In March this year, Alissa and I attended one of the 'Limited Edition Degos' at Jackson's before eponymous chef Neal Jackson closed his iconic Highgate restaurant after 15 years as a trailblazer in Perth's fine dining scene. Given the huge shadow its cast, I'd wondered what could possibly be bold enough to take its place; would it become another fine diner that would have to forever battle with the reputation of its predecessor, or would the new tenants go in the opposite direction with another casual and hipster-ready restaurant to add to the vibrant Beaufort St dining scene?
The answer ended up splitting the difference between my two guesses; an unexpectedly short 4 months after dining at Jackson's, Alissa and I heard news that Scott and Hazel O'Sullivan of Red Cabbage and Todd Stuart of Petite Mort were opening a new restaurant called St Michael to take its place. With a more casual small plates focus than either of their respected fine dining flagships, I was interested to see what the restaurant's head chef Adam Sayles (formerly of Red Cabbage) would bring to this increasingly popular restaurant model, especially given that the food was touted as being in a 'high end' and 'high tech' modern style.
Initially reserving a table for the second night after their opening, I decided it would probably be better to give the restaurant and the kitchen a few weeks to find their feet before Alissa and I tried them out, so we rescheduled for the last Saturday of July instead. Joining Alissa and I for the meal was my old friend Justin (who previously joined us for dinners at Pleased to Meet You and The Old Crow), as well as Justin's friend Lyndsay.
Having dined in this same space just 4 months earlier, it was interesting to see what they'd done with the place. The elegant if austere fine dining aesthetic and white tablecloths of Jackson's had been replaced by a warmer, welcoming and casual vibe, with the wooden tables left uncovered and the alcove we sat in for our meal in March now being broken down for a more open space.
With a striking painted mural of St Michael on the outside of the building (see first picture), the interior continued the theme with a faux-stain glass mural presumably depicting St Peter passing judgement at the pearly gates.
After settling in with a bottle of Tasmanian Pinot and some sparkling water, the four of us perused the menu. Having seen an earlier version online, I had noticed a distinct similarity between the food on the menu and many of the courses Alissa and I were served at Red Cabbage when we had their degustation in May, with the Scallop dish and Lamb Belly & Yabbies appearing in slightly different configurations, and two of the desserts being identical. My feelings about our meal at Red Cabbage were a bit mixed, as while some of the savoury courses were delicious hits, some were misses and most were very small even for a degustation. On the other hand, I thought their desserts were spectacular, but that they relied too heavily on them with 5 of the 9 courses (including Amuse Bouche and Petit Fours) being sweet. While the menu at St Michael also includes a degustation option - which at $89 is even more of a bargain for a degustation than Red Cabbage's $95 asking price - we decided to go with their 3 Plates of Your Choice for $49, with an additional 4th Plate for $12. At $61 for what is ostensibly 4 courses, this puts St Michael in the same impressive value-for-money casual fine dining price bracket as the excellent Nine Food Food.
Following the fine dining tradition, a plate of Bread, Lavosh + Butter was on the house. The bread was a well made baguette of fine dining standard, with the lavosh being super crispy like a cracker and dusted with salt and cumin. If anything, the lavosh was maybe a bit salty and could have done with an optional dip, as the creamy cumin-flavoured artisinal butter served was very nice with the baguette but didn't do very much for the salty lavosh. Still, its a bit churlish to complain considering this was free, and I imagine that had we gone with some of their Bar Bites we could have done something special with the bread.
With the menu described as Small Plate, I think the casual vibe of the restaurant has had people confused into thinking its necessarily a share plate restaurant. Had it been just Alissa and I, I think we probably would have treated it as such since with 10 dishes on the Plates menu, it would be a good way of sampling the majority of dishes. With 4 of us ordering 9 out of the ten dishes and with service brought out in courses, we decided to treat the savoury courses as an a la carte choose your own three course meal in a manner similar to Nine Fine Food (with a small taste of everyone else's dishes), and to share the four desserts between us.
Still consumed by the seasonal truffle madness, I knew I had to order the Salt Baked Celeriac + Truffle as my first course. The Celeriac was prepared three ways - salt baked, fried as crisps as well as a puree. The salt baked pieces were evenly cooked, with a creamy melt-in-your-mouth texture; no lumpy uncooked bits or areas that were overdone, just perfection from top to bottom. Without an outer blistered layer to give it crunch, the crisps were a more than capable substitute, especially given they were topped with fine shavings of earthy, delicious black truffle that worked its magic on the entire dish. To round it off, the celeriac puree that served as a bed for the dish was a perfect, velvetty smooth texture and very flavoursome without overdoing the root's celery flavour. A very good start to the meal.
Alissa and Lyndsay both ordered the Roast Cauliflower, Capers, Jalapeno + Manchego. The Cauliflower was roasted perfectly, with some good crunchy bite left in them. A bed of what tasted like a mornay sat beneath, and combined with the cauliflower and the melted manchego on top made the dish seem like a play on the flavours of a Cauliflower Cheese Bake reimagined as something altogether more sophisticated. The breadcrumbs usually scattered on top were instead jalapenos coated and fried in breadcrumbs, with the capers providing a nice salty hit. This was a clever dish that worked very well as a starter, though I personally thought both my Celeriac dish and Justin's first course were even better.
Justin had the Scallops, Corn, Spinach + Shaved Squid, a dish that was a clear evolution of a similar dish Alissa and I ate at Red Cabbage. Having been very impressed by the earlier version, I could see Justin was similarly blown away by the flavours on his plate. When I asked him for any constructive points, his response was, "The dish itself is beyond me in every way... I had extreme difficulty in identifying the finer things on top of it - such as this mysterious orange powder. I was bamboozled by the puree at the bottom. So whatever subtleties there were that made that dish incredible, I have no idea what they were. Basically scallops and squid, me likey!' Having tried his dish as well as the Red Cabbage version, I would hazard a guess that the mysterious orange power was perhaps the Shellfish Vinaigrette from the earlier iteration mixed with maltodextrin into a powder, though it could of course be something altogether more simple than that. The puree was spinach instead of the avocado puree served previously, and its iron-rich, leafy green flavour works well alongside the perfectly seared scallops and the lovely smokiness of the charred corn. Finally, the shaved squid tasted cured and had a delicate soft texture that Justin and I both really appreciated. The more Mexican-by-way-of-Fine-Dining feel of the Red Cabbage version probably has the edge on the St Michael version for me, but it was a dish that very much warranted Justin's raving praise.
For our second course, Lyndsay and I both ordered the Marron, Mushroom Dashi + Turnips. While I didn't quite like the way the Marron was cut up at Red Cabbage, it worked here, looking beautiful on the plate. The Mushroom Dashi was poured over at the table, and the comforting smell of a warm broth permeated the air. Flavour wise, it walked a very Japanese balance of being strong and yet subtle, and tasted a lot like a very good soba broth, with a distinct mushroom flavour complemented by pleasingly umami notes of sesame. With the Marron featuring a nice subtle char, it had a pleasing smokiness that went well with the broth, however Lyndsay was unfortunately served a piece that was a bit undercooked. A shame, as we agreed that this flaw aside, the Marron was very tasty, with the overall dish balanced out by the pickled straw mushrooms providing a nice sour kick, and the turnip giving the otherwise soft texture some much needed crunch.
Alissa went with the beautifully plated Quail, Carrots, Ricotta, Honey + Buckwheat. The Quail was nicely cooked, with a blush of pink in the middle of the Quail, and when eaten had a juiciness that confirmed that it was cooked perfectly. The glazed Carrot was nicely cooked, and Alissa liked the really fine quality of what she thought was Pumpkin Puree, but given that it was not listed in the dish title might have actually been Carrot Puree. Regardless, its smoothness with the crunch of the Buckwheat went really well with the Quail, however the best element on the plate was undoubtedly the Gnocchi. Crusted in parmesan, the Gnocchi was soft and pillowy within, and had Alissa craving for a whole plate of Gnocchi. I don't usually love Gnocchi but between these and the Stinging Nettle Gnocchi we were served at Dear Friends a week earlier, we've been seriously spoiled.
Justin's again made a good choice, with the Lamb Belly, Mandarin + Pickled Yabbies being a marvellous dish - even better to our mind than the very similar dish Alissa and I were served at Red Cabbage. The Belly was nicely cooked, with that trademark crowd pleasing unctuousness. The sweetness of the Mandarin Puree and Mandarin pieces gave the dish a sweet acidic note t0 balance out the fattiness of the Belly, with the Fennel Sprigs providing a complementary aniseed note. The pickled flavour of the Yabbies also provided some acidity to cut the fattiness of the Lamb, and the result was a very balanced dish that had Justin literally licking his plate (you can't take him anywhere!). The fact that this ended up being Justin's fourth best savoury dish of the night is not a reflection on this dish at all, so much as how good the dishes to follow were.
From there we were onto our third and final savoury course. My order -The Roast Lamb Shoulder, Olives, Mint, Walnuts + Goats Curd - was, without hesitation, my favourite dish of the evening, and Justin proclaimed it the best of the savoury courses. The flavours of the dish's title were all tried and true classic flavours, but it was the way it was all put together that made it exceptional - the house made Mint Jelly looked like it was actually clear cells of jelly rather than the the usual viscous gel that comes in a bottle, the Olives were dehydrated and served as a fine crumb instead of the usual tapenade, and the Goat's Curd split the difference between goat's cheese and garlic sauce of a yiros and gave the dish that needed sour kick. As good as the nasturtium and walnuts were in providing additional support, the star of the dish was undoubtedly the Lamb Shoulder, which was cooked so perfectly that only a very meagre coaxing with the fork was required for the meat to fall apart. Absolutely delicious cooking.
Justin and Alissa ordered the Waygu Rump Cap, Cherry, Oats, Seeds + Nuts, and their opinions about the dish were rather divergent...
... perhaps owing to the fact that there was a certain amount of inconsistency between the two dishes. Granted, one of the photos is closer than the other, but there were some distinct differences in appearance between the two, and looking at Justin and Alissa cutting the meat it was obvious one was tougher than the other. Alissa was the more positive of the two diners, and she noted that the cherry and cherry sauce provided a nice sour acidity that work well with the meat, and that the 'white mayonnaise kind of thing' at the bottom of the plate gave the dish some creaminess. Both agreed that the salty muesli on top provided a nice crunchiness, and for Justin was an unexpected combination but was one that reminded me of Restaurant Amusé. Rump Cap is a prized cut in Brazil, and Alissa really enjoyed the medium rare slices. Justin's however seemed tough and chewy for some reason, and while Alissa later said she would definitely order it again, Justin described it as good, but his least favourite dish of the evening.
Lyndsay when with the Blackened Trout, Red Curry + Pineapple as her final savoury course, another evolution of a dish I ordered as my main at Red Cabbage. The Trout had a lovely char on the outside that suggested the same torching method used at Red Cabbage had been used to finish the fish, with the softness of the pink meat within as delicious as the version served at Red Cabbage. Pineapple, a common accompaniment to fish in Asian cooking, was a pleasant surprise for Lyndsay, who also really liked the crunch that the puffed rice provided. Her only constructive criticism was that she was hoping for a bit more kick from the Red Curry sauce, however this was a small enough quibble for her to consider this her favourite dish of the evening, and Justin called it as he second favourite savoury course after my Lamb dish.
Having already tried two of the desserts on the St Michael menu, Alissa and I knew that the desserts were going to be incredible and they did not disappoint. We started with Pumpkin, White Chocolate, Cheddar Crumb, Pear Sorbet + Blue - the first of the two repeated Red Cabbage desserts and an obvious riff on a Christina Tosi dessert served at Momofuku Ssam Bar. A scoop of deliciously fruity Pear Sorbet sat in a bed of sweet Pumpkin Puree, accompanied by biscuity pieces of white chocolate, cheddar and blue cheese with some radicchio thrown in. The result was as incredible as it was at Red Cabbage, and impressed a skeptical Lyndsay who pointed out that the white chocolate crumb had a pleasing slight bitterness and wasn't overly sweet - unusual for white chocolate. Justin was so impressed that he proclaimed 'I think we crowned the king too early' before declaring his support for this dish. It was my favourite dessert of the night, and is a definite must-order dish for those who are a little more trusting of less conventional flavours.
For those with more conservative tastes, the Peanut Butter, Salted Caramel + Chocolate is almost as good a choice. The least surprising of the four desserts, it nevertheless succeeds as being a sure-fire crowd pleaser. The creamy, semi-solid texture of the frozen peanut parfait combine with the richness of the salted caramel and chocolate for a dish that was as successful here as it was when Alissa and I had it at Red Cabbage, which I referred to at the time as one of the best we've had.
Justin was prepared to skip ordering the Fruit Salad, Yoghurt + Herbs as it sounded the most pedestrian offering on the menu, but I was convinced that the unassuming title would belie something that was a lot more special than they were letting on. Sure enough, this Fruit Salad was not just any ordinary fruit salad, and instead was a particularly Modernist frozen take. Consisting of small pieces of frozen raspberry, apricot and pears and a clumps of basil, parsley and mint frozen in small clumps similar to Dippin' Dots, and a quenelle of sorbet, this was a clever, light and refreshing dessert. While not necessarily the best of the four, it was undoubtedly the most surprising and would be a good choice for a palate cleansing finish if the other desserts seem to rich.
Finally, we dug into the Parnsip, Honey + Cornflake Crunch, another dish that showed the chef was an obvious fan of Christina Tosi; the salty-sweet Cornflake Crunch tasted identical to the recipe in the Momofuku Milk Bar cookbook. The innovation here however was Parsnip Ice Cream; I might think about maybe making carrot ice cream, and yet parsnip would seem a root vegetable bridge too far. Not so; the flavour of parsnip here in super creamy ice cream form worked surprisingly well, and was well matched by the aforementioned Cornflake Crunch, and the soft Sponge Cake and the drizzling of quality honey.
The Verdict: Excellent +
When Alissa and I were in Melbourne earlier this year, we were thinking how much the dining scene over there is enriched by a decent upper-middle price bracket of casual fine dining restaurants like Hell of the North or Saint Crispin (or even Cutler and Co's Sunday Lunch menu), where $50-$80 can get you a seriously good multi-course meal without having to go all the way to the $100+ bracket every time you wanted to eat something with a bit more culinary flare than the average. Perth's been getting more interesting restaurants in this price range in the last few years, but mostly its been more casual food that's been cheffed up, rather than fine dining being made affordable.
St. Michael then is something very special, as the food we ate on the night is definitely in the same fine dining tradition of Red Cabbage presented with a more casual vibe and a fantastic price point. $61 for 4 courses is excellent value for cooking of this calibre, and if not for the slight inconsistencies with the Marron and Beef dishes we would probably have given it a rating of Exceptional. As it stands however, Alissa and I enjoyed the meal at St Michael more than we did Red Cabbage, and made me think that we definitely need to give Red Cabbage's a la carte a try next time to see if we have a similar experience - perhaps that's the best way to get the most our of their food. I think Scott and Hazel O'Sullivan, Todd Stuart and Adam Sayles are onto a winner with this place - its a definite contender for best new opening this year.