Sunday, 27 April 2014

Vue de Monde, Melbourne, Victoria (Alissa and Don Eat Australia)

Vue de Monde has been on our restaurant wishlist for sometime. Alissa had been wanting to go since her friends raved about it years ago, and after I enjoyed an impressive meal at the more casual and traditional Bistro Vue, I really wanted to see for myself how good Shannon Bennett's flagship restaurant was. With this in mind, it should not be surprising that a reservation at Vue de Monde was high on our list of priorities when planning our first trip to Melbourne together, with our reservation made before we even booked our flights over.

Located on the 55th floor of the Rialto building since 2011, we were greeted by a ground floor concierge who took our jackets to the cloak room before ushering us into a moody, futuristic-looking express elevator to the restaurant.

The restaurant featured a sleek contemporary design with an open kitchen, very modern tables and chairs covered in kangaroo leather...

... and interesting lighting/artworks on the walls.

Perhaps as a reward for our eagerness in booking four months in advance, Alissa and I were fortunate enough to be allocated the restaurant's corner table. These were the best seats in the house, giving us a most stunning view of the city and surrounding suburbs.

Each table featured an assortment of granite stones as an interesting centerpiece that shifted and morphed into an assortment of functional uses as the evening progressed. The friendly staff wasted no time in getting the evening's dining underway; almost immediately as we sat down, the wide flat cuts of granite in the middle served as a pedestal for the first in a series of amuse bouches - Salt and Vinegar Potato Crisps and a Macadamia Nut Puree Dip! This kind of casual, familiar snack is not something you'd expect to find in a high end restaurant, however was indicative of Vue de Monde's playful high/low culture take on Modern Australian food and the repeated use of Australian iconography. These were delicious potato crisps with a similar crunchiness to Kettle chips only even better, and served with a dip that was nutty and flavoursome.

The crisps were quickly followed by Truffle Marshmallows served on a square slab of granite. Another dish more often associated with the snacks aisle of the supermarket, the marshmallow was elevated into something altogether finer and moreish; a sweet treat that was softer and fluffier than any marshmallow I've eaten before, and made all the more delicious due to the unmistakable flavour of black truffle that permeated every bite.

Another square of granite featured Vue de Monde's take on the modernist classic combination of white chocolate and caviar - White Chocolate, Smoked Eel and Caviar. We'd tried a similar dish at Restaurant Amusé in Perth a month and a half ago, and it was interesting to see how different restaurants execute this basic idea. While Amusé's version actually featured black olive toffee, Vue de Monde presented these small bites as a toffee trompe l'oeil, and the combination of flavours was even better than Amusé's exquisite dish due to the smokiness of the eel thrown into the mix, which conjured up happy memories of the delicious Smoked Eel Parfait we ate at Iggy's in Singapore last year.

The Salt-Cured Wallaby is one of the restaurant's famous amuse bouche dishes, brought to the table on a block of pink salt before being rolled up and placed on one of the granite boulders. While rolled up with chopsticks and served with a small hit of wasabi, the wallaby more closely recalled a gamier jamón or prosciutto than sashimi. While Alissa and I enjoy kangaroo as a regular part of our diet and thus had no qualms eating this smaller macropod, the milder gaminess and similarity to more familiar cured meats would make this a wonderfully accessible introduction for those slightly squeamish about game meats or the stigma of 'eating Skippy'.

Finally, Lamb Heart and Duck Tongue cooked over coals were present on mini-skewers. As with kangaroo, there is a bit of stigma about eating offal cuts - a real shame considering the environmental and economic benefits of nose to tail eating, not to mention these cuts can be amongst the most delicious. Being a massive fan of satay in Singapore, these mini-satay sticks were very much to my liking, with a similar sweetness, charred flavour and texture to satay perut. I could easily have gone for 50 sticks of these; considering we hadn't even begun the degustation, Vue de Monde were off to a flying start.

Wanting to have the full Vue de Monde experience, Alissa and I opted for the full 10 course degustation, however given this was going to be a fairly expensive meal, we decided to forego the wine matching. After an apéritif of Hendricks Gin and Tonic alongside a bottle of San Pellegrino, Alissa and I perused Vue de Monde's extensive wine menu. The mark ups on wine were quite steep; for example, the decent-but-not-great Howard Park Flint Rock Pinot Noir usually costs under $30 a bottle but was going for around $85. Considering Amusé had the much better (and slightly more expensive) Castle Rock Pinot for less than $60 a bottle (alas, the 2012 not the incredible 2011), it was not exactly what I would consider good value. In the end we went with the 2011 Kelvedon Pinot Noir from Tasmania, a reasonably good pinot that opened up its raspberry notes considerably over the evening.

With the degustation ordered, the waitstaff set the stage for the meal to come. The top of a granite rock was lifted to reveal salt and pepper...

...while the pieces of wood that sat decoratively on the table became holders for fine Christofle silverware.

Our first palate cleanser for the night was a serve of sweet and refreshing house made Ice Tea brought out to us Tea Sommelier Charles Serveau, who we would get to have a good chat with later in the evening. Vue de Monde is probably the only restaurant I've heard of in Australia who keep a Tea Sommelier on staff, and while other restaurants offer juice pairings for those who don't drink alcohol, they actually offer a tea pairing. A tea pairing is a wonderful idea for a lunch, however we decided to save our tea consumption to go with our petit fours.

Recently, Vue de Monde have been playing around with a degustation order that flips the expected trajectory from heavy to light savoury courses on its head. Beginning with meat and fish dishes and finishing with lighter vegetarian fare, it's an interesting idea that worked quite well. Our first course was Barramundi cooked on a Weber, served with a ribbon of potato filled with a chicken emulsion, a chicken and cider sauce and topped with caviar. Barramundi is a wonderful, quintessentially Australian fish that is unfortunately too often served dry and overcooked. As one would expect from a restaurant of this calibre, this was not a problem here; cooked beautifully on the barbie, the fish was meaty with a nice flakiness and lovely char pattern. I usually consider Australian barbecue to be vastly inferior to American styles, however this dish showed how incredible and refined cooking on a Weber can be in the hands of skilled chefs. Alissa loves the flavour of apple in savoury dishes, and the look of sheer contentment on her face as she ate slightly firm potato with the chicken and apple cider sauce said it all; this was a phenomenal fish dish. Echoing my feelings regarding the mini-satay sticks, Alissa said; 'I don't want this to end.'

And yet of course, we had still only just begun.

Another granite stone became a holder for a knife, accompanied with a beautifully ornate fork.

Kangaroo, Charcoal and Onion was the next dish. I'm a massive fan of kangaroo, and unfortunately got a bit carried away and moved the kangaroo off the stone before taking the photo. I moved it back to its starting location, but you can see brown meaty juices just to the left side of the slate that should not be there. The kangaroo loin was cooked on Japanese charcoal with onion reduction and salt, seared on one side while still rare on the other. The meat was juicy and tender, with the onion, salt and charcoal flavours complementing the gaminess. Accompanying the kangaroo were caramelised onion, onion puree and sorrel, a vegetable of increasing popularity in Australia. All combined for a delicious dish that really displayed kangaroo meat's strong culinary potential.

I again got ahead of myself with the Blackmore Wagyu, Smoked Bone Marrow, Saltbush, having already eaten a few mouthfuls before realising I hadn't photographed the plate. Made with 9+ grade David Blackmore beef tenderloin, maraschino cherries, macadamia nuts and smoked bone marrow, the dish was topped with saltbush and shavings of hard set beef fat that melted on contact with the meat. I'm not big on beef so this did not do as much for me as the kangaroo dish, though intellectually I could see that the quality and flavour combinations were faultless in execution. I really appreciated the delicious sweet/tart flavour of the cherries mixed in with the crunch of the macadamia nuts and unctuousness of the beef, thought I have to admit that I preferred the Joshu Beef dish we were served at Iggy's, a dish so good that it proved to be the highlight of that meal.

A theatrical palate cleaner came next. A selection of herbs and a flower (including two types of sorrel, plus a few others I couldn't quite pick in this setting) were served in a mortar, over which liquid nitrogen was poured at the table, freezing the leaves into a brittle form that Alissa and I were then invited to pound down with a pestle. In the typically relaxed and friendly manner of the staff, the guy serving us at the time quipped in a cheeky, larrikin fashion; 'Aw, you can really tell who smoked weed when they were young when you see how fine they get the leaves!'

Once we had pound the herbs and flowers down fine enough and the liquid nitrogen bubbled away, a scoop of cucumber sorbet was placed on the bowls. My palate has an odd relationship with cucumber as I love the flavour but hate the texture of cucumber when thickly cut, so I really appreciated the cucumber flavour in this format; its cool, clean flavour mixed with the herbs to provide a lovely punctuation to the heavier first act of the degustation.

Shannon Bennett is the representative of high end appliance company Miele, and as a special, historic treat the butter in house is made with Miele's first ever appliance - a hand butter churner. The waiter serving us, a Frenchman with an impressive moustache, joked that everyone on staff has to have a go at butter churning duties, 'except the tea sommelier', adding a quick, friendly jibe at Charles as he walked by.

The hand-churned butter was lovely and rich, wonderfully presented rolled by hand between two wooden paddles.

Bread was served in a bag with a hot rock to keep it warm, and was a lovely sourdough of excellent quality.

I joke that I must have been a truffle pig in a previous life based on how much of a fiend I am for the taste of truffles, and was very happy when Duck Yolk, Pear, Truffle came out as the next dish. The duck yolk was cooked sous-vide at 64 degrees, resulting in the characterically creamy, custardy consistency of egg yolk cooked at that temperature. Mixed with the lovely, umami-rich flavours of the black truffle puree, this was a wonderfully rich and indulgently savoury dish, with the fresh and cooked pear providing a lovely sweet counterpoint. Alissa and I traded expressions that said 'wow, this is delicious'; no words required.

Alissa and I found it interesting how popular marron is in Victoria, since they're a relatively common find in a relative's dam in Western Australia, while for the eastern states they are a rare delicacy. Perhaps its because of this distance and esteem but Victorians seem to cook this seafood remarkably well; this was just about the best marron dish either of us have ever eaten, with fellow Victorian restaurant Attica offering the only other marron dish I would say could give this a run for its money. Crustacean meat can be prone to overcooking, but of course this was not a problem for Vue de Monde; the marron had the lovely, soft texture of being cooked just to the right level, and we were then encouraged to use our hands to pick up the marron and dip it into the wonderfully rich and flavoursome pine mushroom cream that accompanied it. The pine mushroom flavour was so intensely mushroomy that we even thought it might have contained truffle; it really lived up to its scientific species name of deliciosus. This was a course we could easily have gone for seconds of; I noticed a couple who ordered the smaller 5 course menu getting two marron tails on their plate, and I couldn't help but feel a little envious.

Sweet baby corn is one of my favourite vegetables, so when Corn and Truffle was brought out as the next dish, I was very excited. The baby corn was cooked in its own husk, served with a corn emulsion, black truffle and a bread crisp, and was absolutely stunning. The corn was cooked perfectly, maintaining a certain level of crunch and with a very pleasant sweetness bolstered by the corn emulsion. The intense flavour of the truffle added a savoury balance to the dish, and we savoured every bite. This was a dish that validated Vue de Monde's flipped degustation order, and is a great example of how exciting and delicious a vegetarian dish can be.

Our final savoury course was Onion cooked in a variety of ways: onion rings, pickle onions, caramelised onions, onion reduction and onion sugar tuile, with some rocket oil and tarragon. This was a simple dish done well that served as a tribute to the versatility of the humble onion, and if it didn't have the wow factor of some of the other dishes, it wasn't a let down either.

Alissa loves a good cheese course, and was excited when the waiter with the impressive moustache wheeled out the restaurant's equally impressive cheese selection in a beautiful wooden display case.

The waiter asked for our preferences in flavour, and we informed him we were fans of stinky and soft cheeses. His choices for us were Munster, Montenegro, Spanish Goat's Cheese with a bit of a blue flavour, a brie-like cheese, an Irish blue and an aged cheddar. All were excellent cheeses, however we would have to say that the selection at Caprice in Hong Kong remains the best we've ever had. To the detriment of cheese boards throughout Australia, current law restrict the import of unpasteurised cheese meaning many of the exceptional cheese on offer at Caprice were simply unavailable to Vue de Monde. Still, given these huge limitations on their selection the restaurant did commendably.

And as if to make up for these shortcomings, the breads and condiments served with the cheese were extremely impressive, with the highlights being beetroot ciabatta, onion jam and the incredible truffle honey, made with quality honey filled with slivers of black truffle throughout. Amazing.

Its pretty much de rigueur for 'surprise' courses in a degustation, and pre-dessert is one of those we always look forward to; what's not to like about an extra dessert? Our pre-dessert for the evening was Yoghurt and Mango Ice Cream, presented to be eaten by hand and resembling the kind of deli freezer ice creams Alissa and I remembered fondly from our childhoods growing up in Australia. These were basically a very gourmet version of a Weis Bar, something for which I have to admit having a bit of an addiction to during my university days. With its conjuring up of nostalgia and refreshing flavour, this dish work well to reset our palates for the sweet things to follow.

Goat's Cheese Panacotta with Blueberries was the first of the desserts, and came presented with a semi-transparent veil of glassy sugar tuile speckled with freeze-dried blueberry.

Breaking through revealed a delicious combination of jammy whole blueberries, goat's cheese panacotta and the aniseed flavour of fresh fennel. We've had goat's cheese panacotta before, and found Vue de Monde's smoother and subtler than the overtly goat's cheese-tasting panacotta at Bread in Common back on the west coast; which is a not criticism of either version so much as a point of difference. The blueberry and panacotta combination resulted in a pleasing salty/sour/sweet combination, with the fennel giving the dish an aniseed kick of complexity.

Our final dessert represented the strongest reminder of Vue de Monde's roots as a French restaurant; Tonka Bean Souffle. Alissa and I first tried tonka bean in a dessert at Caprice last year, and found its nutty, vanilla, cinnamon and caramel-like flavour to be very complementary with chocolate. This dessert was no different, with the combination of hot, airy, perfectly risen souffle, cold chocolate mousse and frozen smokey(!) chocolate ice cream providing a rich and indulgent end to the degustation. Chocolate fans will love this.

Of course, the final course of a degustation is not really the end, and a selection of petit fours followed - realistic-looking White Chocolate Shells served with Crispy Pork, Bourbon Jelly Whiskey Gums served on a Two-Up paddle, Eucalyptus Ice Cream and Lammingtons.
"Very Australian!" I said to the waiter in a jokingly broad Ocker accent.
She laughed and agreed. All these petit fours were delicious; the unctuousness of the Crispy Pork worked well with the White Chocolate and the Bourbon Jellies had an obviously real bourbon flavour. Our two favourites were Eucalyptus Ice Cream with its cooling, menthol flavour, and what would have to be the best lammingtons we've ever tasted, with a chocolate parfait-like filling that at once recalled the classic lammington while being an improvement on the usual sponge cake.

To wash down the meal, Alissa and I felt like a nice cup of tea given the extensive menu on offer at Vue de Monde and the novelty of being served by a tea sommelier. Vue de Monde put a lot of care and thought into their tea menu, and the prices could be quite steep indeed. While I'm sure there is a mark up component to the price, the teas on offer are really of a very, very premium quality and prepared with skill. We selected an oolong tea called Da Hong Pao as it was recommended as a good tea to finish on, and were surprised to find Charles the tea sommelier bringing out a proper Chinese serving tray.
'I can tell somehow you are people who like good tea, so I am feeling generous', Charles said as he decided to serve us the tea in a number of pours in a traditional manner. He explained to us that Da Hong Pao is a particularly premium and prestigious tea, with the best leaves reserved for royalty. I would later learn the best leaves can fetch up to $10.25 million dollars a kilo. Suddenly the price seemed very reasonable.
'This is as close as we commoners will come to to trying the best', he said.
This was marvelous oolong tea; with a flavour both complex and yet refined that had a palpably relaxing, calming effect. In all, we had about 6 pours of the tea, allowing us to see how its flavour reached a peak around the second pour, before losing its flavour in successive pours. We ended up staying for an extra hour talking to Charles and enjoying the tea before calling for the bill and ending this most enjoyable meal.

But it doesn't end there; as an added bonus, Vue de Monde provide their diners with a breakfast for the morning after.

Being Easter, this included chocolate hot cross buns we were advised to warm up slightly in the oven so the chocolate could melt.

Also included were two very tasty chocolate cookies,...

... Charlie's Breakfast Tea,...

... a Granola mix made by the restaurant,...

... and a small jar of honey. I've heard that 11 Madison Park in New York do something similar and that Momofuku Ko and Seiobo also have take home packs, but was a first time first hand experience for Alissa and I that really put the cherry on top of an already superb meal.

The Verdict: Ultimate
Vue de Monde is easily up there as one of the two most sheerly enjoyable we've ever had; only the then-3 starred Michelin restaurant Caprice in Hong Kong was possibly better in this regard. Alissa and I discussed this comparison and felt that Caprice had a few more peaks but also some less memorable dishes, whereas every dish Vue de Monde served up was faultless. We also really liked that while French technique was at the background of everything they did, the use of Australian flavours, ingredients and versions of iconically Australian food filled Alissa and I with a sense of patriotic pride in tasting food that had real national character.

The other discussion we had was how Vue de Monde compared with that other iconic Melbourne restaurant - Attica, which we dined at two nights later. Both of us felt that we enjoyed the Vue de Monde experience more because it is just that - an experience. Alissa's friends had once astutely compared the service at Vue de Monde to theatre, and it felt like everything - from the arrival in the elevator, the friendly, casual service to the movement of the granite bolders throughout the evening and the morning after take home pack - was all choreographed to make Vue de Monde a truly complete experience that went beyond great food. Attica's food was similarly Modern Australia but more unique in a lot of ways; unlike the French influence of Vue de Monde, Attica's idiosyncratic and more experimental/artistically satisfying food seemed to follow the Bruce Lee philosophy that no style can result in the best style. Both approaches have their merits and have been given our highest 'Ultimate' rating, but if I had to pick one to recommend for someone looking to have only one fine dining experience in their life, it would have to be Vue de Monde.

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