It's been quite a while since Alissa and I headed out to Scarborough. When Alissa lived in North Perth, we used to include walks from City Beach to Scarborough as part of our regular walking route repertoire, however since moving to Bateman our visits have been much more sporadic. So when we received a surprise invite to attend a blogging event at Matisse Beach Club, we were delighted by the chance to return to an area of Perth we probably haven't visited for a year.
Located along the Esplanade in Scarborough's main beach precinct, the first thing one notices about Matisse is the immense scale and ambition of this undertaking; the Beach Club is a massive venue, and one that bucks the trend of the small bar boom. The intimacy and often 'bespoke' and 'artisanal' nature of the best small bars make a persuasive argument that smaller is better, however Matisse avoids the impersonal pitfalls of larger venues by having one of the most eye-poppingly colourful and boldly futuristic venue designs I've seen in Perth.
As a Fine Arts graduate, the name of Henri Matisse for me immediately conjures up images of early 20th Century Modernism, however as colourful as Matisse's paintings are, the venue is far more indebted to large scale 1960s minimalism, in particular the work of American artist Dan Flavin.
It's what I imagine it would have looked like if Flavin was brought on board as a design consultant for a set on Miami Vice or the bar from Clockwork Orange, and combined with the thoroughly contemporary geometric shapes of the seating and side tables alongside classic icons of beach culture (pools, sun beds, beach balls and palm trees), the image created shows its lineage to the kind of beach shack venues seen in many an Elvis movie while imagined for the kind of future in which an Elvis Hologram might perform backed by Daft Punk. When going for a design like this you've got to commit 100% if its going to work, and the people behind this venue cannot be accused of half-assing the visual aspect and ambiance.
But of course, Alissa and I were not invited as contemporary visual art critics; the main focus of the evening was a tasting of Matisse's food and cocktail menu, as well as a meet and greet with the people behind the venue. It also served as an opportunity to finally meet fellow Perth blogger Kristy aka The Queen of Bad Timing and her partner Jeremy in person after having read each others blogs and having had discussions on Twitter and Facebook.
For welcome drinks, a round of Mai Tais were brought out. The first of three cocktails Alissa and I tried that evening, Matisse's take on the Mai Tai was the kind of fun and refreshingly fruity cocktail that screams summertime, it's sweetness tempered by the acidity from the citrus and the distinctive flavour of coconut that came from the dusting on top - as well as the presumable use of coconut rum. As with the other excellent, well made cocktails that were to follow, the Mai Tai showed Matisse to be strong performers in this area; they are not the kind of 'serious' cocktails you imagine being served by a hipster bartender sporting suspenders and a pencil thin moustache, but this is exactly what I imagine Alissa and I wanting during a searing hot Perth summer.
With sections of Matisse available for private functions, the first round of food brought out were examples of the finger food one might expect. First to make the rounds was Prawn and Zucchini Falafel. The use of prawn made an interesting and welcome addition to the regular spicy Falafel, and Alissa commented that the chutney on top provided some welcome sweetness. I thoroughly dislike dry Falafels, and I was happy to find these to be nice and moist.
While the Falafels were good, Alissa and I both preferred the Smoked Chicken Mousse with Quail Egg that followed. The Chicken Mousse had a strong but not overpowering smokiness that was complemented by a texture that was velvetty smooth. The pastry was a nice, crisp short crust and the egg on top was cooked perfectly with a still malleable yolk. A fairly classic Hors d'oeuvre, Matisse's take showed why its stood the test of time.
The Black Risotto Cakes topped with Salmon Roe came next, and Alissa and I agreed it was the least impressive of the finger food items we tried. While the appearance was probably going for something stark and modern, to me the dryness of the exterior made them resemble cylinders of black Styrofoam. The smallness of the cakes meant that the dish had to walk a fine line of being dry enough on the outside to hold together, while being moist on the inside. Granted, there was a moist center, however the ratio of dry exterior to moist interior seemed off to me, and the flavour of the Risotto proved too overwhelming for the caviar to truly shine. I can imagine this working at a larger scale, and the version on their snacks menu might prove better than what we tried.
The Matisse Wings with Gorgonzola Sauce were much more successful, and were one of the best and most memorable dishes of the evening. The frenching of the wing drumettes was an interesting cheffy touch that made the chicken appear like Lollipop Chicken. Alissa and I were impressed with the legitimately hot and spicy punchiness of the chicken and its perfect level of seasoning, which was only made better by the inclusion of the Gorgonzola Sauce. Cheese is always a major selling point, and that deliciously metallic and stinky flavour of blue cheese complemented the spiciness very well. I could easily have done for another 2 or 3 pieces, and would consider it a must order item.
Finally, we were presented with the Seared Scallops with Candied Mango. The sear on the scallops was good, and the result was cooked to the right level without being overdone. The soft texture of the scallops and its fresh flavour was well paired with the sweetness of the candied mango on top, which featured what looked like a light torching to finish it off. Simple but effective.
After the Hors d'oeuvres, the group was invited to the main dining room, with a slight detour to the private functions room. Lit with a cool blue light, the large space has a wading pool of its own and its own bar. I have to admit that I'm not really the target audience for this kind of thing, but I can see this really working for large, casual corporate functions and birthday parties for those with 300 friends and a fair bit of spare coin.
The main dining room maintains much of the futuristic aesthetic of the outdoor cabanas...
... with some of the coolest dining table chairs I've seen in Perth. Alissa and I half-joked that we were taking notes for our own home design.
The sit-down portion of the meal was served in two courses of multiple dishes. The first dish we sampled was the 1/2 Shell Scallops, Beetroot Tzatsiki and Crisp Apple. As with the scallops we tried earlier, these were expertly cooked, and the combination of the sweet acidity of the apple and the creaminess of the tzatziki was well matched. I felt it needed just the slightest bit more salt for my palate, however this was a rather minor complaint in an otherwise well composed dish.
The Shared Seafood Platter was a wonder to behold for seafood lovers such as Alissa and I - Grilled Barramundi, Cured Salmon, 4 Oysters with a Shallot Dressing, Crab Cakes, 4 Half Shell Scallops (different to previous dishes - more simply seared and with a pomegranate dressing), Mussels with tomato chilli salsa, 4 Prawns, Asian Slaw and Hand Cut Chips. Just about everything on the plate was tasty and cooked with noticeable care and consideration. The prawns in particular were worthy of praise - cut in half and grilled, this cooking method often results in overcooked prawns, yet whoever was behind the grill skilfully cooked them to the perfect level. As with the Matisse Wings, Alissa and I really enjoyed the spiciness of the Mussels, and even though we don't love Oysters, the presentation here with the Shallot Dressing was very enjoyable. Our only constructive feedback would have been that the top layer of salmon was a bit over-seasoned (but was otherwise very good), and I could take or leave the Chips as they weren't as crispy as I would usually prefer.
Alissa and I agreed that the Peri-Peri Pork Fillet with Smoked Corned, Capsicum and Chickpea Salad was a standout, and again showed the kitchen's well considered approach to proteins. Some people might be a bit scared of pork that is still a little pink in the middle, however for Alissa and I it was a clear sign of a thoughtfully cooked fillet. The spiciness of the pork was balanced out by the juicy sweetness of the corn and the capsicum, with the addition of coriander very much welcome.
With the first three dishes cleared away, the friendly waitstaff took our drink orders to accompany the next round of food. Perusing the wine menu revealed a good and approachable list, with favourite wineries like Howard Park and Willow Bridge represented and mark ups that were not outrageous. But I can drink wine any day, so on the recommendation of Matisse owner Sean Reid I ordered the Foam-O to try another item from their cocktails menu. This was another excellent example of Matisse's fun and unpretentious approach to cocktails, and Alissa and I found its vanilla, sherbet and lemon flavour to be very appealing - especially with the delicious foam on the top.
The second round commenced with a Chicken Cob Salad of free range rosemary garlic chicken, avocado, freshly diced spring vegetables and blue cheese. I have to admit that sharing the dish as we were made the dish's presentation less than optimal; the finely diced vegetables that made the bed for the salad were placed in ordered rows and required a bit more stirring up than any of us as relative strangers were prepared to do. Thus, I didn't get a good sense of what all the salad components would have tasted like together, however I was impressed that the chicken breast on top was again cooked with immense care, with the meat not having dried out and the seasoning so thoroughly absorbed that either a low level brine or a fairly long marinade must have been involved.
The Roasted Quinoa Salad of Quinoa, Chickpeas, Lentils, Grilled Vegetables, Avocado, Pepita Seeds and Pesto Dressing was very much to Alissa's liking, with generous chunks of avocado giving the dish some lovely creaminess and what looked like finely mandolined parsnip providing some crunch. The roasted earthiness of the Quinoa was bolstered by Israeli Cous Cous and pepita seeds, providing additional textural contrast.
A Club Sandwich of Thyme and Garlic Marinated Chicken, Romaine Leaves, Vine Ripened Tomatoes, Manchego, Crispy Bacon and Grain Mustard Mayonaise was served with Fries. With some many other more exciting things on the menu, I probably would never have ordered the Club Sandwich, however construction and the combination of flavours was good if fairly predictable. The Fries on the side however were crunchier than the Hand Cut Chips of the Seafood Platter, and I was impressed when I saw they had maintain their crispness even when they started to cool.
The Duck Breast with Grilled Pineapple,Dried Prune, Walnut and Goat's Cheese Salad with Pomegranate Dressing was definitely our favourite dish of the evening. Again, the cooking of the proteins could not be faulted, with the fat from the duck nicely rendered down. Combined with the pink blush of the meat, the result was unctuous and juicy, with the accompanying players of Prune and Goat's Cheese providing some counterbalance. This was a dish that I would be more than happy to order again.
To finish our meal, we sampled the Serrano Ham Pizza with Drunken Figs, Roquette and Manchego. Having worked in a pizza joint during my uni years, I always fear so-called gourmet pizzas as they often end up being the culinary equivalent of the Emperor's New Clothes, however I needn't have worried in this case - this was a very good pizza, and an inspired combination of flavours. Keeping it simple but with the contrasts well considered paid off, as each of the four main ingredients of Serrano, Figs, Roquette and Manchego worked together harmoniously, with the base itself nice and thin and cooked to the perfect level.
While we were too full for a true dessert (though we were tempted), Alissa and I decided to sample one last cocktail for the evening. Called the Mandalin, the cocktail was a mix of Gin, Orange Blossom and Scorched Mandarin, and was probably our favourite cocktail of the evening - unsurprising, given that Alissa and I are noted fans of good ol' 'mother's ruin'. A fancier Gin and Juice, their was a wonderfully floral quality about the drink, and Alissa turned to me later in the evening and said; 'I'm still thinking about that cocktail'. Enough said.
The Verdict: Very Good
Speaking to owner Sean Reid, I asked him what the main focus of the venue was and he admitted that it was probably more about building an experience based on the very unique ambiance, with drinks being more of a focus than a true sit down dining experience per se. This seemed like the right approach for a venue like this - it really is a one of a kind experience in Perth, and one that is more geared to reclining with a cocktail in hand than a more formal meal. And with cocktails as good as they are serving, its a very persuasive point of view indeed. Its the right flavour for Scarborough, and knowing it exists gives Alissa and I reason to head out to the Scarborough/City Beach area more often; it may not be a destination restaurant along the lines of Perth's best restaurants, but the unique experience that they are serving up here makes it a true destination venue.
That said, its nice when a venue like this does have good food, and many of the dishes that we were served would be very easy to recommend - in particular the Matisse Wings, Peri-Peri Pork, the Duck Breast, the Serrano Ham Pizza and the Seafood Platter. With half price pizzas on Mondays and Tuesdays, the Serrano Ham Pizza is a steal at $13 (after discount), and the Seafood Platter with a bottle of Moet for $99 on a Thursday is also great value for money. Alissa and I will definitely be back for more.