River level (3 Southgate Avenue) Southbank, Victoria 3006
|Opening hours||Sunday-Friday noon-3pm, daily 5.30pm-9.30pm|
|Features||Licensed, Accepts bookings, Outdoor seating, Views|
|Prices||Expensive (mains over $40)|
|Payments||eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9699 4600|
Good news from the south. MONA is a tractor beam drawing art appreciators from the mainland, Garagistes has been the most buzzworthy restaurant in the land, and Matthew Evans in Gourmet Farmer guise provides a new Dreaming for the rat-race disenfranchised. But you don't have to hop on the Spirit of Tasmania to commune with the spirit of Tasmania. The 50-odd Tassie producers putting the fuel into the Pure South engine are reason alone to give thanks for the lump of rock on the other side of Bass Strait.
Pure South opened in 2004 as a champion of mostly small producers from King Island, Flinders Island and Tasmania. The novelty wore off the concept thanks to a maturing debate on provenance rather than any wearying of the philosophy. Housed on the Southbank riverside, Pure South could have devolved into tourist-pleasing gimmickry and $10 baseball caps - and to be honest, the comfortable dining room with only a few artworks hinting at the geographical relationship could do with an update. But it's otherwise held the course to enter middle age in good nick thanks to a handful of well-credentialed chefs who have come and gone.
And thus to the latest recruit, Ashley Davis, a Sunshine lad who for the past eight years has been chasing the Michelin dream and guided London restaurant Helene Darroze from one to two stars. You can't blame Pure South for spinning the story in the name of PR, but Michelin is a double-edged sword. I went to Pure South anticipating one thing - extant ambition, maybe with an edge of fussiness - and encountered instead a calm performance that lets the ingredients do the talking.
There are few finer words in the English language than ''new season asparagus'' - especially when a bunch is splayed on glazed pottery on top of a creamy blanket of eggy gribiche with thin slices of brioche crouton on the side. The pork belly entree is another naked thing - two crisp porcine lozenges from Winnaleah on a plate speckled with green lentils and shallot and a sweetly agreeable swipe of granny smith puree. We're a long way from fuss.
Each of the dishes takes the concept as a jumping-off point rather than a commandment. The star is Tasmanian, the support cast maybe so. The yellowfin tuna makes a lush entree: a tartare of the fish circled by a turmeric-yellow froth with notes of kaffir lime, lemongrass, ginger and coriander, with cauliflower puree and a subtle rubble of raw florets. Despite the fish being sidelined a little it's a great dish.
Like the food menu, the wine list base-jumps off the Tasmanian concept. The state's riesling and sauv blanc, chardonnay and pinot noir are represented in depth although it knows when to head to warmer climes on the mainland and overseas.
It's easy to stick with the theme with a Rumney Cloud pinot noir from the Derwent Valley for the Flinders Island wallaby. It's the environmentally friendly venison: the prime leg cut smooth as butter, the tail meat braised into sticky deliciousness, a star anise jus and sloe berry gin giving it a Continental spin along with braised red cabbage and sweet potato puree. It's Sunday lunch done by your Germanic chef grandmother.
A crisp-skinned piece of roasted Huon salmon anchors a clever, modernised bouillabaisse with fried potato skins and al dente fennel. There's beauty in a broth that speaks of shellfish heads and fish bones being tortured under low heat for hours.
Dessert is more of a north-south co-production. A custardy cheesecake with a granola spin on the traditional biscuit base and fruit that needs a tourist visa to travel so far from the equator. It's a good finish with a good story: the Red Cow cream cheese comes from a small family outfit that fled Victoria's drought for the reliable lushness of Tasmania's north-west coast.
My date at Pure South - let's call her ''sis'' - also bought a house in Tassie as an insurance against environmental Armageddon. I reckon she's right on the money, even if we aren't assaulted by the big dry. Because Tassie's great. It's Australia's exciting food frontier. Our breadbasket of the south. And you can eat damned well there, even if you're in Melbourne.
The best bit: The produce - Tassie's finest
The worst bit: The room's a bit dated
Go-to dish: Roast Huon salmon with Marseille-style fish soup, crisp potato skins, fennel, rouille, $34.90