To put this week’s meal in context, a three-course set lunch at The Ledbury in London will set you back £33.50. That’s about $50 to eat at the restaurant recently anointed London’s best by Zagat and ranked 34th on the S. Pellegrino World’s 50?Best Restaurants list. At Le Chateaubriand in Paris, rated ninth in the world, supercool Basque chef Inaki Aizpitarte will charge you only 55 euros (less than $75) for his five-course prix fixe feast.
But here in humble Melbourne, at a new place headed by ex-Royal Mail and Attica chefs, a weeknight dinner for two cost us $194.50 (with wine, naturally).
That’s probably about average for an inner-city diner these days except, at The Brix, the serving sizes are dainty. The tastes and technique are impressive, there’s just not a lot of the edible stuff. Which makes it difficult to justify spending more than $30 on an artful but anorexic arrangement of lamb.
But value for money aside, there’s quite a bit to like about The Brix.
Great idea: The walnut and thyme tart was a real treat.
The interiors of this dining room/bar/kitchen are bistro chic meets Arts and Crafts. A striking white macramé sculpture spread-eagled across the ceiling looks like a dinosaur skeleton, knotted to scale. Shingles cover the wall in front of the kitchen (“they add a necessary warmth,” a waiter offers). Elsewhere there are hanging ferns, a fibreglass pig, a mosaic-fronted bar and cheery vases of roses and orchids. The vibe feels a little bit louche, which is promising, and it’s enhanced by a seductive, small winelist of French labels alongside well-chosen locals, most of them reasonably priced. A decent Burgundy white is $10 by the glass.
Diners sit down to a set menu on Friday and Saturday nights and Sunday lunch (five courses for $80) but at other times dining is a la carte from a concise menu listing a handful each of entrées, mains and desserts. Dish descriptions simply involve a few key ingredients separated by commas.
It’s hard to know quite what to expect from “veal breast, carrot, almond, onion, chardonnay” but on the plate it is a handsome still-life of glistening, fall-apart brisket with a crisp lid of fat or skin, roasted root vegetables and crushed almonds, served with the most delicious chardonnay beurre blanc, cut with carrot juice.
Cured ocean trout, pickled beetroot, cucumber, horseradish materialises as chunks of fleshy pink fish served on a black slate tile, a la Bourgogne. A dusting of horseradish “snow” looks good against the slate but lacks kick in the mouth. Arguably, my favourite thing about the entrées is the ruby-handled Laguiole knife I’m given to eat them with. Highly covetable.
Meticulous attention is paid to detail at The Brix.
Service can be scatty. It takes ages for our glasses of Burgundy to arrive because the waitress forgets the order. Staff are dressed in classic black and white; for males, this means skinny-minny jeans with crisp white shirts and black braces. One waiter’s Levi’s are so tight you can almost see what religion he is.
Mains are bigger than entrées but the proteins can still be measured in tens rather than hundreds of grams. (We’re not the only ones put off by petite serving sizes – disappointed diners at the next table complain to their waitress about the meagre plates.)
The lamb arrives in three parts – a crisped wedge of belly, a mini-fillet and a golden sweetbread. The belly seems slightly overdone and is intensely salty. The sweetbread, not mentioned on the menu, is a lovely creamy surprise that helps atone for the salty belly. A jumble of tempura globe artichokes and roasted nuggets of Jerusalem artichoke accompanies.
The beef main is a modest piece of flavourful, very slow-cooked hanger steak served with a length of tendon. This has been slowly baked into caramelised, gelatinous submission, and it is a treat. What the dishes lack in size, they often make up for in execution.
We tried something called “chocolate, mandarin, coffee” to finish, and I seem to remember it was nice but it paled against the unexpected success of the walnut thyme tart. This is served as shards of thyme-infused sweet shortcrust tumbled with candied walnuts, blue cheese and red-wine purée. It is like having cheese and dessert together, an excellent idea.
But like almost everything else on a plate at The Brix, I just wish there’d been more of it.
The Brix Café & Bistrot
Rear 412 Brunswick Street (corner Westgarth Street), Fitzroy
Cuisine \ Modern French
Chefs \ Joel Alderson
Hip pocket \ About $65 a head for three courses a la carte; five-course set menu $80
Open \ Tuesday to Friday 6pm-late; Friday lunch noon-3pm; Saturday 8am-late; Sunday 8am-3pm
Highlights \ The fit-out (love the willow-patterned toilet wallpaper), the cooking, the vibe
Lowlights \ Service bloopers, serving sizes
Bookings \ Recommended, especially for set-menu sittings
Phone \ 9417 6114
We rate it 6.5 out of 10