Soul food: Allium, nee Livingroom. Photo: Paul Jeffers
Not all those who wander are lost. Sometimes it's just simple bad luck, as in the case of Michael Harrison, a chef who made a name for himself at Prahran's Ice Bar Cafe during its short-lived stab at serious dining, later moving on to South Yarra's similarly short-lived Louie restaurant.
I hated the latter, which folded only two months after Harrison's arrival, but liked the food, especially the tuna tartare with shaved foie gras. It was one of my dishes of last year, and here it is again at Allium Food & Wine - chopped yellowfin tuna punctuated with earthy puffs of wild rice, a sleek Japanesque dressing and a fatty blizzard of the frozen foie gras shaved over the top that does beautiful, supple things to the fish.
As I wrote at the time, his food is not crazy out there, but it has fresh ideas and loads of appeal. I hope he is going to keep the faith at this sweet neighbourhood spot, known until only yesterday as Livingroom.
Coconut broth with chicken, crab, shiitake and crackling. Photo: Paul Jeffers
It's a first for me that a restaurant changes its name in the two weeks between eating and publishing, but apart from the new moniker (''allium'' is Latin for garlic, the owners and Google tell me), the operation remains the same. This, unfortunately, means they have kept the chairs: stern, high-backed numbers with slippery leather seats to which I would gladly take an axe. Otherwise, the dining room, stepped over three gentle gradients, is naturally endowed with the quaint elegance other places spend a fortune emulating.
The Malvern address suggests production values a little higher than some. Smart suburbs produce smart restaurants such as this - places like Koots Salle a Manger in Kooyong and Barca in Armadale - that rely less on faddishness and more on repeat custom. In Allium's case, the attraction extends to wine, with sophisticated choices peppering the 200-strong collection. Not badly priced, either.
The rebirth as Allium was driven by the not unrelated events of Harrison's arrival and a re-evaluation of the six-year-old business against the area's proliferation of smart cafes and august bistros. The food has entered bolder territory than any place called Livingroom could reasonably expect to get away with, although it's wedded to the simplicity of four entrees and mains. The minimalist shock is absorbed by crowd-pleasing snacks, including cheesy fried fingers of smoked eel and kaiserfleisch, slow-cooked and blended into a dish-suffusing ''jam'' that lifts it above a thousand competitors.
Harrison is rather fond of using fruit for acidity. It's his thing, and it works. A powder of dehydrated berries brings a sweet tang to his house-smoked duck ham, and he sparks up a beef tartare with raspberry chips (ever the contrarian, he ditches the fruit at dessert, using balsamic cherry tomatoes and black-olive caramel against a canvas of goat's cheese parfait).
There is a clean, precise entree of crabmeat, poached chicken, shiitake and pork crackling swimming in a flavour-packed chicken and coconut broth that speaks of Harrison's time at Attica, when Ben Shewry was going through his Thai phase; ditto the (slightly overcooked) snapper with the burst of pomelo, salmon roe and fried chicken skin, licked with caramelised palm sugar, lime and tamarind.
All the mains are $35, a mistake, I think. An heirloom tomato salad with smoked soft-boiled egg, amaranth and sweetcorn, lovely though it is, leaves you gasping at the price. A wagyu rump cap is lavished with nothing but a pile of truffle salt and a delicious bruiser of a sherry jus, so it quickly becomes a $44 or even $53 main with the addition of a salad or the ''50/50 mash potato and gravy'' - the classic artery-hardening Robuchon version in witness protection. There is better value in the tasting menus, which go up to six courses for $90, although that relies on diners making the time commitment.
It's a tricky line for the nominally neighbourhood restaurant to walk, and one that Allium will have to fine-tune as it goes.
The service tends towards the perfunctory, rather than bringing any great enthusiasm to the task, but there is obviously someone in the kitchen with oodles of potential. I, for one, hope Harrison's wandering days are over.
The best bit The food is getting interesting.
The worst bit The prices can be off-kilter.
Go-to dish Coconut broth with chicken, crab, shiitake and crackling, $19.
Note: BYO wine Tues-Thurs (corkage $12 a bottle)
- 03 9576 0356
- Cuisine - Contemporary
- Prices - Typical entree, $19; main, $35; dessert, $17
- Features - Licensed, BYO, Gluten-free options, Accepts bookings, Wheelchair access, Outdoor seating
- Chef(s) - Michael Harrison
- Owners - Alan Markham and Carolyn Liem
- Cards accepted - AMEX, Mastercard, Visa, EFTPOS
- Opening Hours - Tues-Sun, 6pm-10pm; Wed-Sun, noon-3pm
- Author - Larissa Dubecki