Basement, 141 Flinders Lane Melbourne, Victoria 3000
|Opening hours||L D Daily|
|Features||Accepts bookings, Bar, Gluten-free options, Groups, Licensed, Long lunch, Romance-first date, Vegetarian friendly|
|Prices||Expensive (mains over $40)|
|Payments||eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9650 3155|
Fancy eating some beetle leaves? Me neither. In fact, I thought part of the unwritten restaurant/diner charter was that we paid good money to ensure the kitchen excises them before they reach the plate.
OK, the point is not to mock. Rather to illustrate the theory that a reliable rule of thumb for predicting a restaurant's quality is its spelling. No chef worth his (or her) salt can spell. So the omens for Coda, where the menu has some memorable orthographical contortions of the beetle/betel leaf variety, are very good indeed.
It's nothing you wouldn't expect of a freshly minted hospitality supergroup. Adam D'Sylva - The Age Good Food Guide's young chef of the year in 2008 and alumnus of Longrain and Pearl - has gone out on his own with two other first-time owners, Mykal Bartholomew, from MoVida, and Kate Calder, from Taxi, to open a place that's part bar and part restaurant; part Asian (mostly Vietnamese) and part French.
They've gathered a notable team: sommelier Travis Howe comes via Taxi, pastry chef Rebecca Creighton is from Pearl and you could probably get away with saying, ''Don't I know you from somewhere?'' to a sizeable portion of the floor staff.
Going from those impressive stats, any pundit would say it's the formula for success. Coda's rocking, and as befitting Melbourne's latest ''it'' restaurant, it's hard to get a table. It's definitely worth remembering the tradesman's entrance: arriving early to park on one of 20 or so stools at the high wooden bar. It's just as enjoyable, if you discount the way the bar area - a polished wooden step down from the smallish restaurant proper - quickly fills with noisy after-work drinkers.
The room itself is pretty damn sexy, in an overtly masculine, Gotham City kind of way. In that peculiar paradox of Melbourne style, it goes the industrial/found object route to look artfully cheap when it is probably in fact screamingly expensive. (I'd go so far as to cut out the probably bit; Projects of Imagination, which also designed Trunk, was responsible for the makeover.)
They cleverly exorcised the ghost of Mini, the mod-Greek restaurant that previously occupied the basement space, by distressing the paintwork, giving the floors and tables a high-gloss dark sheen and wrapping what looks like blue plastic chicken wire around bare bulbs hanging from looped cords.
Spelling aside, the menu is a curious document. It's divided into smaller dishes and larger dishes - in itself, hardly unusual - but while D'Sylva's strong, often original, take on Asian flavours is across most of the menu, there's also a minority of classic French things such as snails and terrine. They're not bracketed off from the main carte, either, but scattered through randomly.
You're not going to find too much in the way of crossover but the dish that has deservedly emerged in the early days as Coda's unofficial ''signature'' comes closest in its experimentation to an East-meets-West theme. It's essentially a spring roll ($8.80) filled with a rich seam of bone marrow, some ginger and shiitake. Sprigs of the lemony rice paddy herb stand in for the marrow's traditional Euro bed-partner of parsley. Along with a dipping sauce of lemon juice and white pepper it lends a zesty high note.
A very modern approach to Asian flavours comes in a D'Sylva riff on Thomas Keller's classic dish, oysters and pearls. It's a creation of delicate, seductive layers: pearl tapioca and a champagne-spiked sabayon; a perfect, almost translucent, Coffin Bay scallop; salmon fish roe that mimic the tapioca beneath, and a little nest of rocket shoots ($6).
Elsewhere, you'll find the big, gutsy Thai flavours reminiscent of Longrain, with the aforementioned betel leaves. One version (spanner crab, chilli, galangal and lime, $5) is fresh, the other (prawn mince, ginger and Thai basil, $5) is fried in a tempura batter and comes with a soya vinegar dipping sauce. They're equally memorable.
Possibly it was a bad call to hit the Asian flavours first. No decent steak tartare ($15) deserves such a lukewarm reception but its subtle charms didn't stand a chance when it came after the memorable blackened soy-mirin-sake crust of the quail ($6).
The snails ($12) are the only real disappointment: preserved lemon provides a jarring note to the creamy garlic and thyme sauce and the broad lid of puff pastry has to be prised off to remove the molluscs.
It didn't win me over; unlike the duck liver parfait that arrived in a little glass pot topped with a layer of Madeira jelly with a cute mini house-made loaf of warm brioche and a sweet/tart apple and fennel salad ($16).
There's no playing favourites with mains. The rabbit cassoulet ($29) is a glorious concoction of tender rolled bunny given a nice, slightly vinegary, counterbalance with some al dente beans, while on the other side of the spectrum, the yellow duck curry is a rich, stickily tamarind thing; good but it needs the salad of heart of palm, honeydew melon and mint ($8) to provide the counterpoint.
Creighton's desserts list is short, at this stage anyway. Among a list of five, a classic lemon tart is topped with the mild citrus tang of gooey yuzu marshmallow, while a coconut and tapioca pandan pudding with a grapefruit and pink grapefruit sorbet ($12.80) is refreshing.
The wine list isn't exactly short on value, either. Howe plucked from an excellent list a young viognier with lively acids that perfectly matched the Asian food and was a steal at $32.
The impression left by Coda is of an impeccably pedigreed group (young, yes, but you can bet they'll prove to be industry lifers), who are bursting with enthusiasm over this first baby. As well they might be. It might have been born with the proverbial silver spoon but I reckon Coda would flourish even in the strictest meritocracy.
And if it's this good now, I'm looking forward to seeing how it develops over the next year.