Syracuse

Philippa Sibley's Snow White, Rose Red rides again.
Philippa Sibley's Snow White, Rose Red rides again. Photo: Paul Jeffers

23 Bank Pl Melbourne, VIC 3000

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Opening hours Mon - Thu 7:00 AM – 11:00 PM, Fri 7:00 AM – 11:30 PM, Sat 6:00 – 11:30 PM, Sun Closed
Features Outdoor seating, Bar, Accepts bookings, Business lunch, Groups, Licensed, Lunch specials, Vegetarian friendly, Breakfast-brunch, Gluten-free options, Romance-first date
Prices Moderate (mains $20-$40)
Chef Philippa Sibley
Seats 80
Payments Diner's Club, eftpos, AMEX, Cash, Visa, Mastercard
Phone 03 9670 1777

It's a tale of double redemption here in the CBD's Bank Place. Our catalyst: Philippa Sibley, the straight-talking queen of tarts, master of Mediterranean flavours and multiple cookbook author, who it appeared for a time we'd misplaced.

Sibley's jumped around a lot in the last few years. But she's first to concede that recent gigs, at Prix Fixe where you bought tickets to four theatrically -themed courses, and before that, Albert Street Food and Wine, a massive operation plus shop, never entirely felt a right fit. Too conceptual, too busy to let her do what she does best.

But at Syracuse, the grandiose lawyer magnet that smacks of handshakes and Champagne, Sibley's found a groove. In the most comically tiny kitchen of her career, owners Richard and Nancy Moussi have given her room to breathe. In return, she's given Syracuse back its edge.

Hapuka with a corn one-two of "fresh" polenta and urchin butter
Hapuka with a corn one-two of "fresh" polenta and urchin butter  Photo: Paul Jeffers

Big things are issuing from that tiny space, wrapped in the humour fans love. Pickled babies? That would be sweetly cured and spice rack-fragrant vegetables with garlicky walnut skordalia that knocks you for six. Other openers are just plain old examples of Sibley's skill at bossing flavour into things. Supple wagyu meatballs bathe in tomato sugo cooked right to the crux of fudgy-rich and bright. Basil butter with yeasty little milk buns is the pure taste of green.

Any self-respecting Sibley fan knows you never miss the soup. That hasn't changed. A silken carrot and chervil lagoon is buckshot with scallops, roasted to golden nuggets, and a marzipan sprinkle of Amaretti crumbs – winter, step aside. Another night, crab shell bisque becomes both a twinkling consomme and a condensed, creamed and Pacojet-whipped ice-cream to top a silk-skinned crab raviolo and beefsteak tomatoes. It's a party of icy hot, ringing clear as a bell of the sea.

Going right now is a trip. The room, grandiose and elegant with its towering structure, rich woods and cunning mirrors that double the space is a blast from the 1990s.  At lunch you're the only one not in a suit. One diner, my new hero, watches a movie on his laptop while dispatching three courses, plus cheese. There's a certain worn-in dagginess with energy bulb lighting glowing green on beige patterned walls, and too numerous wine racks, but it adds to the sense that you've hit some secretive culinary jackpot. 

The grand old room is a little dated, but quickly getting its groove back
The grand old room is a little dated, but quickly getting its groove back Photo: Paul Jeffers

It's not a one-woman salvation. Service is truly excellent from the sommelier/manager, a Momofuku Sydney expat and dab hand. There's the classic touches (glasses primed; tiny tables brought for your decanted wines), but the list is to date, full of local gems and Pennyweight sherries with as many dusty Italian vintages and big house Champagnes as modern highlights such as like the salty, buckwheat-y friulano by Long Island's Channing Daughters.

Back on the plate, bronzed hapuka with a corn one-two of rice polenta ribbed with the fresh stuff, sheets of kernels from the cob, meaty roasted horn peppers and a blast of iced uni butter is neat proof brilliance can look easy. Right here would be the time to pluck a rosy cutlet from your lamb cassoulet, all brightness and al dente beans, and fire away your dessert.

Ice-cream sighs across baked-to-order clafoutis – a custard tart enveloping poached pear. Die-hard fans will recognise Sibley's favourite rose geranium-rhubarb-and-strawberry flavour marriage in a dance that involves her burnt butter frangipane with sorbet polka-dotted ice cream. But who can pass up a Poire belle Helene riff arranged so the curvaceous poached pears look like Kardashian rump? Don't ever change, Philippa Sibley.

The lowdown

Philippa Sibley, Queen of tarts and mindblowing Mediterranean is restoring this grand restaurant to glory

Vibe: Business time

Pro Tip: Plan for flan: dessert's essential, order backwards

Go-to Dish: The rhubarb and burnt butter tart with rose ice cream is all the tricks in one ($16)