Photo: Eddie Jim
THE way we eat is a big topic being fed growth hormones as ideas from the Alice Waters-and-friends fringe seize the mainstream.
Any chef not proclaiming the local origins and heritage value of their beef and beetroot is looking as passe as panna cotta. But as with all movements there are degrees of obnoxiousness. Going out to dinner and having a message rammed down your throat is a one-way ticket to indigestion. It's those taking a more ambient approach treading the path to righteousness.
The Aylesbury, the second restaurant from chef Jesse Gerner and wife Vanessa of Gertrude Street's hip, pocket-sized Anada, is scoring one for the softly-softly ethos. Since opening, Anada has been one of a handful of names that trip off the tongue when the subject is Melbourne tapas, but Gerner has confronted difficult second-restaurant syndrome head-on by spreading its purview beyond the Spanish thing.
The Aylesbury, housed in the red-brick Lonsdale Street digs that used to be Barbagallo's, takes a broader philosophy - obvious influences include his former London employers Moro and the River Cafe - and invokes a pan-European thing steeped in the local and the seasonal and the … well, you know it all by now.
As ever, dear readers, it's a case of caveat emptor. The menu's didacticism is emphasised by a waitress who drops the names of producers, including the Gerners' home vegie patch, but the whole thing stops a few paces short of outright environmental evangelism.
Anyone with a smidgeon of common sense will applaud the water policy. Using the same system that garnered Mark Best headlines in Sydney, the Aylesbury is filtering, carbonating and chilling Melbourne's finest. Yes, it's $5 for a limitless glass of posh tap water (although they'll serve it unadulterated for free), which is eminently better than the carbon footprint and landfill problems of the pre-bottled stuff.
On the subject of H2O, Gerner has also discovered the water bath and isn't afraid to use it. The results aren't as sexless, requiring the minimum amount of dental work, as its detractors argue. The use of sous vide, for instance, in his knockout entree of mackerel enhances the velvety texture of the oily fish, while a quick blowtorch along its back adds that real-cooking, real-taste dimension. It's set among puddles of wicked green gazpacho, with blobs of real caviar along the top, and neither additional flavour is bullied into submission by the under-appreciated fish. It's what you might call an example of beauty and brains coexisting in harmony.
For another example of using sous vide for good not evil, try the lamb ribs, which are finished in the fryer so they're gelatinous as well as crisp, although the Spanish-molecular touch of dehydrated pea gets lost under the big meaty flavour. Or try the legally mandated dude-food contribution: a rabbit burger, amazingly juicy after being cooked sous vide with duck fat, smacked inside a toasted brioche bun with pickled cucumber.
For anyone who remembers Barbagallo's, the Aylesbury is pretty much as it was, though subtle changes mean somehow the long, narrow room, with its terrazzo floor and natural timbers, feels warmer, busier and easier. The two-for-the-price-of-one lease means the fifth floor holds a rooftop bar with skyscraper views and a bit of latter-day Gatsby style, as well as a designated chef putting out a tapas menu that includes the funky house-made morcilla with broad beans.
At ground level it's more complex. Two fat charry prawns with corn puree, crunchy toasted corn, coriander oil and flowers could be basketed as nuevo-Spain. A colourful plate of raw, dehydrated and otherwise adulterated vegetables and flowers channels Michel Bras.
''Pig off-cuts, apple'' is pure nose to tail, with curlicues of pig ear more chewy than crunchy - they owe their deep molasses colour and sweet flavour to Pedro Ximenez - plus a wonderfully flavoured head terrine textured like rillettes and vinegar-sharp slices of poached tongue.
The wine list turns the lack of stylistic cohesion into a strength, with an eclectic bunch of European and local wines, organised under headings of light, medium and heavy. Plenty of interest, and a cracking selection by the glass.
The mains (sorry, share dishes) are simpler than the starters and unpretentious, mostly involving one protein and one veg - although some, dare I say, could have done with a little pretension.
On an earlier visit, the whole fish was a baby snapper too young to be sacrificed to the table. Without muscle tone, soft and mushy and just plain lonely baked under its salt crust with a bit of thyme, the fish was a classic case of elevating process above result.
Whole flounder is a worthy replacement: the firm, sweet flesh benefits from a truckload of butter and landscaping with fat, chewy breadcrumbs. At $39, this is where a good head for share-onomics is needed. Certainly it's big enough for two to split, but to make a meal, you'll need at least a side salad and maybe some of the duck-fat potatoes.
Desserts aren't strong enough to wrench back the attention that always wanders by the end of the meal. There's a little spherified yoghurt blob on a teaspoon accompanying a tower of hazelnut biscuits and honey cream, with elderflower granita and the unexpected surprise of popping candy. If slightly passe novelty is your thing, then maybe …
But for a restaurant so young, the Aylesbury certainly has its head on right and its systems in place. I'd pigeonhole it with the likes of Circa. Not so much geographically concerned, they're guided by the holy trinity of local-seasonal-sustainable (and the fourth Marx brother, fashionable). If you want to get a feel for contemporary eating, stop by.
Where 103 Lonsdale Street, city
Phone 9077 0451
Cost Typical entree, $12; main, $37; dessert, $12
Wine list A worthy, interest-piquing mix of lesser-known European and Australian wines - great choice by the glass (choose from 100ml or 150ml) and a selection of organic and biodynamic wines
Owners Jesse and Vanessa Gerner
Chef Jesse Gerner
Vegetarian Three starters, one main
Dietary Gluten-free available
Parking Street or paid
Outdoors No, but take the lift to the rooftop bar
Cards AE MC V Eftpos
Hours Mon-Fri, noon-3pm;
- 9077 0451
- Cuisine - Spanish
- Prices - Bar $3-$18; small $6-$14; large $30-$38; desserts $7-$14
- Cards accepted - AMEX, Mastercard, Visa, EFTPOS
- Opening Hours - Mon-Fri, noon-3pm; Mon-Sat, 6pm-late (bar Mon-Sat, 3pm-late)
- Author - Larissa Dubecki