Good form: The leather booths in the restaurant. Photo: Eddie Jim
It's not easy being Greek. All those pigeonholes: the tavernas, the plate smashing, the endless lamb on a spit. George Calombaris has done a great job of upending cliches. The Athenian exemplar of who dares wins, he's turned them into the foundation of a successful restaurant empire.
But take everything you know about Hellenic Republic and Gazi and Jimmy Grants and forget it, because on Flinders Street, behind the most annoyingly hard to find entrance since Yu-u, hides the new Press Club, downsized to 10 tables and upscaled into the very now-est definition of fine dining.
It's a restaurant from a chef who, despite knowing the sweet spot is volume, has ambition still to satisfy. Underneath the cocktail hour glamour and impeccable service, Press Club pulses with the raw need to get back at the top of the game.
Corn, octopus and walnut mezethes are thematically brilliant. Photo: Eddie Jim
Do you remember his work at Reserve, the local outpost of the then-prevailing molecular theocracy? Like any conceptual artist gone mainstream, Calombaris remembers a trick or two. His opening salvo, a mini-Hills Hoist pegged with dehydrated vegetable chips'n'dips, cutely complies with the modern degustation's brief to entertain. The follow-up mezethes - baby corn cooked in chicken fat with a crunchy blitz of tarama (cod roe) and popcorn; skewered octopus with dried vine leaf and fried quinoa; an amazingly lifelike walnut shell (made from walnuts and sesame seed, apparently) harbouring a lava of blue cheese - are thematically brilliant. With them comes the saganaki martini on a comeback tour from Press Club mark one, a refreshing little number that starts with basil snipped at the table and a fizzling dash of liquid nitrogen.
It's the story of the Greek diaspora, no less epic for being done in food form. Even the fitout - think 1970s P&O cocktail lounge, all sexy curves and beige leather booths - talks obliquely to the Greeks' seafaring history, although it's more Aristotle Onassis than postwar migrant ship.
It tries to achieve so much but Press Club, for me, falls short. I applaud its vision, its bravery, and its humour. Yet despite the exemplary cooking, the food can want for proportion, elegance and coherence.
Avgolemono with abalone. Photo: Eddie Jim
I did like the take on horiatiki - Greek salad - with a glutinous mattress of soaked basil seeds and blindingly fresh cow's cheese; simultaneously like Greek salad yet unlike it. Seared calamari with a block of verjuice-soaked compressed watermelon is more left field - interesting, but not a combination I'm itching to try again.
Avgolemono, the ''lemon-egg'' chicken soup, is executed with seared abalone, chicken consomme noodles (set with a gelling agent) and egg white ''pearls'', none of which obscure the rustic heart of the dish. Delicious, although its take-no-prisoners palate whack leaves little room to move at the meal's halfway mark. For the non-Herculean of appetite five courses, at $145, are the wiser option. Eight courses are $190.
Next up, marron tail tossed in tarama butter on crisp sprouted lentils with a buttery biscuit of caramelised creme fraiche; the warm, lushly creamy cauliflower puree sits uncomfortably with cold pickled cucumber and enoki mushrooms. Then quail: a glossy breast and thigh and baby mushrooms cooked in vincotto. They're outshone by the master stroke of sunflower seeds braised in a salty shimmer of stock to mimic kritharaki, Greece's rice-like pasta.
Calombaris' meta-moussaka is confounding: a brutish bit of lamb neck, cooked at a super-low temperature for a super-long time (hint: the dish is called ''lamb 48/moussaka''), eggplant crowned with peanut brittle, fried onion rings, roughly chopped spring onions and delicate dabs of almond cream topped with tiny flowers. I'm all at sea. The modern grain salad with it is excellent.
Dessert is smashing. No, really: ''smashing plates'', the menu calls it, with a disc of meringue to whack your way through to the berries, granita and fried brioche hiding underneath.
It's food with big entertainment values - and I haven't even mentioned the ''half-time orange'', a cuter-than-cute pre-dessert, or the potato croquette with coffee grounds (sort of like stifado but sort of … not). A meal at Press Club is far from dull, although it lacks the balletic poise of the best tasting menus and could really do with some pruning of good ideas from bad. It's the first rule of showmanship: leave 'em wanting more. It certainly has its share of highlights, but the new Press Club left me wanting less.
The best bit It's fun
The worst bit Too much time between courses
Go-to dish Avgolemono with abalone
- 03 9677 9677
- Cuisine - Contemporary, Greek
- Prices - 5 courses $145; 8 courses $190
- Features - Accepts bookings, Licensed, Vegetarian friendly, Gluten-free options, Wheelchair access
- Chef(s) - George Calombaris and Luke Croston
- Owners - Made Establishment Pty Ltd
- Cards accepted - AMEX, Mastercard, Visa, EFTPOS
- Opening Hours - Mon-Fri, noon-2pm and 6.30-10pm
- Author - Larissa Dubecki