surprise. 

Wanting some frame of reference, I decided to open the menu to see what Amusé had in store for us. The menu followed the very contemporary naming convention of listing a few ingredients and not really saying how the dish is to be prepared. Having been hit by a unexpected 3 bottles of sparking water at Jackson's when we were never asked if we wanted to open a second or third bottle, it was a welcome surprise to see that the sparkling water we would be drinking tonight was carbonated in house at no extra cost to us.

Our Amuse Bouche set the very Modernist tone of the evening - Black Olive Toffee, White Chocolate, Salmon Roe and topped with Parmesan. Seemingly inspired by Heston Blumenthal's use of White Chocolate and Caviar, the flavour combinations worked marvelously well - sweet, salty, umami and rich all at once. The highlight was definitely the creaminess of the white chocolate that surrounded the black olive toffee, and I saved a decent chunk to finish on. These kind of seemingly disparate flavour combinations have become more orthodox over the last 10 years but are still seen as adventurous; it was great to see Amusé start their degustation so boldly. 

The bread bowl came with a choice of white and rye, served with a jar of home-churned butter topped with black volcanic salt. The bread was served warm, kept at temperature by a hot rock placed with the bowl. This bread was nice and crusty, with a soft interior - though as I've come to expect, falling short of the standard set by Caprice and Otto e Mezzo Bombana. The butter was superb, with a lovely airy texture and salty crunch coming from the black volcanic salt on top.

With our pre-drinks finished and the meal proper to begin, our selection of Frankland River Isolation Ridge Riesling arrived. There is always an inevitable markup on wine at restaurants of this calibre, but the prices here were reasonable enough, with many cheap enough options on the wine list to cater for most budgets. It was great to see wines from some of our favourite wineries represented, included the excellent and highly regarded Riesling and Pinot Noir of Castle Rock Estate. Being Riesling fanatics and having missed out on driving to Frankland last time we were down south, it was a good opportunity to finally try the Isolation Ridge. It was definitely on the brighter, crisper end of the Riesling spectrum, which is fine by us as we both like a good dry Riesling.

With our wine poured, we were ready for our first course of Carrot, Blackberry, Wild Rice and Wattleseed. The use of wild rice and wattleseed as a granola reminded me of the granola obsession of 11 Madison Park in New York, though its presentation here was probably a bit more rustic than the beautifully geometric plating of the Michelin-starred restaurant.

Served with house made curd and with 8 carrots that had been concentrated down to a thick, sweet reduction, this was basically a very cheffed up, more savoury version of yoghurt with muesli, with the curd a less breakfasty substitute. Alissa and I really enjoyed the combination of salty curd, sweet carrot reduction and crunchy granola, a dish that was as delicious as it was clever.

Marron, Tapioca, Lovage and Linseed was the first of our seafood courses, with the marron served raw and the lovage as an emulsion. Following the granola crunch of the previous dish, the linseed on top continued the the trend of incorporating a crunchy component to each dish where possible.

Crustaceans can be really nice raw, as we discovered eating langoustine ceviche in Hong Kong. The marron here was no different; a lovely, sweet meat with a soft texture. Textural contrast seemed the be the main consideration of this dish, with the crunch of the linseed and the tapioca pearls added an additional chewiness. As with everything so far, Alissa and I were very impressed. By this point we were also beginning to get a sense of head chef Hadleigh Troy's style, and were very excited to see where the rest of the meal would take us.

Our second seafood course was Emperor, Geraldton Wax, Quinoa, Samphire. Oddly not mentioned in that title were the Cauliflower florets that dominated the plate on first inspection and obscured the Emperor fillet, apart from the leaves of Geraldton Wax and the Samphire garnish. Along with kale, cauliflower seems to have become the trendy vegetable of the moment. Here it was presented fried to a nice, crispy golden brown and provided the crunchy element for this dish. The fish itself was cooked perfectly; unlike salmon which is better served rare to medium rare, this was cooked through but was still moist and meaty with a slight flakiness. Having never eaten Geraldton wax before I couldn't quite get a sense of how it tasted, but I would say it fulfilled a similar purpose to rosemary (albeit different in flavour). As with our meal at Co-op Dining, the marine saltiness of samphire was a delicious treat.  While separated by a few months, Alissa felt this was definitely a tastier and more memorable fish dish than what she ate at the 3 Michelin-starred Otto e Mezzo Bombana.

When I saw a dish called Egg, Mushrooms, Miso, Tarragon, I knew we were in for a treat as this (or a similar version of the dish) is one of Amusé's signature dishes, and one of their most theatrical. Glass jars filled with hickory smoke is placed on the table, and we could smell its pleasing aroma even before opening it.

As its opened the smoke rose through the air, revealing a slow cooked egg (I'm guessing cooked sous-vide), mushrooms roasted and then blended with miso and a tarragon bearnaise sauce.

One the top was crispy chicken skin to add additional unctuousness and crunch, as well as what appeared to be puffed quinoa (or something similar). I have fond memories of eating soft boiled eggs with soy sauce as a child, and the combination of the umami-rich flavour of the mushrooms and miso combined with the half set egg made this taste like a refined and elevated version. With the addition of Bearnaise (a child of Eggs Benedict's Hollandaise), it was so much of what I love about eggs in a single dish. This was truly phenomenal cooking.

The first of our land meat dishes was Pork, Roselle, Fig Leaf and Pine. Pine here meant pineapple, presented as both grilled slices of pineapple and a very nice pineapple gel. Pineapple and pig are a classic combination, and the fattiness of the pork was cut nicely by the sweet acidity of the pineapple.

Thanks to the trend toward breeding lean meat there is a view that fattiness is undesirable, but in quality sourced pork - such as these unctuous cuts from Linley Valley - it can be truly wonderful; somehow able to be both meaty and fatty all at once. This pork was so exquisitely tender it could be very gently torn apart with a fork. The sauce the pork rested on was made from roselle, a species of hibiscus often used to make tisanes. I would like to try it again to make better sense of how it tasted, but it worked in much the same way as apple sauce and pork, though far less sweet and, as you'd expect, more floral.

We both liked the pork dish, but it was essentially trumped by the Lamb, Creme Fraiche, Beetroot, and Salt Bush. Lamb has to walk a fine line between being tough and excessively fatty, and the lamb served here was cooked perfectly - I would guess my old friend sous-vide had a hand in getting it just right.

The salt bush was presented here as an alternative to spinach, and its minerally saltiness worked well with the lamb - I'd love to get my hands on this native plant to try using it myself at home. The beetroot had been roasted and rehydrated in beetroot juice to enhance its beetrootiness, and it was wonderfully sweet and flavoursome. As good as the lamb was, for me the real star of the dish was the nice, crispy and salty fried sweetbread that didn't even get a mention in the dish title yet was a real scene-stealer.

With our savoury courses complete, Alissa and were served a palate cleanser of Guava Puree with Lime Geranium Sherbet. It sounded so nice I initially forgot to take a photo and began to dig in. This refreshing and simple dish was indeed very nice, sweet and tangy, providing a useful culinary punctuation before entering the dessert courses proper.

One of the great things about a degustation is the chance to have an additional dessert called pre-dessert, which tonight was Grapes, Lemon Verbena and Coconut; definitely one of the most Modernist dishes of the evening. The grapes had been put in a cream whipper and then charged with carbon dioxide, resulting in a fizzy grape flavour similar to sparkling grape juice or wine, except this was whole fruit. The fluffy clumping of the lemon verbena sorbet suggested the use of liquid nitrogen in preparation, with the coconut 'pudding' seeming to be an airy parfait-like creation. Lemon sorbet can in itself be a palate cleanser, and this light, refreshingly cold dessert made the previous guava dish almost redundant in that sense. Not that we were complaining of course; both courses were very tasty, and Alissa and I both like these kind of light sweet courses in degustations. They mean more sweetness in a meal without getting overly full on the kind of richness best saved for a finale.

The meal did indeed finish with a richer big bang - Rustleberry, Hay, Brown Butter and Chocolate. In essence a deconstructed chocolate berry crumble, its a combination of rustleberry sorbet, chocolate mousse (or something similar) and a crumble made up of hay smoked brown butter and freeze dried berry parfait amongst other things. Similar to the hybridisation that resulted in the boysenberry, the rustleberry is a cross between a blackberry and a raspberry that originates in Western Australia. The resulting sorbet has a nice acidic berry flavour that is somewhere between the two parent berries yet different enough to not taste exactly like either. As someone who is both a fan of raspberries and a maker of ice cream and sorbet, I was very impressed with the smooth texture and unique flavour presented here.

Amusé clearly have a way with crunchy textures, and the crumble here was exceptionally good. While I cannot be sure how the smoked brown butter was incorporated in the crumble, I'd hazard a guess that maltodextrin might have been involved. Combining that with the freeze dried parfait and this was a thoroughly Modernist dish that did what the best best Modernist dishes do - let new cooking techniques enhance a dining experience, but never losing sight of the fact that taste and flavour should always come first before cleverness. 

Alissa liked the dessert so much she scraped her plate clean.

While to my mind sorbet is dead to me once its melted, and I left the deceased remains behind after me last scoop.

To finish our meal, Mint and Pepperberry Tea served with petit fours of sweet dessert lime and house made marshmallows that I think we said to be made from burnt lime. Alissa didn't like the tea very much as she wanted something soothing, and found the pepperberry too biting and spicy.

Alissa and I ate the marshmallows before we could get a photo, but they were nice and soft in texture with a strong citrussy flavour. I liked them as they reminded me of the delicious salty-sweet preserved prune you can get at Asian gourmet delis, though Alissa and I agreed that we would have really liked something more substantial like the petit fours at Caprice.

The Verdict: Ultimate
Restaurant Amusé is without doubt the best restaurant Alissa and I have had the pleasure to eat at in Perth, and we both agreed it would be up there with Caprice in Hong Kong and Iggy's in Singapore as one of the finest meals we've ever eaten. Its truly world class, and Hadliegh Troy has his finger on the pulse of all the things that are hot right now - a more reserved approach to Modernist cooking (aka Molecular Gastronomy) as well as the locavore/farm-to-table/foraging trend popularised by restaurants like Noma and Attica. All the more impressive is that rather than just being a follower of what's trendy, Troy's food has a strong sense of identity as his food, something I think all chefs of this calibre would be aiming for. Modern Australian is a fairly nebulus term, but with such a strong focus on local produce and underutilised native ingredients, it really felt like a truly Australian cuisine, and with its contemporary techniques, perhaps should be called Modernist Australian.

At $130 each, this is not exactly a cheap meal, but I would say it provided excellent value for money as every dish was impressive, technically challenging to make and delicious - plus we left feeling absolutely full by the end of it. Service was attentive and friendly without being obtrusive, and the wine list has got something good for most budgets. In terms of critique, I would suggest that the crumble on top of so many of the dishes makes it look a little repetitive and unphotogenic, even if in reality it was quite a varied meal. More traditional biscuity petit fours would have been more to our liking, but this is a matter of personal taste. Finally, a few dishes were probably towards the 
saltier end of the acceptable saltiness spectrum which was fine by us, but might not be everyone's cup of tea. All things considered though, we are lucky to have a place as good as Amusé in Perth, and Alissa and I will definitely be back again. I can't recommend it enough. 

Restaurant Amuse on Urbanspoon

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