Go to dish: Duck breast with candied milk skin. Photo: Eddie Jim
If Melbourne's dining scene can often feel like a humidicrib - all cloistered and insular and full of hot air - each March a fresh breeze blows through with the international chefs arriving for the food festival like a team of independent auditors. This year, the favoured hang-outs were the typical collection of buzzy new places (Tonka) and beloved old stalwarts (Dainty Sichuan), but Brooks, at six months of age neither buzzy-new nor old, was the name that kept popping up.
A couple of festival guests were so enamoured they blew off a reservation at a Fitzroy hot spot to return on their final night. After eating there for the first time two weeks ago, I understand why. Brooks has a rare synergy of kitchen, bar and floor. It's very much the product of the personalities who run it; by extension, I can see why visitors would embrace it as the quintessential Melbourne restaurant. There's something about it that makes me inexplicably proud.
The backstory is an unlikely melding of two businesses at spiritual loggerheads: Gerald's Bar, the Rathdowne Street sinkhole where noble intentions go to die, and high-minded former Carlton restaurant Embrasse. In the Collins Street basement that once housed the Kitchen Cat, Fifteen and MoMo, the eccentric combination of Gerald Diffey, Mario di Ienno and Embrasse's Nic Poelaert has created a bar-restaurant with an old-school spring in its step.
Brooks has a rare synergy of kitchen, bar and floor. Photo: Eddie Jim
Restaurants in basements can struggle for air but Brooks creates its own world with an arresting mix of bachelor-pad frivolity and serious intent. How many places open these days with double-clothed tables? It's a seriously retro move with any stuffiness excised by the seriously retro vinyl collection and a bar crowd that doubles as a pressure valve on the dining area.
The quirky mix of the sober and the eccentric extends to the decor - modern artwork rubs shoulders with swinging-'60s clusters of silver globe terrariums - and to the staff, the personable brand of professional crew any restaurateur would kill to have on their team. Then there's the wine list from sommelier Matt Brooke that sashays across the globe with some pretty interesting stops along the way. Combined with a commitment to going by the glass, it has an undertow that's dangerous.
Poelaert, of all chefs, deserves an open kitchen. His food is labour-intensive, meticulous, pretty and, if all that sounds terribly off-putting, really delicious.
It's recognisable from Embrasse but more joyful and not as ascetic, although still packed with culinary curios such as the bee pollen and one-bite Mexican cucumbers that figure in the meli, a dreamy assembly of vegetables, flowers, herbs and purees that are like pure flavour suspended in jewel-bright globules.
It's pure foodie-bait, just like the fat, unwieldy slate slabs the table near us scraped at awkwardly. I don't think they had a problem with the pan-fried lamb sweetbreads, an extroverted display crowned in snappity strings of fried sweet potato, humming with the intense collusion of smoked maple syrup and powerful dabs of cherry puree.
Kingfish is basted in smoked clam butter, topped with a briny clam and pickled onion, and given two sauces: viscous honey and sherry vinegar, and a milky, coddling whiteness infused by smoked eel. Poelaert's a member of the foraging crew, and the tart explosion of beautyberries adds an unexpected frisson.
Milk skin is one of the dubious pleasures of modernist cuisine - frankly I'd be glad to never see it again - but the kitchen strikes a blow for originality by dipping it in sugar syrup, frying it and partnering the translucent shard with a pink-perfect duck breast, fried quinoa, carrot puree and a few blueberries. It's utterly fabulous.
And there's dramatic flair in hay-roasted wagyu beef rump, shockingly pink inside a black forest of tissue-thin leaves made from potato and bamboo charcoal. Crazy stuff. There's more going on, but all I'll say is: order it. It's deliciously intriguing.
There are old friends from Embrasse. Roast chicken for two - the ultimate farmhouse-style chook. Aligot, the ultra-cheesy mash that could stop a heart at 20 paces. And the forest-floor dessert, which will be an albatross around Poelaert's neck forevermore but happily so. A landscaped confection of hazelnut parfait and meringue, ganache and tuille, granita and crumbs, it's the pastry chef's craft rolled into a single dish.
How to sum up Brooks? Embrasse with a bastard spirit? Gerald's goes legit? Or just a fabulous Melbourne newcomer where credibility meets class? You decide.
The best bit It's the complete package
The worst bit Slate plates
Go-to dish Duck breast with candied milk skin
Wine list A vigorous mix of Old and New World with plenty of curios, and a great selection by the glass
Vegetarian Two a la carte dishes; five-course vegetarian degustation menu also available
Service Unstuffy and faultless
Noise Mid-range decibels
Parking Street or paid
How we score
Of 20 points, 10 are awarded for food, five for service, three for ambience, two for wow factor.
12 Reasonable 13 Good if not great 14 Solid and enjoyable 15 Very good 16 Capable of greatness 17 Special 18 Exceptional 19 Extraordinary 20 Perfection
Restaurants are reviewed again for The Age Good Food Guide and scores may vary.
- 03 9001 8755
- Cuisine - Contemporary
- Prices - Typical entree, $18; main, $28; dessert, $18
- Features - Licensed, Gluten-free options
- Chef(s) - Nicolas Poelaert
- Owners - Gerald Diffey, Mario di Ienno and Nicolas Poelaert
- Cards accepted - AMEX, Mastercard, Visa
- Opening Hours - Mon-Fri, 11.30am-late;Sat, 4pm-late
- Author - Larissa Dubecki