187 Flinders Ln Melbourne, VIC 3000
|Opening hours||Mon-Fri noon-2.30pm and 6pm-10.30pm; Sat 5.30pm-10.30pm|
|Features||Accepts bookings, Business lunch, Degustation, Gluten-free options, Licensed, Long lunch, Private dining, Pre-post-theatre, Romance-first date, Vegetarian friendly|
|Prices||Expensive (mains over $40)|
|Chef||Teage Ezard, Jarrod Di Blasi|
|Payments||Diner's Club, eftpos, AMEX, Cash, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9639 6811|
The pork hock is gone. The sticky, spicy caramelised pig's knuckle that's been an Ezard signature for 16 of the restaurant's 18 years made its last trot to the dining room in December. The hock's departure is symbolic of a shift at this Melbourne fine-dining institution.
Chef and owner Teage Ezard, a modern Australian pioneer, has loosened his hold on the menu and head chef Jarrod Di Blasi (The Age Good Food Guide's 2017 Young Chef of the Year) is pushing through a respectful but determined next-generation version of the Ezard style. It's working.
The menu is more concise and focused, the flavours are refined and the presentation is pretty but purposeful. There's more to come: the restaurant is part-way through a rebrand and refurbishment aimed to make the long basement dining room warmer and more inviting.
The Ezard paradigm has always been a mash-up of contemporary Australia and south-east Asia and particularly the flavour touchpoints of sweet, sour, salty and hot that are key to Thai cuisine. That framework persists but there's now a leaning to Japan rather than Thailand and more subtle layering of flavours instead of tasty jabs and punches.
Seafood is Di Blasi's passion. Kingfish is lightly cured in spiced salt and sugar, laid over wasabi-kissed creme fraiche and topped with a deft onion dressing that's incredibly meaty without overwhelming the smooth, rich fish. Finger lime, puffed rice and herbs round out a sophisticated dish. Lots of chefs cure kingfish, slice it and make it look nice but few consider it so thoughtfully.
Shellfish dumplings have been an Ezard fixture. The current version – scallops mixed with blue eye and a little cream and shaped like tortellini – perch on preserved seaweed in a gleaming soy mirin broth. A complex Sichuan chilli oil and funky smoked, dried scallop add extra dimension without overwhelming the subtle and exquisite dumpling hero.
European flavours (and non-seafood dishes) get a look in. Briefly blanched asparagus lays over smoked buttermilk ricotta and pickled mushrooms; bresaola (cured beef) and dehydrated olives add depth. It's just a salad but it's a salad that stands up, puffs out its chest and lets you know it's there.
Fine-dining meals can flounder when it comes to desserts, not because they aren't good but because they don't always gel with the savoury dishes. Di Blasi wears the pastry chef mantle too and there's a flow from beginning to end. The dark chocolate sphere is intensely, satisfyingly chocolatey while also shot through with spark and lightness. A ball of chilli-spiked chocolate cream is filled with passionfruit gel; it's attended by an ice-cream that's classic Ezard, flavoured with kaffir lime and lemongrass.
By the way, the oyster shooter – another Ezard signature – is still on the menu but it's no longer a wasabi-spiked shot glass of sake and mollusc. It's now an elegant dish served in a Japanese tumbler and you can eat it with a spoon instead of knocking it back like an oyster-loving frat boy. Progress indeed.
Ezard is one of our more expensive restaurants but you can see and taste where your money goes. Service is polished and genuinely hospitable, produce is excellent and every dish is considered (and reconsidered). Word is getting out that the menu is on the march and Ezard regulars may now find themselves sitting next to millennial first-timers Instagramming every morsel. Good. A full restaurant means chefs like Jarrod Di Blasi can spend months working on a sauce or a new way to steam fish or exactly the right seaweed to amp up a broth. Think of your meal as a donation to a fine-dining research and development fund and you'll see that it's money well spent.
Rating: Four stars (out of five)