PICTURES \ DARRIAN TRAYNOR
How much do a name and a theme alter the prospects of a restaurant? The short answer is that it’s a matter of how heavily it’s marketed. The answer that will earn extra exam marks, though, is whether the concept captures public imagination.
Going from the steady-but-not-unwieldy crowd at Spoonbill, the newest name for the restaurant at The Olsen Hotel, there’s a shortage of one of these elements. Perhaps it’s just a matter of time. There is no lack of imagination here – either in the food, which is contemporary and creative, the art-driven concept or the wistful, nature-inspired décor.
The Olsen is a member of the Art Series Hotel Group, a chain of boutique properties created by developer and entrepreneur William Deague and themed around the works of Australian artists. The chain includes The Cullen, inspired by Adam Cullen, in Prahran and The Blackman, a tribute to the works of Charles Blackman, in St Kilda. The Olsen’s mascot is John Olsen, whose colourful, abstract works feature prominently throughout the hotel.
Olsen apparently funded his early art career by working as a chef in Majorca in the 1950s, where he learnt to cook paella. His works feature many Australian-inspired landscapes, regular images of the spoonbill and a recurring paella theme. All of this has been creatively combined in the name of the restaurant which was changed and relaunched in March, its locally sourced regional produce and its signature sharing dish – a notable paella.
For head chef Russell Gronow (Il Solito Posto, The Continental, MoMo), who says he has “been around for a while” and has “always tried to keep up with the trends”, the Spoonbill concept was an opportunity to create modern, interesting food based around a sharing philosophy.
Gronow’s menu has sections for solo grazers, who might wish to Eat Like a Bird, or In Abundance, and for flocks seeking A Shared Affair. It features Cloudy Bay oysters, Otway Ranges pork, Spear Creek saltbush lamb and promotes the concept of sustainability. Herbs are grown in the hotel’s edible garden, accessible to guests and neighbours, who are encouraged to plant seeds and nurture them.
There’s a tapas, or pecking section, that includes a rotating offering of tacos – lemongrass and chilli snapper with red onion and coriander, wagyu rump with avocado and emmental cheese, or perhaps a beef vindaloo version. There’s also a salumi plate, Spring Bay mussels, Queensland prawns and changing mini-burgers such as an organic corn-fed chicken creation that arrives on a fine-grained wooden board. A petite grain-topped roll contains an excellent chicken patty rich with herbs, parmesan and lemon zest and dressed with a generous, creamy aioli.
Less suitable for sharing are dishes such as the smoked lamb rump with saffron kipfler potatoes, baby vegetables and olive jus or the excellent blue swimmer crab spaghettini. The delicate pasta is of just the right density for the fleshy pieces of crustacean meat, brought together with a rich harissa-enhanced tomato sauce and astute use of fresh coriander.
Gronow uses Olsen’s paella recipe and says the artist likens the dish to a work of art that combines vibrant colours and flavours to create a masterpiece. According to the menu blurb, Olsen is inspired by the shape
of the paella pan and its contrasting colours when painting.
The dish is offered for one, two or four and arrives in a traditional cast-iron pan. A good paella is defined by the treatment of its staple and its hero should be the fabulous texture of excellently treated bomba rice. If the rice is overdone, or too heavily flavoured, it just becomes a showy, pretentious mess of ingredients.
In Gronow’s hands, there’s respect for everything: the precisely balanced combination of chorizo, pork belly, roasted capsicum, razor clams, rockling, prawns and mussels is finished with just enough paprika to retain freshness of the ingredients, and the saffron-infused rice shines.
Desserts showcase the chef’s classic training and the hotel’s nature-inspired theme – but Gronow gives credit to his wife for the ideas behind the apple delicious. It’s a snappily presented platter containing a stunning verdant apple sorbet, a tiny glass of apple jelly, topped with a Calvados panna cotta (united to look like a glass of apple cider) and a delicate apple-filled mille-feuille. A chocolate platter contained a decadent white-chocolate ice-cream, a terrific slice of chocolate brownie and a slender marquise sculpture, strewn with an admirable house-made honeycomb.
The Olsen sends its message of sustainability not only through its earth-themed décor and its locally sourced ingredients but also in the Smart Cars and bicycles for its guests that ferry them, and the hotel’s name, around town. That’s good marketing, and something that will capture people’s imagination. I think Spoonbill will appeal to it, too.
637 Chapel Street, South Yarra
Cuisine \ Modern Australian
Chef \ Russell Gronow
Prices \ Small dishes $6.50-$22; larger dishes $18-32; shared plates $30-$110
Open \ Daily 6am to late
Phone \ 9040 1222
The Verdict \ Put on your list
Showpiece cane sculptures envelope the supporting pillars in this dramatic, high-ceilinged space, drawing the eye like the centrepiece of any great work of art. There’s something a bit ’70s about the curved bar area covered in dark-toned tiny circular tiles and a hint of the ’80s in the vertical blinds comprised of sage-coloured strands of cord. But the overall look, augmented by stunning timber floors and tables, is reminiscent of the wetlands habitat of the Australian spoonbill. A mobile featuring about 80 wooden spoons hanging in the front window adds satire.