Duck with five-spice caramel. Photo: Melanie Faith Dove
CHILLI AND SALT. TWO CULINARY pillars brought together at Taxi Dining Room in a devastatingly effective combo that doubles as shorthand for small but subtle changes in its new life. Sprinkled liberally over a nicely sour butter, the house-made sriracha (Thai chilli sauce), dried and mixed with Murray River salt flakes and slathered on warm bread rolls, is pure carb crack (and yes, people have been seen leaving with little plastic bags of the stuff clutched by their sides).
Two years after taking over, long-time second-in-command Tony Twitchett has put his thumbprint on the place. The weight of expectation must have been crushing, especially when Taxi's enviably smooth run of six years with Michael Lambie - that's the equivalent of 50 in chef years - cemented its reputation as a go-to restaurant for the business/marriage proposal/tourist crowd.
A few wobbles were inevitable but the cart is back on track. It's nothing to do with Twitchett slavishly mimicking his former boss (''what would Michael do?'' is not tattooed on his wrist in Hindi script), or divorcing the past (Taxi goes Mexican!). Taxi is still defined by its reputation as an Important Restaurant, its preference for modern, Asian-leaning food, and a wine list that's among the city's best.
Taxi is still defined by its reputation as an Important Restaurant. Photo: Melanie Faith Dove
Yet it's a work in progress, as any restaurant worth its sriracha salt ought to be. The Japanese influence, more pronounced in the past, has receded - there's no Kin San playing sushi-master short-stop as in Lambie's day, although you'll still see dark-glazed plates laden with jewel-like slivers of raw fish ferried about. Twitchett prefers his Asian influences from Thailand and China, and, in another break with the past, the European element mostly steers clear of ''fusion'' territory.
The popular shift to fancified snack food suits Taxi's big-personality menu. There are South Australian Smoky Bay oysters, small and briny-perfect with ponzu soy; scallops with a crunchy nest of kataifi pastry tendrils and a gutsy splodge of smoked chilli mayo. Or two deep red, fat-marbled pieces of raw tuna, earthed by a tangy kombu-flecked, soy-and-onion-powered dressing, like an umami slap in the face.
It's not all chopstick territory. The entrees list has a very likeable pistachio-studded rabbit ballotine, girdled with Serrano ham, partnered with foie gras mousse and bite-sized slices of brioche. Textbook enjoyment. But the Asian stuff is more vividly memorable. There's an East-meets-West steak tartare flavoured with kaffir lime leaf, lemongrass and ginger; it has salted peanuts, more of that powerful, brick-red sriracha, and fried wontons.
The typically big flavours work well; it's a new lease on life for an old stager. And Twitchett gets positively out-there with his Crystal Bay prawns, poached for just a nanosecond so they're still arguably sashimi, with spanner crab muddled together with coconut ice and jellified plum wine. The textures are intriguing; the sweetness deftly answered by wafers of dried kombu.
It's proof that Taxi can do subtle and modern as well as big and brash.
On that note, the regular crowd will be happy to see the return of the signature Sichuan duck, steamed then fried so the skin is crisp, the fat rendered away and the meat tender. A sticky dark molasses of a sauce - mostly palm sugar syrup and five-spice - has its complexity answered by the simplicity of orange segments and an acid-bright salad of pumpkin and daikon strings with the fragrance of Vietnamese mint.
The menu's continental leap-frogging can be a little jarring, although the cooking is fine. A dry-aged bolar blade steak (a flavour-packed cut from the hard-working shoulder muscle), quickly chargrilled, is ladled with a vivid red wine-stained sauce of chicken stock and bones with a flavour that sits underneath the char and blood of the meat.
By contrast, desserts are working harder than they need to - but, then, I'm of the old-fashioned opinion that dessert should be coddling rather than abrasive.
A wafer cone of intensely sour yuzu curd, the same Japanese citrus fruit also made into a jelly, a muesli rubble: the effect at this end of the meal is of being beaten up by a trusted confidante. Berries with a smooth goat's curd sorbet and strawberry syrup offers a better route to the finish.
Taxi's still got it in the looks department, proving design doesn't have to be superseded within a couple of years. The light fittings, like disco-era space junk, are as on-trend as ever, and the furnishings have been ''refreshed'' to keep up with the glamour of steel mesh and wood, the louvred windows and the aerial view of civic life. Refreshed is a good description for the kitchen as well.
Not a clean break by any means, but a confident new step in a (hopefully) long road.
The best bit A show-off place for visitors
The worst bit Desserts need work
Go-to dish Duck with five-spice caramel
Wine list Big in scope, size and price
Vegetarian Two entrees, one main
Value Heading into wince-worthy territory
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) 9654 8808
- Cuisine - Contemporary
- Prices - Typical entree, $24; main, $42; dessert, $20
- Features - Licensed, Wheelchair access, Gluten-free options
- Chef(s) - Tony Twitchett
- Owners - Sovereign Hotel Group
- Cards accepted - AMEX, Diners Club, Mastercard, Visa, EFTPOS
- Opening Hours - Daily, noon-3pm, 6-11pm
- Author - Larissa Dubecki