Wagyu Steak & Chips
IMAGES DARRIAN TRAYNOR
At first blush Virginia Plain might seem like any other funky CBD dining room offering designer plates and dishy drinks. But three things mark it apart.
The most obvious is its size – a 440-square-metre behemoth, bathed in light from three walls of windows, richly timbered and decorated with shiny copper lampshades, translucent stone sconces and a curious triptych featuring bodies spattered in red.
A waiter proudly informs us this is “the biggest dining room in the CBD”. That may or may not be so, but the room comfortably seats 150 either at tables or at the 18-metre long bar so, yes, it is quite vast.
Then there’s the chef, Andy Harmer, who arrived here via Vue de Monde, where he spent several years as Shannon Bennett’s right-hand man. You don’t need to fret about whether he can cook.
The third and possibly most compelling asset of Virginia Plain is the Tuesday-night set menu – four courses, with four matching wines, for $75. Given you could pay almost that much for four vinos at any number of city restaurants, the food’s effectively free.
Sort of. My logic’s probably dodgy but I do know great value when I see it.
The first outing here is a weekday lunch. I arrive early, weak from hunger, and rush-order a bowl of smoked-ham macaroni and cheese. It arrives promptly – I’m the only customer at this stage, so the kitchen’s cooking for one – and the comforting bowl of cheesy porky pasta swiftly revives my flagging spirits. There’s some very tame WA truffle in there too that barely distracts from the primary pleasures of mac and cheese.
My date appears bang on time and we settle in to entrées of rabbit terrine – suitably rustic in flavour, served on a board with some blackened sourdough and a pickle of swede and apple – and a salad of crisp Jerusalem artichoke slices camouflaged by a spinney of lettuce leaves. A cep purée and some hazelnuts liven up things a little.
The lunch special, pan-fried bream with a butter and caper sauce, is crisp on top, luscious in the centre and sits on a pool of mash that leans more towards Paris than Melbourne. It’s thoroughly satisfying fish.
The wagyu’s also very good, cooked perfectly medium-rare pink inside with a restrained crust of fat. It comes with a peppy parsley, garlic and butter sauce, a simple cress and fennel salad to one side and some hand-cut chips. Nothing too fancy or Vue de Monde-y – just great ingredients, precise cooking and a sharp sense of what tastes good together.
I head back on a Tuesday night for the special menu, keen to test its value. (There’s a slightly less bounteous offer at other times – four courses without wine for $55, or seven for $89.)
Virginia Plain is livelier at night with mood lighting and music pumping from the seven boom-box speakers riveted to the ceiling. The restaurant’s named after a Roxy Music tune but tonight the playlist is Patti Smith, Kate Bush and Concrete Blonde. Eclectic.
Pig's trotters with black pudding & scallops
The meal begins with a small sack of warm sourdough, crusty outside and soft inside.
The debut dish is announced as “the egg course” – a soft-boiled egg, the saltiness of jamón and fresh parmesan, finely julienned parsnip crisps, a brown-sugar sauce and some picked sorrel. It’s sort of like breakfast, but infinitely better because it comes with wine.
Next is the fish course, a modest triangle of pan-fried cod in a lemon thyme-scented bisque, with the crunch of shaved white and green asparagus. It’s rich with marine flavours, lightly scented with the thyme, but the standout ingredient, if you can call it that, is the wine pairing – an unusual rose-gold blend of vermentino and muscat blend from Sardinia, which pulls the plate into focus and makes every mouthful interesting. If that sounds like wine wank, so be it. As a wine match, it’s a stunner and proof that VP’s drinks list is full of pleasant surprises.
Next up, another winner – a Lua Nova em Vinha Velhas, a blend of more than 20 grapes from Portugal’s Douro region. It arrives with the pork course, a trio of cuts – jowl, neck and ear – served with a “crumble” topping of mixed cereals and some braised broccolini. The juicy jowl is fatty, salty, crunchy in parts and the most flavoursome. The slice of rolled neck is on the dry side, the ear is overcooked. Or over-fried, to be more precise – all crackle and no flavour. Still, the wine’s lovely.
The menu ends with Harmer’s take on banoffee pie, a glutton’s glassful of caramelised banana, rice crispies, caramelised and semifreddo condensed milk, Genoa sponge (génoise), dulce de leche caramel, some milk foam and, as if that’s not enough of a sugar hit, some chocolate on top. The waitress assures us it’s “awesome” and she’s not wrong. A glass of tokay-style sticky from Rutherglen stalwarts Stanton and Killeen ups the sweet stakes. Fittingly, Lust for Life is playing on the boomboxes.
Virginia Plain, 31 Flinders Lane, City
Cuisine \ Modern Australian Chef \ Andy Harmer
Hip pocket \ Terrific bargain on Tuesday nights at $75 for four courses and wines; about $70-$75 a head at other times, with wine extra.
Open \ Mon-Wed 11am-11pm, Thurs-Sat 11am-1am.
Highlights \ The fixed menu, the wine service, some fine food.
Lowlight \ It’s a big space to fill.
Bookings \ Yes.
Phone \ 9290 0400