“Dear, dear!” she said. “How queer everything is to-day!”
It’s hard not to come over all Alice-in-Wonderland during a meal at Hare & Grace. The experience is bound to leave anyone feeling slightly bewildered – but in a good way.
On an otherwise unremarkable Thursday we arrive at the old butter factory at the corner of Collins and King where Raymond Capaldi (formerly of Fenix) has created a restaurant mined with surprises at every turn. A herb and vegetable garden flourishes by the front door; a deranged smokebush forest hangs from the ceiling; grog bottles dangle on ropes behind the bar; tea towels masquerade as napkins. Beside the reception desk a dapper hare, holding a teacup, only adds to the Mad Hatter-ish mood of the place. Curiouser and curiouser.
Interiors by Joost Bakker feature timber chests reborn as tabletops.
Interiors by design wunderkind Joost Bakker feature his signature recycled look in timber chests reborn as tabletops, breadbaskets woven from twigs and wire and, in the adjoining “mini-bar”, stools crafted from packing crates. City workers visit the bar for tempting snacks such as macaroni cheese croquettes and pork ribs braised in Coca-Cola. If you think that sounds like fun, wait ’til you see the restaurant menu.
Capaldi has divided it into sections playfully headed Composites (entrees to us), Principals, Accomplimains (sides) and Wood-Fired (larger, meaty dishes such as double-sided Barnsley chops). Desserts are on a separate list titled “Sweet, Guilty, Vanity”.
Ordering proves difficult because some staff seem bizarrely unfamiliar with the food and wine they’re selling. When we try to order the onion salad with gruyere gnocchi, our waitress tells us it’s a soup. But it says salad on the menu. She darts to the open kitchen to check. No, it’s a salad, she confirms. “I haven’t seen this one before. It’s, like, new.”
Later, she can’t get a handle on the Marques de Riscal Rueda Verdejo. Is it like a sauvignon blanc? “Yeah, like that,” she says doubtfully, and then changes her mind. It’s like getting wine advice from the Mock Turtle. The list is lovely, by the way. Just two easy pages punctuated with mouthwatering words such as Scorpo, Pierro and SC Pannell.
Yabbie sandwich and chilled ocean trout.
The salad-not-soup arrives as four braised onion halves in a bowl with a dense onion cream, white wobbly blobs of gnocchi and a trendy “dust” of herbed breadcrumbs. Take a mouthful and the dish’s true identity is revealed – it’s a deconstructed-reconstructed French onion soup where the “dust” stands in for croutons and the gnocchi provide an intense gruyere hit. Maybe the waitress was onto something after all. It’s very clever.
As is the yabbie sandwich; a wafer of toasted brioche supporting bright, succulent hunks of yabbie meat, peppery herbs and chunks of dark cherry and tomato. A crustacean mayo ties it all together in the nicest possible way. There’s a pile of unidentified pink fluffy stuff on the side. The waiter tells us it is “prawn dust”, as if that’s the most natural ingredient in the world. (“That’s very curious!” she thought. “But everything’s curious today.”)
The star of the next plate is a ruddy slab of chilled ocean trout supported by Earl Grey- and aloe vera-flavoured jellies, opaque discs of apple, crème fraiche and crisply halved radishes dipped in what looks like black dirt. Naturally, it’s squid dust. This might sound like a mad medley of flavours and concepts but it’s a delight to look at and eat.
Lesser chefs attempting such sleight of hand might fail miserably but Capaldi has a stellar pedigree. A former chef of the year in his native Scotland, he decamped to London’s Dorchester Hotel, worked at elite addresses from Cannes to Hong Kong and, in Melbourne, scooped a slew of hats with his daring dishes at Fenix. His ambitions may be scaled back here but he’s lost none of his flair for ideas.
Chilled ocean trout with Earl Grey and aloe vera jellies.
After so many shape-shifting dishes we just want something simple for dessert. The “jaffal” is perfect – a toasted bread-and-butter pudding served piping hot with an oozy filling of almond cream, all of it drizzled in macerated raisins. It’s so dense and sugary that a side serve of sweetened whipped cream spiked with vanilla bean almost comes as light relief.
Eating at Hare & Grace is a bit like dining as performance art, confidently done (staff hiccups aside) and tremendous fun. It sure beats the boring old business lunch.
Hare & Grace
525 Collins Street, city
Cuisine \ Modern Australian.
Chef \ Raymond Capaldi
Hip pocket \ About $90 a head for full restaurant feasting; much cheaper in the bar.
Open \ Lunch, Monday-Friday noon-3pm; dinner, Monday-Saturday 6pm-late.
Highlights \ Whimsical food and fit-out.
Lowlights \ Scatty staff
Bookings \ Recommended
Phone \ 9629 6755
We rate it 7/10