226 Coventry Street South Melbourne, Victoria 3205
|Opening hours||Tue-Fri 5.30pm-11pm; Sat 11.30am-2.30pm, 5pm-11pm|
|Features||Accepts bookings, Bar, Licensed, Degustation, Private dining, Vegetarian friendly|
|Prices||Expensive (mains over $40)|
|Payments||eftpos, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9690 0142|
Lessons from Lume: aim high, talk small and think twice about matching tattoos. Before this fine diner even landed in 2015 it was saddled with great expectations. In a now much-quoted interview, then-owners, chefs Shaun Quade and John-Paul Fiechtner, with sommelier Sally Humble, stated goals for inclusion in the World's 50 Best. Cue every hospitality worker in town taking front row seats to watch them try to clear a very high bar.
Back then, ideas at Lume came thick and fast and somewhat unfiltered. There were 15 courses. Snacks of cow's udder. A whole emu fermenting away underground. The music might have been Brian Jonestown Massacre, but dinner was earnest, lasted an age and could feel like a series of experiments on beautiful plates.
Cut to 2017, and you wonder if Lume, now a Quade-only operation, may have been hampered not by too much ambition, but by too many cooks. Where every course once seemed determined to sucker-punch the next, the menu seems to breathe a little more now. It's still a restaurant gunning to knock your socks off with surprise: see their "cheese" course of cauliflower masquerading as camembert, and the sea taco, featuring a crab custard moulded to look like corn. But between them are dishes whose razzle-dazzle comes from drilling ingredients for depth.
You'll find fat curls of Hibachi-grilled squid, bristling in a sauce of carrot that seems simple and is anything but. Stripped to its building blocks, it's carotene intensified and rebuilt with a house-made garum (fermented fish-based sauce, this one is squid) and kaffir lime thrown in at the end. You'll find the same intensification and fermentation play in a sauce of kombu, mushrooms and another garum of abalone liver, bringing wild earth and life to a clean slate of just-set mackerel.
It's the kind of minimum-ingredient, maximum-impact cooking Quade learnt through Dan Hunter when he was at the Royal Mail (and, by proxy, Mugaritz) and everything Quade's long-time supporters back to Biota days, have wanted to see on the plate.
This is still creative and deeply complex cooking, it's just a whole lot easier to eat. Dinner proper kicks off with a clean kill – diced grilled mussel served back in shell with a pop of finger lime and pickled sunflower petals. There might follow a miso-based crust filled with fresh zucchini, rose petals and carrot flowers, dotted with rennet. A last-minute addition of intense onion cream, set to a lewd wobble, gives the impression of a fancy quiche.
In a lot of ways, Lume can still make you wince. The mid-size menu is billed as "an incitation" and the full deg is called "the road" (insert your Cormac McCarthy jokes here, literary nerds) The chefs chanting dish orders in the open kitchen sound almost cultish.
But damned if a bunch of Lume's initiatives haven't paid off. You might have eye-rolled if you heard Quade hired an acting coach for his floor staff, but the service isn't just calm, it's mesmerising. Come early for cocktails and Orlando Marzo, a massive score from Dinner by Heston, will deliver the best restaurant cocktails in town. Rhum agricole gets infused with licorice root and wormwood for a French-Caribbean play on pastis. Yuzu citrifies a whisky highball, but its talons are drawn so there's brightness but minimal assault.
The good drinking times continue at the hand of sommelier Dan Gibson. A Holly's Garden uber brut from the Whitlands sets the pace for a wine match that still goes left field with a yeasty Yamahai sake and a limited edition Maidenii vermouth, which, true to description, tastes like the Australian bush in heat, but it's an astute pairing that's interesting, not "interesting".
If you hold that great cooking has to push you to the edge and sometimes over, rest easy. Quade's signature sea pearl dish is a high stakes tumble through the ocean. Sea succulents and sesame-flavoured sand conceal a raw oyster. It's plated with royal blue scampi roe for salt, a swipe of chilli for heat and an oceanic sorbet in a white chocolate shell. I gagged on it two years ago. It's now one of the most accomplished narrative dishes in town and a neat illustration of Quade's persistence.
Across the board, the challenges are fewer, the highs higher. A neat slab of Great Ocean Road duck is a crisp-skinned wonder given a Peking-style basting and air-drying treatment, with homegrown flavours of melaleuca honey. Dessert is pulled right back to a flouncy freeze-dried meringue dusted in fig leaf, served with miso ice-cream and red fruits to bring you home without a battle.
I still don't love the dry-aged emu, now floating in a broth with abalone and tangy leaves. I still think the marjoram in the crab taco is a soapy step too far. I did 10 courses, not 15, and it was enough. I still think the room, all peachy walls and lovely homewares that would cost $500 on Goop feels like you're dining inside Gwyneth Paltrow's brain. But I can't fault the well-spaced tables, plush pillows and spindly Cutipol cutlery so delicate to hold.
I can't argue that Lume isn't a restaurant growing into its ambitions.
Lume grows into its ambitions
Pro Tip: Come early, or only, for cocktails. Orlando Marzo is a wizard of drink.
Go-to Dish: Carrot and calamari; the Sea Pearl.