A pleasure to behold: Great food, wine and views all help to make a memorable dining experience at St Kilda's Stokehouse.
The Stokehouse, like some of its clientele this sunny Friday lunchtime, has had a little work done lately. Designer Pascale Gomes-McNabb has given the landmark seaside restaurant a gorgeous facelift that manages to look sexy and elegant at the same time, not something many of us can pull off.
Oak floorboards, ceilings striped in crisp white and grapey purple and lush leather banquettes form the backbone of the stylish new look. Bronze columns and a wall of look-at-me mirrors add a spritz of glitz, but the focus, as always, is out the gleaming windows to that panorama of St Kilda Beach. Bathed in rare spring sunshine, with orange and white awnings shading the deck, it looks positively Mediterranean today.
Beside us, a table of six lunching ladies kicks off proceedings with a bottle of Louis Roederer. We opt for a more modest Jansz 2006 vintage rosé from the interesting list compiled by sommeliers Lincoln Riley (ex-Maze, Taxi) and Iona Baker.
It has a reassuring spread of fairly priced ($50-$80) wines alongside $150 heroes such as the Tiers Chardonnay from Tapanappa, the Adelaide Hills joint venture between Brian Croser, Bordeaux vigneron Jean-Michel Cazes and Arnould d’Hautefeuille from Champagne Bollinger.
After a fair wait during which we wonder – for the umpteenth time – why waiters persist in supplying an odd number of bread slices to an even number of diners, the prettily plated entrees arrive. One is a ceviche of plump kingfish pieces dressed in verjuice with flying-fish roe, zucchini brunoise and salted grapes. Served on a concave black dish, it doesn’t lack for visual impact, and the nutty crunch of sunflower seeds is a clever contrast to the silky fish. The salted grapes are, in fact, very sweet, and we both find them odd in a ceviche.
Seared yellowfin tuna is one of executive chef Anthony Musarra’s new dishes for the new dining room, and it certainly passes muster in the looks department. Tender tuna slices seared at the margins are arranged artfully with pickled peppers, olive vinaigrette and the red orbs of marinated cherry tomatoes, all of it scattered with sprigs of amazingly potent micro-basil. But as with the grapes, the tomatoes seem too sweet for the fish – more clash than contrast.
Giddy on bubbles, Team Roederer has turned raucous. “I’ve got the best arms in the world!” one of them hollers as we recoil into our bay window and struggle to hear ourselves over the clamour of rowdy lunchtime diners. The place is at full tilt now, and the sight of tables having to top up their own drinks suggests service also needs to raise the volume.
The main-course rabbit costs $50 but it comes with foie gras mousse, so that’s some consolation. The bunny has been remodelled into a sliced saltimbocca “log”, a mini pie of flaking shoulder meat and a braised leg stuffed with chicken and shitake mousse.
The elaborate preparation and the foie gras mousse convincingly transform a poor man’s meat into a rich man’s meal and the accompanying prunes are heaven. But did the saltimbocca jump in my mouth? Not really – maybe a little hop.
The John Dory fillet is sizzled off at the end to give it a deep golden tan and crisp bite but the process also leaves the insides slightly dry. Two wheels of smoked eel bound in pancetta, Lake House-style, are “absolutely perfect” declares the ex-restaurateur lunchmate, who’s also charmed by his earthy baby beets.
Full dessert seems a bridge too far, so we go for the petits fours plate because the Roederer gals had two and they looked stunning. It is a mini waffle cone filled with what we suspect is butterscotch ice-cream (whatever, it’s wonderful), pistachio-studded Turkish delights, a petite doughnut rolled in sugar and cinnamon with a hidden heart of mashed cherry, and a twig-shaped chocolate truffle filled with a bergamot cream.
On the plate and in the flesh, the new-look Stokehouse is a pleasure to behold. The food, to a dish, looks as ravishing as the revamped restaurant. But with some entrees nudging $30 and mains near $50, we leave wishing there had been some rare delights to savour for days afterwards and make us return again and again.
I suspect we’ll do that anyway. For a sense of occasion and sparkling sea views, few Melbourne restaurants can match the Stokehouse.
Stokehouse, 30 Jacka Boulevard, St Kilda
Cuisine \ Modern Australian
Executive Chef \ Anthony Musarra
Hip pocket \ Reckon on $100 a head, wine extra
Open \ Lunch and dinner daily
Highlights \ The makeover, the setting, the scene
Lowlights \ Service hiccups under pressure
Bookings \ Yes, 9525 5555 www.stokehouse.com.au
We rate it 7.5 out of 10