Resurrected: Stokehouse City's interior features fishing nets draped around glass chandeliers. Photo: Eddie Jim
January can be a news director's nightmare but this year's was filled with stories of consequence. There was the fall of Fallujah, shark culling in Western Australia and the further adventures of Grant Hackett - and then along came the fire that burnt Stokehouse to the ground at the tail-end of a Friday night's service.
It was a bit like the Titanic, by all reports, with blithely unconcerned diners wanting to finish their drinks while staff tried to usher them to safety. I half expected expressions of grief on social media to be tempered with schadenfreude over the loss of a celebs' haunt (can the average person mourn a restaurant where mains top $40? Discuss). History, however, decreed it the loss of a Melbourne icon. Strike one for the proposition that the best restaurants can be deeply culturally meaningful.
While the scar on the St Kilda foreshore is filled in and rebuilt - a year is the optimistic prognosis - owners Frank and Sharon van Haandel have tapped their rather grand CBD property in Alfred Place. Comme has been evicted and Stokehouse resurrected using the upstairs/downstairs model that served them so well on Jacka Boulevard.
Go-to dish: Veal tenderloin, fregola and mushroom. Photo: Eddie Jim
Just don't go expecting Stokehouse-by-the-sea. Stokehouse City - the upstairs restaurant, at least - is a different beast, despite a comprehensive salvage operation. Key floorstaff remain the same; it's comforting to know that not only will they materialise exactly when needed but they're also handy in an emergency. Oliver Gould, current Age Good Food Guide Young Chef of the Year, remains in charge of the kitchen and the wine list is as big, interesting and splashy as ever.
Despite all of this, a different mood prevails. It lacks the ebullience that propelled long lunches into dinner service and the almost ribald atmosphere that, post-fire, is only readily found at Cafe di Stasio.
The mood is more fin de siecle glamour than cool beachshack, although deft touches by designer Pascale Gomes-McNabb, who remade the St Kilda icon a few years ago - have transported seaside elan to the corporate den. There are knotted fishing nets now draped brilliantly around the jewel-coloured glass chandeliers, mirrors grabbing shards of reflection (although no ocean views here, alas), and a shabby-chic treatment of the parquet floors that would have sent the erstwhile owner of this glorious space, the late Mietta O'Donnell, into conniptions.
Stokehouse signature: The Bombe. Photo: Rebecca Hallas
Funny that one of Melbourne's most beautiful dining rooms came about by accident. Check it out for design factor alone, although the food - big, brassy interpretations of Mediterranean food- is no slouch.
It's good to see chefs exploring kingfish alternatives for the obligatory crudo. Queensland cobia delivers the same meaty result, although the preparation - the raw fish is dolloped with briny mussel vinaigrette, fat orbs of salmon roe and the fresh sourness of sorrel leaves - is positively understated for a place of such extroverted cooking.
Pork is used as punctuation across the winter menu. Even when it's a headline act - slow-braised hunks are tossed with good ricotta gnocchi and pine mushrooms - there's a bacon jus slinking along for the ride that gives astonishing depth.
Translucent strips of lardo cling to pan-fried Murray cod, infusing smoky richness to the clean flavours (soft cuttlefish; branches of cavolo nero; curls of red pepper - so sparingly modern).
And little flags of crisp guanciale add zing to veal tenderloin with braised veal cheek, a plate busy with fregola and the earthy heft of mushroom puree and truffle jus. It's just about the poshest comfort food I've ever encountered.
Pecan pie, a heavy squelch of a tart, hugs the season beautifully (and the maple syrup ice-cream with it), but after locking spoons with a six-year-old, I have to admit their take on bombe Alaska, with its powerhouse strawberry sorbet, is the jewel in the dessert crown. It's a Stokehouse signature, and yet another example of the van Haandels and their team keeping the ship steady while the restaurant is on its city sabbatical.
Building blowouts notwithstanding, this chapter will be a short one in the Stokehouse story, but a worthy one nonetheless.
The best bit... Stokehouse lives
The worst bit... No ocean views
Go-to dish... Veal tenderloin and braised cheek, fregola, guanciale, mushroom puree and truffle jus, $43.50
- 03 9525 5555
- Cuisine - Mediterranean
- Prices - Typical entree $24.50; main $41.50; dessert $16.50
- Features - Accepts bookings, Licensed, Gluten-free options, Wheelchair access
- Chef(s) - Oliver Gould
- Owners - Frank & Sharon van Haandel
- Cards accepted - AMEX, Mastercard, Visa, EFTPOS
- Opening Hours - Daily noon-3pm; 6-10pm
- Author - Larissa Dubecki