Pei Modern menu is not some colour-by-numbers affair that ticks off current trends but a bespoke list of delicious ideas that showcases produce, quality and technique.

Pei Modern

16:11:PM 12/04/2012
Kendall Hill

Fanciful: Each dish has a similar surprise quality.
Fanciful: Each dish has a similar surprise quality.
Two things to know about Pei Modern: first, it’s named after I. M. Pei, of the Louvre glass pyramid, whose Manhattan architecture firm had a hand in designing Collins Place. Secondly, this bistro in the Sofitel’s porte cochère is the Melbourne debut for Mark Best, one of Australia’s top chefs.

To put him in context, Best’s Sydney restaurant Marque has been a three-hat sensation for as long as anyone can remember and was named Restaurant of the Year 2012 by Gourmet Traveller. The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list gave Marque its breakthrough award in 2010 and placed it 70th in the world last year. Not bad going for a former spark.

Lately Best is proving talented as a businessman too; his foray into the Paddington (Sydney) pub Four in Hand shows the same civilised attitude to dining and versatility of ideas that’s evident here at Pei Modern.

He doesn’t do fads, so the Pei Modern menu is not some colour-by-numbers affair that ticks off current trends but a bespoke list of delicious ideas that showcases produce, quality and technique.

Even a simple order of oysters defies expectation. Wonderfully briny and juicy, these taste as if they’ve been shucked straight from Blackman Bay in Dunalley, Tasmania, and then served on a jumble of samphire, the seaside succulent whose salty leaves are a natural fit for the molluscs (even though I suspect it’s intended only as decoration. Whatever. I ate it). On the side, slices of sensational wholewheat sourdough made from Best’s 14-year-old culture, smeared with hand-churned butter. Bread, butter, oysters and samphire. All of it brilliant quality, beautifully presented – it’s my new must-have Melbourne starter.

The bistro space and concept are as versatile as the food. Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner, Pei Modern is split into a bar/café on one side with striking curvilinear carpentry that hugs the roof and flows down the wall to end in a slatted banquette. It’s like sitting in an upturned boat or a modish sauna in Finland, though neither would serve bar snacks like this joint. The blackboard selection ranges from brandade croquettes (salty, crunchy cod fritters; don’t miss them) to rabbit rillettes with guindilla peppers and pork “puffs” – same idea as a prawn cracker – dusted with masala powder.

All of which cries out for a worthy drop of wine, and there are plenty of those to be had on a list that takes an engaging amble through European varietals (Spanish godello, Italian pecorino, French pinot blanc) and offers 18 by the glass alongside half-bottle carafes.

The other side of Pei Modern is the restaurant proper, a corporate space well suited to this well-suited end of town, but with industrial cred from exposed ceiling girders and pipes.

A seven-course degustation offers the greatest hits of the menu for what seems a reasonable $80 and I’d totally trust chef Matt Germanchis, ex-MoVida, to give me my money’s worth. But this is one of those rare menus where I want to try everything and I can’t chance leaving the decisions to someone else. It takes me half an hour and a spreadsheet to whittle down the options.

Each dish we order has a similar surprise quality to those oysters, from a bowl of bright-orange carrots, slow cooked to ease out the sugars and matched with supple mussels and fragrant coriander seeds, to (ethically caught) squid julienned into slightly charred and chewy-edged sticks with a savoury green splodge of spinach and anchovy purée, and a scattering of faintly sour fat hen leaves on top.

Main courses don’t falter in imagination or execution either. Roast rabbit with saltbush, sea parsley and wakame is one of the more fanciful surf-and-turf combos you’ll come across in town, the rabbit fillet squared off into tender morsels coloured in the pan and lacquered with their own juices. They’re tumbled with glossy bulbs of Jerusalem artichoke; the various salty leaves season the dish naturally (there’s no salt or pepper on the table) and bring out subtleties in the meat you wouldn’t get with, say, a heavy French sauce.

We’re only slightly less enthusiastic about the wagyu bavette (skirt steak), tattooed with grill marks and dished simply with a plank of roasted beetroot and some charred baby leeks. Only the leeks let us down – they’re more infant than baby and needed more cooking to conquer their chewy fibres.

We’re almost done but there’s still so much I want to eat – crisp pork jowl with radicchio, slow-cooked scotch fillet of lamb, a side of Glenora tomato with bottarga (sadly sold out by the time we get to table).

Our last hurrah is a Sauternes custard with crostoli, a wizard dessert that combines three of my favourite sweet things – crème caramel, sticky wine, and sugar-dusted fried dough. Like everything we try here, it’s a total winner.

Eat this

Pei Modern, 45 Collins Street, City

Cuisine Modern Australian

Chefs Mark Best and Matt Germanchis

Hip pocket About $60 a head, drinks extra

Open Daily 7.30am-1am

Highlights Too many to mention

Lowlights Too few to mention

Bookings Yes

Phone 9654 8545

The Verdict 8/10

Pei Modern on Urbanspoon

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