Pullet egg at Saint Crispin in Collingwood. Photo: Wayne Taylor WMT
There are seven chefs crammed into Saint Crispin's tiny open kitchen. It was impossible not to calculate their allotment of personal space. It's certainly squeezy. If they were farm animals PETA would be out front waving placards, but fear not: life on the other side of the bar is downright peachy.
Saint Crispin belongs among the new breed of restaurant. Serious modern food, a hip but not too designer-beholden fit-out, and none of the puffery that turns people off the ordeal known as fine dining.
It takes itself seriously but keeps a sense of humour. It's the sort of place waiters expect a barrage of trainspotter questions about the food. They'd probably be disappointed not to elaborate on the obscure drops on a proudly boutique wine list I'd like to spend serious time getting to know.
Photo: Wayne Taylor WMT
But there's certainly a lot keeping it grounded: the bar, which is also a great spot for eating, with Mountain Goat on tap. Those waiters, who to a man (and a single woman) cloak their professional acumen in a disguise of cheerful informality. And the music, a Gen-X nostalgia mix of Nick Cave, Faith No More and Portishead. Should anyone get out of hand and start talking about terroir, they'll crack out the big guns: 10cc's I'm Not In Love, and the Stranglers' Golden Brown.
It's a chef's-own restaurant double-header, brought to Smith Street by former Press Club head chef Joe Grbac and Scott Pickett. Pickett also co-owns Northcote's wonderful the Estelle (''the Vue de Monde of the middle class'' a pal calls it) and there's plenty of similarity between the two, including the food attitude - a romantic mash-up of an ultra-modern aesthetic and classic French technique - and wallet-friendly prices.
There's a small selection of nibbly things - oysters, some crudites, some charcuterie - but the first thing that really made me slam on the brakes is called, in typically modern menu-ese, ''pullet egg, mushroom, parmesan, goat's curd and black rice''. Translated: a soft poached egg and parmesan sabayon billowing over sauteed mushrooms, blobs of goat's curd and a mushroom sponge on a sticky canvas of black rice with the odd crunchy outbreak of puffed rice and gel cubes of parmesan consomme.
The 'shroom cake is inspired. It looks like sea flotsam and proves a brilliant super-soaker for the earthy/rich flavours that combine into a wonderful savoury whole.
Dish of the year? Very possibly, except for one thing. I don't mean to be cruel but it really does have a face for radio, especially next to its supermodel menu-mates. The duck is almost too pretty, with a confit leg terrine, slices of roasted breast and a liver-pink spat of foie gras parfait surrounded by a rough-and-tumble assortment of Brussels sprout leaves and beetroots of different stripes, a zippy cumquat gel and salted oats. They're familiar flavours, pulled together in a really interesting way.
And if you think duck three ways is good, you ought to try the lamb four ways, including a fabulous mini-piece of braised shoulder with a caul of the sticky-soft, caramelised fat - lamb's riposte to pork crackle. The curious potato crisp puffs riding on the sheep's back deserve their own mention. Ask the waiters - they'll be ready for it. Same goes for any questions about the pan-fried John Dory fillet with its dark and moody anchovy-red wine-balsamic back-up, including red wine-poached octopus and a gel made from the cephalopod's cooking juices. Interesting, which I won't say for side of roasted cauliflower with a heavy hand on the pomegranate molasses, which intrudes like cheap cologne.
They love their vegetables in desserts. No longer revolutionary, but very on-trend. I'm not normally a fan: too often in the eating they're like David Beckham opening his mouth to speak. I have it on good authority, however, that the carrot and star anise number is a pearler, and the Americana riff - salted pecan crumble base with the dark honey tones of maple, a mousse-like pumpkin cream and bits and bobs that include crystallised pumpkin seeds - makes a delicious lot of thematic sense.
I'd happily rant on but for lack of space. At what used to be Cavallero they've made a modest 50-seater that aimed for a good local restaurant and overshot wildly.
The best bit The food, the price, the atmosphere
The worst bit Book a table, now
Go-to dish Pumpkin, pecan, maple and cream cheese
Wine list Smart, interesting, boutique, Euro-leaning
We drank Pepiere Muscadet (Loire, France) $13, glass
Vegetarian One appetiser, one entree, one main
Dietary GF catered for
Noise Yes, but it's not too troublesome
Twitter: @LarissaDubecki or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- 03 9419 2202
- Cuisine - Contemporary
- Prices - Two courses $50; three courses $60; seven courses $120
- Features - Accepts bookings, Wheelchair access, Outdoor seating, Gluten-free options, Vegetarian friendly, Licensed
- Chef(s) - Scott Pickett and Joe Grbac
- Cards accepted - AMEX, Visa, Mastercard, EFTPOS
- Opening Hours - Wed-Sun, 6pm-late; Fri-Sun, noon-3pm
- Author - Larissa Dubecki