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Going from the steady-but-not-unwieldy crowd at Spoonbill, the newest name for the restaurant at The Olsen Hotel, theres a shortage of one of these elements. Perhaps its 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 Olsens 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.
Gronows 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 hotels edible garden, accessible to guests and neighbours, who are encouraged to plant seeds and nurture them.
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 Olsens 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.
Desserts showcase the chefs classic training and the hotels nature-inspired theme but Gronow gives credit to his wife for the ideas behind the apple delicious. Its 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 hotels name, around town. Thats good marketing, and something that will capture peoples imagination. I think Spoonbill will appeal to it, too.
637 Chapel Street, South YarraCuisine 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. Theres 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.