Level 3, Crown Towers, 8 Whiteman Street Southbank, Victoria 3006
When Heston Blumenthal freighted his restaurant to Melbourne from the English village of Bray for a six-month season, demand for seats was managed via a madly oversubscribed online ballot. This, after all, is the bespectacled British chef whose particular brand of geeky kitchen wizardry has crossover appeal.
Almost 90,000 people entered the ballot. Most received an email advising: "Sadly, we were unable to secure a table for you at the Fat Duck Melbourne."
Those of us who failed to win a golden ticket consoled ourselves with how much we'd saved – $525 a head, not including drinks, paid in advance. That's crazy money. Enough for a weekend away. A year's gym membership. 1050 meals for the disadvantaged from food charity FareShare.
But when another email lobbed offering a table at lunch because I'd ticked the ballot's waitlist option, my resolve crumbled and I paid up.
So here I am a month later, watching people jostle to have their photo taken beside the Fat Duck sign as we wait for the overscaled front door to slide open at noon.
We're admitted one table at a time, walking up a darkened hall sloping towards a tiny Alice's Adventures in Wonderland-style door.
Another huge door slides back and we're in a thickly carpeted, light-filled room, where the staff begin their carefully choreographed dance, pulling back purple velvet chairs, settling napkins in laps, moving props.
Because the Fat Duck really is a stage and the diners too are players. We're asked to surrender to a four-and-a-half hour performance, where the 15-course menu has been predetermined (or written around dietary requirements) and the only decision you need to make is what you'll drink.
A sommelier produces a comically huge wine list that cherry-picks Old and New World labels – a run of vintages from Hill of Grace and Mount Mary, Bordeaux grand crus, a smattering of wines from Argentina, Italy, Spain and the United States, and stirs in a solid collection of spirits and fortifieds. If you've already stumped up $525 for the 15-course meal, you'll either blanch at some of the prices or just roll with them.
Before long, a deep purple sphere, little bigger than a cherry, arrives on a turquoise plate. It disappears in a single bite, its texture like a Malteser, its flavour beetroot and horseradish.
And so begins the plunge down Heston's rabbit hole. An aperitif, mixed tableside, is a nitrogen-poached puff of foam that tastes intensely of gin and tonic, or Campari and soda, then evaporates to nothing. Instagram-worthy icy poles come in mind-messing flavours – waldorf salad, salmon and avocado, chicken pate and fig gel. The fabled snail porridge is deliciously clean and grassy, with nubbles of oats beneath the grey gastropods (they don't immediately say "eat me" but just go with it, they're fine).
The table service is warmer and more relaxed than you might expect from a team that's helped the self-taught chef earn three Michelin stars. Most of the staff, who have have been shipped to Australia along with the Berkshire fixtures and fittings, are unflappable, well rehearsed and occasionally cheeky.
When I reach out to touch a gilded fob watch inside a tick-tocking wooden box, the waiter snaps it shut, pretending to chide me. Instead, she lowers the "watch" into a glass teapot, where it dissolves into a clear "mock turtle soup" flecked with gold leaf, to be poured over a lilliputian arrangement of mushrooms, herbs and a mock egg that tastes like parsnip panna cotta.
And having watched Blumenthal's television shows, I enjoyed being in on the joke as I broke the (edible) seal on a (non-edible) envelope and nibbled a paper-thin white chocolate Queen of Hearts playing card.
But if there's one small criticism, it's that all the manipulation makes it hard to judge the quality of individual ingredients.
And so to the $525+ question: was it worth it? It's certainly more expensive than any other restaurant in Victoria, but the cooking is on par with anything I've eaten here and the service is a hospitality masterclass.
Having been through the looking glass, I didn't want my magical Lewis Carroll-inspired adventure to end.
Pro tip Allow at least four-and-a-half hours for the experience
Status Well-oiled machine
Go-to dish Roast marron, shiitake, confit kombu and sea lettuce
How we score
Of 20 points, 10 are awarded for food, five for service, three for ambience, two for wow factor.
12 Reasonable 13 Solid and satisfactory 14 Good 15 Very good 16 Seriously good 17 Great 18 Excellent 19 Outstanding 20 The best of the best