Moon Under Water
PICTURES \ DARRIAN TRAYNOR
The worst thing about reviewing Moon Under Water is deciding where to start. Do you rave about the room, with its nuanced hues of white-on-white, the softly filtered light, the svelte banquettes in lush, dove-grey leather? Or the vintage cabinets with wines and curiosities (here a stuffed rooster, there a model windjammer) to conjure a space somewhere between apothecary and wunderkammer?
Or the staff, clean-cut and Kennedy-handsome in their tight, white shirts and aprons, who are fully informed on every aspect of the super menu and a superb winelist that's almost as long as Leviticus, but much more exciting to read?
Or do you start with a cheesy biscuit?
At Moon Under Water, it’s all about the cheesy biscuit – a gruyère de comté and parmesan shortbread that melts on the tongue and leaves you gagging for another. There appears to be a strict ration of one morsel per mouth but diners needn’t fret because things only get better from here on in. Trust me. No, don’t trust me – trust the ever-dependable and inspirational Andrew McConnell (Cumulus-Cutler-Golden Fields) and Josh Murphy, his former head man at Cumulus and The Age’s 2012 Young Chef of the Year, who together have devised a corner-hotel dining experience unlike anything Melbourne has tasted before.
The duo already earned its stripes with the bistro here at the 160-year-old Builders Arms Hotel. It opened a few months back and wowed crowds with its earthy eating (whipped cod roe, potted blood pudding) and infectious atmosphere. But Moon Under Water is something else again; a dining room within a dining room that has debuted with a level of confidence and class rare in new restaurants – or any restaurants, for that matter.
From Wednesday to Sunday night, it offers a set menu of four courses. It costs $75 and there can be additional surprises – an amuse bouche, a petit four – and often a supplementary course with ultra-seasonal ingredients (Manjimup truffle toast soldiers, when we visit).
Our Sunday lunch begins with that biscuit, followed by an offering of crisp lavosh topped with raw tuna and a dollop each of eggplant mash and lemonade fruit, a semi-sweet lemony splodge that cleanses the mouth ahead of the coming feast. And it’s delivered by McConnell himself, who’s very much in evidence greeting tables and generally adding an extra layer of warmth to the experience.
First out of the kitchen is a great-looking plate of seared Rottnest Island scallops and buttered cabbage on a smear of squid ink. Frail ribbons of kombu kelp flutter on top and lend a savoury umami-ness that’s the standout ingredient. The scallops are sweet and appealingly browned and the combination overall is perfectly nice, even though the squid ink seems diluted in colour and flavour. In retrospect, it is the weakest of the day’s dishes but not a dud by any stretch.
Steamed baby leeks arrive on a lush smear of cow’s curds, the leeks draped with prime Ortiz anchovies cold-smoked in-house, decorated with red sorrel leaves and seasoned with chilli flakes and lemon oil. For a simple-looking preparation, it goes off in the mouth. The anchovies are plump and firm and a tiny slice of one has a magical effect on each forkful of leek and curd. The hint of chilli is genius.
Normally I baulk at dust on a menu but the orange “dust” with the next service of slow-cooked duck picks up a citrus theme kindled by candied pomelo slices. The bird is quite bloody but also bloody delicious, in a jus heady with star anise, cinnamon, cloves and pepper. Mustard greens and puréed celeriac relieve the richness.
Lunch ends on steamed ginger cake with custard, rhubarb sorbet and a crust of freeze-dried cherry. Imagine a ginger-caramel-vanilla-rhubarb love-in with cherry pop-rocks and you’ve got a pretty clear picture of how much fun it is.
Chocolate ice-cream & hazelnut sponge
Take two is a Wednesday night and a new menu but the same, impeccable everything else. Another biscuit, then another lavosh wafer, this time with curd, a jewel-green mound of diced celery grated with amber-coloured bottarga (sun-dried mullet roe). It’s the good stuff too, flown in from Sardinia.
The menu proper begins with a winter vegetable salad, the highlight of which are crisps of Jerusalem artichoke (sure to take off all over town), then an intriguing plate simply labelled “black rice, red mullet and cuttlefish”. The Italian rice, black by birth but also by virtue of squid ink, is muddled with diced cuttlefish, all of it utterly al dente. A palm-sized mullet fillet with red fishnet skin rests on top. A paprika sauce adds another dimension of flavour, as do wispy, deep-fried fennel fronds. It’s lovely.
But then comes the aged pheasant, which blitzes everything before it. The breast is lightly tanned, a plump and juicy chunk of bird, and there’s a medley of leg wrapped in bacon. Both are deftly cooked but really they’re just a vehicle for the jus, which has been reduced to an almost sticky consistency of dense, complex essences enhanced by crumbled islands of boudin noir with hints of calvados and apple, red wine and toasted cereal. We wipe our fingers across the plates until the last drop of sauce has passed our lips. It is far too good to waste.
This is crazy-good cooking. Pub dining in Melbourne has a new benchmark and, boy, is it high.
Moon Under Water
Builders Arms Hotel,
211 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy
Cuisine \ Modern Australian
Chef \ Josh Murphy & Andrew McConnell
Hip Pocket \ Set four-course menu $75 a head
Open \ Wednesday-Sunday from 6pm;
Sunday lunch from noon
Highlights \ The whole package
Lowlights \ Rationing those cheese shortbreads
Bookings \ Most definitely Phone \ 9417 7700
We rate 8.5 out of 10