Being foodies, Alissa and I need little in the way of an excuse to eat good food. It is therefore something of an imperative that when a good excuse does come along that the meal be a particularly special one. Alissa once said that degustation was her favourite 'cuisine', and to that end we've made it a mission to try some of Perth's best degustations whenever there is a special occasion. For Valentine's Day we opted to celebrate a few days earlier at Co-op Dining's Tuesday vegetarian degustation, and for Alissa's birthday we enjoyed a truly memorable meal at Restaurant Amusé. For my birthday, it was a toss up between Clarke's of North Beach and Red Cabbage, with the closer proximity of its South Perth location to our home and chef Scott O'Sullivan's win as The Good Food Guide's Chef of the Year tipping us towards the latter.
Red Cabbage certainly lives up to the first part of its name - upon entering the restaurant's well decorated interior, one cannot escape the liberal swathes of red used throughout the moodily lit space.
O'Sullivan's British heritage is celebrated with the Union Jack making multiple appearances...
... though the restaurant's most striking design feature is the above mural located near the entry. Alissa and I always prefer to dine degustation when we visit high end restaurants as it usually gives a good selection of the restaurant's best dishes. The 7-Course Full Monty menu is one of Perth's cheapest degustations at $95 a head, and with matching wines comes in at $155 each it was a no-brainer for us to go with the matching as this was easily the cheapest degustation with wine matching that we've been to. For the sake of some brevity I will only touch on the pairings here and there, but I will say that the selection was a lot less esoteric than what we had at Attica in Melbourne; most were fairly safe and familiar choices that you could probably hunt down without much difficulty. At half the price of Attica's menu though, this was a very good value wine matching.
After placing our order, a waiter brought out an amuse bouche of Mango, Rum and Lime in a spoon. Basically a small edible cocktail, the amuse can in the form of a spherified mango and (presumably) rum and lime aerated into a foam. This was a nice sweet and sour palate cleanser, and probably the most overtly modernist dish of the evening.
Bread is a fairly expected part of any degustation, and the bread at Red Cabbage was nice, fuffy and soft, but oddly it was not served with butter. Whether this was an omission of choice by the chef or a mistake on the part of the serving staff I can't be sure, but Alissa and I have become accustomed to the artisanal choice of hand churned butter (like at Restaurant Amusé and Vue de Monde), or an alternative like the macadamia butter of Attica or Cutler & Co's incredible whipped cod roe. Still, I like to basically trust the chef when it comes to degustation so we decided to eat the bread as it was presented.
The first proper course of the degustation was the Beef Bresaola & Fermented Vegetables. The Bresaola - a type of air dried salt cured beef - had a nice marble to it and a ham-like quality while red in the middle. Its saltiness was well contrasted by the nice tangy quality of the pickled vegetables. A fairly small dish, Alissa and I finished in in only a few mouthfuls. As a first course in a degustation the size was appropriate (similar in size to the small first course at Co-op Dining), but compared to other first courses we had eaten in Melbourne it was a smaller and less exciting start to the meal.
The second course of Scallop, Avocado, Toasted Corn & Shellfish Vinaigrette fared a lot better, and was probably the best of the savoury course apart from my main. The scallop was well cooked and fresh, nicely seared without being overdone, with the avocado puree super smooth and creamy. The toasted corn had a nice barbecued corn flavour that was both sweet and smokey, and the shellfish vinaigrette had a lovely marine umami quality that I greatly appreciated. The combination of flavours made me think of Mexican food by way of fine dining; this was a clever and delicious dish.
South West Marron, Finger Lime, Korean Pepper, Celery & Salted Walnuts came next, and unfortunate this was the dish that in hindsight lost me a bit. The flavours were fine - the marron was nicely cooked, the salted walnut and celery added a nice crunchiness and was balanced in proportion (I hate celery overriding a dish) and the finger lime played a nice caviar trompe l'oeil while adding acidity that went well with the white wine blend that was paired with the course. There simply just wasn't enough of it on the comically large plate, and Alissa pointed out the idea of a creamy seafood dish with acidity in support was basically a rehash of the previous course. Certainly I don't expect giant servings in a degustation, but I would have hoped for a bit more in a pre-main, especially considering the small servings of the courses that preceded. It might seem unfair to compare Red Cabbage with the vastly more expensive Vue de Monde and Attica, but at each of those restaurants we were served more generous and superior marron dishes - with Vue de Monde going as far as to give us an entire marron tail for a course. Marron can be a bit pricey, but I would have happily paid a supplement option for a larger serve as is offered at some restaurants.
Red Cabbage had a selection of either lamb or trout as a main, and being more of a seafood fan than Alissa, I went with the Ocean Trout & Jerusalem Artichoke. After the disappointing previous course, I was hoping for something of a comeback and this definitely did not disappoint. The trout itself was served almost raw, with just a light torching on the outside to give it a bit of Maillard reaction. The result was a lovely soft texture to the moist oily fillet that contrasted nicely with the crispy fried trout skin. The Jerusalem artichoke was both pickled and cooked, and filled the role of more flavoursome potato while the sauce that the the trout sat in gifted the dish with some richness. Alissa looked on with a bit of dish envy.
The Slow Cooked Lamb, Pickled Yabbies, Fig & Curd was the lesser of the two dishes, perhaps due to comparisons Alissa could make to two previous dishes we'd eaten. The slow cooked lamb reminded Alissa of the incredibly soft Lamb Kakori of Indian fine diner Dum Pukht in Mumbai as well as the fine slices of meat in the Joshu Beef dish served at Iggy's in Singapore. Perhaps we've been a bit spoiled, as the soft fall-apart texture of the cylinder of lamb was simply not as compelling as either dish even if it was tasty enough in its own right; the fig jam sauce was both sweet and tart and complemented the richness of the lamb, while the addition of curd and the pickled yabbies imparted the dish with some acidity. Alissa also commented that while the Rhone by Roger Sabon Grenache, Syrah and Cinsault blend was a nice wine, she felt something like a ballsy Barossa shiraz would have been more to her liking compared to the milder fruitiness of the blend.
A little disappointed by the hit-and-miss nature of the savouries, all the sweet courses on the other hand were uniformly exceptional. The first of these courses was an interesting cheese course of Pumpkin, White Chocolate, Cashel Blue & Cheddar that transitioned us smoothly into the second 'act' of the meal. The pumpkin puree was deliciously sweet with an almost caramelly pumpkin pie flavour, which was lovely juxtaposed with the metallic, salty flavour of the cashel blue. The crunchy white chocolate (and, as Alissa guessed, cheddar) balls acted as the de facto cracker of the dish insofar as providing much needed crunch. It all added up to one of the highlights of the meal, so good that Alissa scraped her plate clean of every last morsel.
As impressive was the Pre-Dessert of Cherry, Amaretto & Frangipanne with its presentation and flavours reminding me of a dish in the Eleven Madison park cookbook. A complex dish of Amaretto Ice Cream and Cake, Frangipane, Cherry Gel and toasted Almond Granola, the textural and flavour contrasts were excellent, with the cherry giving the dish a nice sour hit and the Amaretto Ice Cream and cake providing a smooth nuttiness alongside the crunch of the granola. The end result was a dessert that was both thoroughly modern, and thoroughly delicious too.
The final course of the Full Monty was Chocolate, Peanut Parfait & Salted Caramel and was yet another successful dish, complete with a nice birthday greeting from the kitchen. Alissa and I love a good peanut parfait and this was definitely right up there with the best Alissa and I have had, with the salted caramel and praline providing additional texture and sweetness. The real coup here though was the pairing, with the malty, strong flavour of the Brooklyn Brown Ale proving to be a very inspired choice. I'm usually more of a witbier fan than anything particularly dark, so it was surprising to find a beer I don't usually like taste so good thanks to a judicious pairing.
Petit Fours were Frangelico Truffles, Mulled Wine Jelly, Caramelised Popcorn, Salted Caramel Fudge and Jammie Dodgers. The popcorn came to the table seemingly frozen by liquid nitrogen. Though neither of us could quite work out what they'd done, the coldness was really interesting and quite tasty. The Mulled Wine Jellies were also very good, distinctly tasting like a spicy mulled wine and the Salted Caramel Fudge was a well made, fudgy piece of chocolate. The Jammie Dodgers were insanely jammy - there was even jam underneath the shortbread as it sat on the plate, but as fans of shortbread we savoured them. The Frangelico Truffles were the best of the lot however, with a texture that reminded me of Royce Chocolate and a very nice hazelnut flavour courtesy of the Frangelico content.
The coffee Alissa ordered to accompany the Petit Fours was nice, strong and well made...
though I felt that my tea was served too hot - definitely not something a restaurant of any calibre should be doing with green tea in particular.
The Verdict: Excellent +
Red Cabbage was a bit of a mixed bag that could clearly be divided into two acts - a hit-and-miss series of small portion savoury courses, followed by a second sweet course act that I would compare favourably with the best desserts of other fine diners. Looking back at the savoury dishes, I wondered if perhaps I'd been spoiled by the sheer generosity of Vue de Monde and Attica, and that perhaps comparing Red Cabbage to meals that were more than twice the price was a bit unfair in terms of both quality and quantity. However, looking back at other more comparable degustations Alissa and I have had at Iggy's and Co-op Dining, I still would contend that the savoury courses of those degustations were more uniformly strong even though both were only 5 Course meals. Additionally, considering that Red Cabbage had the same rating in the Good Food Guide as Restaurant Amusé, we certainly felt that Amusé was closer to Vue de Monde and Attica.
Red Cabbage's desserts on the other hand were spectacular, and it's perhaps for this reason as well that the menu was conspicuously weighted more towards sweet than is usual - 3 of the 7 Full Monty courses were sweet (I would contend the cheese course was ostensibly the first dessert course), and if you include the Amuse Bouche and the Petit Fours you're looking a more sweet dishes than savoury. When you take into account that the two last desserts dwarfed the first three savoury courses, its a very odd split, but probably one that played to their strengths. Considering that chef Scott O'Sullivan was the Good Food Guide's Chef of the Year, I have to admit that the misses of the savoury courses left me a bit disappointed, and I had to wonder if perhaps the decline in Molecular Gastronomy's popularity had left him a bit rudderless and in a period of transition, as previous menus seemed to incorporate liquid nitrogen, foams and other modernist techniques that may have wowed us a bit more. Time will tell I suppose, but I think if we did come back I'd probably want to try dining a la carte instead to get the kind of sweet to savoury balance I was looking for.