IMAGES DARRIAN TRAYNOR
I never ate at Fifteen. There were always too many more exciting eating options in Melbourne than a Jamie Oliver franchise (however worthy the concept) so I never got there.
But I couldn’t wait to get to Brooks, the latest tenant of this clubby basement space beneath the Hermes boutique on Collins Street.
Brooks Bar & Restaurant boasts a Melbourne Cup-quality field of hospitality players led by Gerald Diffey, the affable entrepreneur behind Gerald’s Bar in North Carlton; young French sensation Nicolas Poelaert, who closed his hatted Embrasse restaurant in Carlton last month to shift his kitchen to the subterranean Brooks; and floor manager Paul Guiney, a graduate of the David Thompson, Christie Manfield and MoVida schools of restaurateuring.
You know there’s some serious thought gone into the place the moment the doorman opens the elegant glass doors and ushers you downstairs. A long, marble-topped bar stocked with neat rows of premium booze greets guests. A glass case set into the kitchen wall displays a brightly lit and badly shaved pig’s head, plus a small assembly of trimmed trotters.
In the restaurant proper, fresh flowers, framed prints, luscious leather banquettes, polished timber and silver set the tone to sophisticated casual.
Service is super-smooth and savvy but not intrusive or stuck up. The menu is a challenge initially – one of those annoying documents that needs an introduction and a guided tour through novel concepts such as “In the Beginning” and
“Seasonally Visiting” – but the food overrules any concerns about the format. Whether you go a la carte or the chef’s five-course menu, you can be sure of food that is mostly fun, fabulous and generous.
Something as simple and seasonal as a broadbean soup shimmers spring-green in a shallow bowl, sprinkled with pristine globules of extra virgin olive oil and diced black olive. Fresh jasmine flowers punctuate the surface and lend the dish a heady perfume. So odd, but so delicious.
Perhaps the best things about the oysters – a fresh medley of St Helens, Coffin Bay and Sydney Rock – are the slightly kitsch vintage plates they come on. Diffey’s a crockery collector, apparently, hence the quirky tableware.
Two baby lamb backstraps are the plainest – and least interesting – items on an artsy plate daubed with white miso and cauliflower purée and showered with tiny nuggets of bee pollen and black lime zest.
The shared main course of Glenloth (free-range, grain-fed) chicken with hay, aligot and vegetables is set high on a stand at eye level so drooling diners can ogle the golden-brown confit thigh and milky breast meat and the matching pot of thick, cheesy mash. It tastes every bit as good as it looks.
Poelaert’s creative urges get full rein in the five-course degustation menu. Diners can choose their own combination of plates or leave it to the kitchen. I let chef choose and am rewarded with an Embrasse staple, the méli-mélo (jumble) of garden delights inspired by Michel Bras, the French chef who made vegetables sexy with his gorgeous gargouillou of up to 60 different plants on a plate.
Poelaert achieves a similar effect with a palette of 25 vegetables, fruits and flowers. Some appear in their raw forms, others have been steamed, sautéed, boiled, roasted, pulped, puréed, emulsified, dehydrated …
We’re always taught not to play with our food, but Poelaert ignores that advice and so should you. Mix red cabbage with raspberry and marvel at the insane taste sensation. Pair honeydew melon with spring onion for another revelation.
Create your own combos with rocket, poached eggplant, fennel, carrot, nasturtium, Jerusalem artichoke, more jasmine flowers, broccoli and another dozen or so botanical delights. It’s tremendous fun, and terrific to look at too – the Kate Moss of entrées.
I’m raving so much I’m running out of space to do justice to the rest of the evening. So, in brief.
The winelist is a showy selection of fine vintages from home and away chosen by former Circa sommelier Matthew Brooke. We have a great time with a Croatian Grasevina Mitrovac and the L’Imposteur Grenache and don’t have to pay too handsomely for the pleasure. But this is a list where the quality and the prices are elevated.
There are many other standout dishes, from creamy chicken parfait cased in crisp rye pillows and served on a round of AstroTurf (!) to silky bug meat and a smoky chunk of eel coated in tapioca dust.
Another Embrasse staple, the “forest floor” dessert, is like a scene from a fairytale. An earthy base of crumbled chocolate cake supports a mushroom with a top of semifreddo-like chocolate hazelnut parfait and a stem of meringue. There is some ganache in there, some almond dust, chocolate and vanilla tulle and an incredible green granita of mint and wood sorrel that is like eating frozen grass, only sweeter and nicer.
“I’m loving this one,” my dinner companion says. “I’m loving everything.”
Brooks of Melbourne
Basement 115-117 Collins Street (enter George Parade), city
Cuisine \ Contemporary French
Chef \ Nicolas Poelaert
Hip pocket \ Five-course chef’s menu, $80
Open \ Mon-Wed 11.30am-midnight, Thur-Fri 11.30am-1am, Sat 4pm-1am.
Highlights \ High style, high cuisine, high times
Lowlight \ High-priced wines
Bookings \ Yes
Phone \ 9001 8755