Photo: Eddie Jim
SOME restaurants really take you back. Preserve Kitchen acts like a time capsule to the days when the BYO was king and it wasn't yet socially unacceptable to turn up to a restaurant with a six-pack of beer, a chilled bottle of Houghton White Burgundy and two litres of lemonade for the kids.
Happy days. An entire industry would go bust overnight if that kind of thinking were reintroduced - but it sure made dining out a hell of a lot cheaper.
You can get a feel for times gone by at Preserve Kitchen. It's situated at the far reaches of what used to be known as the city's dry area, designed to protect honest, law-abiding citizens from marauding hordes of chardonnay drinkers.
Preserve's BYO-only policy is also a necessity rather than a matter of choice, albeit a short-term one. When liquor licensing comes through with the goods, it will be time to say g'day to a short wine list of mostly local drops with a boutique leaning, although, for some reason, owner-chef Jason Aitken is expecting to defy inflationary pressure and drop the corkage fee a few dollars from its current, very reasonable, $5 a bottle. Until then, it's worth capitalising on the situation and take beer along just for the nostalgia factor alone.
Open for about a year, Preserve Kitchen is a neat little place housed in what used to be neighbourhood stalwart Perrins. It's been tarted up in contemporary bistro style with an all-white interior and shiny dark floorboards, the place lit by trios of bare light bulbs. The only splash of colour is a conical monolith made of pears.
It's tiny - about 30 seats - although a courtyard seating more than 40 is about to be launched and there's an upstairs function room as well. Maybe the small kitchen is taking it as a challenge to pump out a lengthy menu of 12 entrees and 11 mains. It's a surprise when the waitress comes over with her notepad at the ready and recites another four entrees and four mains as the night's specials, although it's difficult not to be suspicious at the reappearance of certain ingredients. Smoked duck and black truffle pappardelle when there's a risotto of the same description on the menu proper? You don't have to be Anthony Bourdain to hear the clang of warning bells that the kitchen might be trying to offload stock as its due date draws near.
While the BYO policy is pure '70s, there's something quite '90s about this place, particularly the menu and its execution but also the music - did I detect David Gray and Lisa Loeb? - and the less-than-triumphant return of the oversized phallic pepper grinder. If you want to season your meal yourself, each table is supplied with shakers containing garden-variety salt and a dusty pepper undeserving of the title. Can't the citizens of Glen Iris be trusted not to nick the good stuff?
The verbose menu - mostly Italian, loosely contemporary Mediterranean with the odd Asian ingredient thrown in - flies in the face of fashionable brevity. Smoked speck - well, it would be, wouldn't it? The rocket is ''wild''. Black truffle paste - an Italian product imported in the jar - gets a healthy run. Extra-virgin olive oil is considered worthy of name-checking but isn't it a given in pasta and bruschetta? Several items are hand-crumbed and why have plain old vegetables when you can have garden vegetables.
A trio of prawns arrives splayed on a thin rectangular white plate, each sitting on a dollop of potato and leek puree and crowned with a chewy ''candied'' piece of jamon. Texturally, it doesn't work for me, and the battle between cold puree and warm prawn doesn't do anything to elevate a curious dish.
The entrees list also contains a nicely chargrilled half-quail - darkly tanned outside and pink within - on a verjuice-spiked salad of shaved fennel with mandarin segments fluffy with pith that look about as appetising as a fur ball. This is kitchen 101 stuff: isn't value-adding the name of the game?
For mains, a Berkshire pork cutlet with a nice tinge of pink in the middle is wrapped in some of that ''smoked'' speck and finished with a thickish golden herby-lemon crumb. It's a decent enough start but a tiny agrodolce squiggle of balsamic on the side of the plate doesn't go anywhere near enough to sharpening some pretty dull flavours in the simple accompaniments of three asparagus spears crowning the top and an underseasoned white-bean puree. Simple Italian food doesn't need to lack excitement.
Trying harder in the sophistication stakes is an earthy risotto of smoked duck with a chewy black rice and a couple of mushroom varieties - enoki and oyster - in a dark, rich base dominated by red wine and black truffle paste. It comes with Preserve's obligatory thicket of microherbs on top and shaved parmesan - the former redundant, the latter not. Overall, not bad, although it would work better as an entree.
Italian meringue is one of the headline acts in a summery-sounding fruit dessert but it proves to be no more Italian than I am. Instead of the expected soft, feathery peaks, it comprises little pellets of a hard, crushed meringue that turn up scattered over strawberries and mandarin segments (again covered in unappetising tufts of pith), with a scoop of decent yoghurt passionfruit sorbet. For $15.50, I would have expected a lot more effort.
The specials list also has a sticky date pudding that turns out to be an upstanding version of the dessert that defined the 1990s. Like other elements at Preserve Kitchen, there's some moderate retro appeal but above all, it makes me anxious to get back to the future.
Food Contemporary Mediterranean
Where 32 High Street, Glen Iris
Phone 9885 4869
Cost Typical entree, $16.50; main, $32; dessert, $15.50
Not licensed (licence pending)
BYO $5 a head
Owner and chef Jason Aitken
Vegetarian Four entrees, one main
Dietary Gluten-free available
Outdoors Yes, street and courtyard
Cards DC AE MC V Eftpos
Hours Tues-Fri and Sun, 11.30am-3pm, 5.30-10pm; Sat, 5.30-10.30pm
- 9885 4869
- Prices - Typical entree, $16.50; main, $32; dessert, $15.50
- Opening Hours - Tues-Fri and Sun, 11.30am-3pm, 5.30-10pm; Sat, 5.30-10.30pm
- Author - Larissa Dubecki