Photo: Simon Schluter
CURTIS Stone is here, his arrival prompting a tidal wave of head turning as he makes his way to the dining room. A guy who looks like a rock star - or maybe he's just an average Joe with an Afro - is at the bar. A bevy of size-6 lovelies flutter about with drinks in hand, like so many exhortations to diet.
Welcome to The Smith, the end point of civilisation, according to some food cognoscenti; to others just a fun night out.
You don't need 20-20 vision to clock The Smith as an unabashed scenester's paradise. Since opening late last year it has become the latest hangout of the beautiful-people club, south-side chapter. A venue first and foremost, The Smith also houses a restaurant that might have been put together by focus groups. The menu is a slice and dice of the culinary leanings of a city of 4 million people, its Thai-Jap-Viet-Cal-Mex-French melange a powerpoint presentation of Melbourne 2012. It takes the notion of crowd-pleasing to a whole new level.
But I've forgotten the necessary introductions. The Smith is a three-way collaboration: chef Michael Lambie and manager Scott Borg (both former Taxi) and money man George Sykiotis on time off from the Press Club/Made Establishment. What was once horror venue ET's has been gutted and turned into a smart modern pub with the bar at the front and at the back a bright white dining room with entertainment provided by the open kitchen.
Over the past few years I've eaten Lambie's food at Taxi, at Barkers and at Lamaro's. Sometimes he has pleased, other times less so, mostly dependent on the parameters he's playing within. The Smith's glaring absence of parameters could be characterised as the chef on a greatest-hits setting, cherry-picking from a repertoire that has always favoured big, gutsy Asian flavours and taking its pragmatic inspiration from the local dining landscape. What's floated our boats the past 12 months? He has fajitas, he has sushi, he has lup chong this and lime salt that, he has Kewpie wasabi mayonnaise, he has retro English desserts. You have to admire such bald-faced practicality, if a little grudgingly.
Jumping on the frontlash bandwagon works for this audience and the waiters mostly battle their way through all the white noise with reputation intact. The wine list is a broad collection that rises to the challenge of the expansive menu - especially with the addition of 90-millilitre pours and 375-millilitre carafes - although some of the mark-ups would make a hooker blush. Cost aside, if you can't find something to drink here, it's your problem.
The menu offers a mix of dishes that jump oddly between time zones. Going from tempura battered shiso leaves sandwiching a prawn mousse to a Euro bistro classic such as foie gras parfait with a thick yellow hat of fat and toasted brioche is the culinary version of whiplash.
But Thai, Japanese, Vietnamese, Malay and Chinese-inspired flavours all get a run on the dominant Asian side of the menu and as broad-brush stuff goes, it's pretty good. A papaya salad emboldened by a heavy hand on the dried shrimp and discernible outbreaks of palm sugar is the inheritor of one of my favourite food trends of 2011, the one titled ''Melbourne's Thai food finds its mojo''. And although ordering soft-shell crab always makes me think of Einstein's definition of insanity - repeating something and expecting a different result each time - the non-greasy tempura batter helps this enormous critter overcome the species' bilge-water attributes. So do the cucumber pickle ribbons with a silky Asian-style dressing, which find a cross-cultural dialogue with a spicy blush of pink-orange mayo.
The polymorphous extravaganza offers plenty more: a strange tuna tataki, a fat piece of ruby-red meat that impresses visually with its glistening freshness but doesn't follow through with taste. Easy-to-like snapper croquettes topped with bonito-shaded mayonnaise. Or rabbit fajitas grounded by an earthily complex mole, their only sin being the needle-sharp bones hiding in the braised bunny. Ouch.
The Smith is totemic of the whole share-plates, gastropub palaver that we're all familiar with by now, so the menu gives way, eventually, to eight main-sized dishes that could be characterised as shareable. The son-in-law egg - Malaysian, hard-boiled and deep-fried - with a funky chilli jam teams up with a shredded wombok salad, intense lime salt and a wicked pile of sliced red chilli to vie for the attentions of segments of baby chicken poached in masterstock then fried to finish. The slight dryness of the bird aside, it's a dish of real fire.
By contrast, the lamb - pristinely pink-centred slices of chargrilled fillet and a more texturally complex, slow-cooked piece of compressed shoulder - is a lesson in minimalism. Podded edamame provide the only flash of colour; miso gives an eggplant puree sharpness and depth.
Desserts are a microcosm of what's come before. Trendy-as-anything Argentina provides the inspiration for one and although this dulce de leche is more chocolate than caramel, there's a lot to be said for the time-honoured combination of the thick chocolate cream topped with a lighter orange ''foam'' that's more of a sorbet. And the knickerbocker glory, resurrected from the early 20th-century crypt: a big, multi-layered, brilliantly coloured ice-cream sundae in a glass. Oh my. There's no logic to it but The Smith's trademark anti-logic. But what the hell. Dining out doesn't always have to be about chefs following their muse. Sometimes it's just dinner.
Where 213 High Street, Prahran
Phone 9514 2444
Cost Typical smaller dish, $18; larger dish, $36; dessert, $16
Wine list A broad international collection at some big mark-ups
Owners Michael Lambie, Scott Borg and George Sykiotis
Chefs Michael Lambie, Brad Simpson and Zach Cribbes
Vegetarian Two small and two medium dishes
Dietary Plenty of gluten-free
Service Casual but mostly switched on
Value Slightly northwards of fair
Outdoors Small courtyard
Cards AE MC V Eftpos
Hours Daily, noon-3pm, 6pm-late
- 9514 2444
- Prices - Small, $4.50-$13; medium, $16-$20; large, $27-$38; desserts, $5-$23
- Features - Licensed
- Cards accepted - AMEX, Diners Club, Mastercard, Visa, EFTPOS
- Opening Hours - Daily, noon to late
- Author - Larissa Dubecki