1121 High Street Armadale, Victoria 3143
|Opening hours||Fri-Sat 12.30pm-3.30pm; Tue-Sat 6pm-late|
|Features||Accepts bookings, Degustation, Gluten-free options, Events, Licensed, Lunch specials, Vegetarian friendly, Wheelchair access|
|Prices||Expensive (mains over $40)|
|Payments||eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9822 0144|
Clinton McIver, ex-Vue de Monde sous, punched a hole through the known universe when he decided to flex his fine dining guns on the unsuspecting rollers of Clayton bowlo in 2013. For a short-lived but glorious time it was the place to be.
Perhaps not on par with a Fat Duck seat, but a young chef dropping $50 mini-degustations featuring parsnip ice-cream (that didn't suck) against the unlikely backdrop of veneer tables and pokies? McIver's contemporary dishes looked like a Givenchy frock at a roughneck B and S ball and you were either there or you weren't.
Flash forward to 2016 and High Street Armadale where McIver is back on the radar. This time, he's put it all on black with a degustation-only restaurant charging $120 a head. Add a $150 wine match, and you've officially left forgiving pop-up territory for the "do not mess this up" badlands.
You couldn't accuse McIver of not taking the challenge to heart. The earnestness is apparent from first click of Amaru's website, describing the menu as "sensory and expressive", to your exit where you could potentially be farewelled by the chef.
Ambition is writ large across a fitout that's contemporary Scandi with an Australian accent: wide-set blonde tables meet ochre drapes and an Aboriginal artwork, all set against a brushed concrete shell. The vibe he was going for was "everyone sitting in my living room" and he's succeeded in that it feels like your first serious house.
The trappings – corporate-looking bucket chairs in blue-grey felt and beige pleather and ubiquitous bronze cage candleholders – give the impression of Champagne tastes constrained by a beer budget.
The exception are plates all handmade to spec by Carlton ceramics. It says much that this is where McIver has splurged the most.
It's all about what's on the plate at this start-up where 10 to 13 heavily tweezed dishes are delivered with raging enthusiasm.
You would still call McIver's grilled marron and muntrie berry-strewn menu mod-Oz, even if Redzepi has raised the bar with his abalone schnitzel at Noma, but the luxe and classic execution has more in common with the dishes of McIver's former employers at Vue de Monde or ESP's Scott Pickett.
It's an unrelenting festival of dairy for a start. Native dining for those who want to go hard.
Consider the snacks: a vinegared sebago crisp loaded with fresh-picked crab, compressed plum and frozen macadamia milk; a milk skin-draped dollop of fresh ricotta peppered with sweet raw peas with the bitter heat of rocket oil and garlic flowers; or the charred broccolini spear shrouded in a foot-ripe gruyere froth, slick with rendered bone marrow and a fuzzy jacket of parmesan and snowpea sprouts to stave the richness panic with crunch.
But the skill is there. The produce good.
A few ideas could go back in the oven. Stock-glossed wallaby tail dumplings, made extra sticky with saltbush butter are a gamey work in progress. The brilliant delicacy of a marron tail, gently barbecued on the hibachi grill with a parmesan rind-enriched sunflower seed risotto is murdered by a well-aged sake match that's basically sherry.
But then there's a rich marron shell caramel neutralising astringent muntrie berries. It's a home run, especially when poured over a medley of fresh heirloom tomatoes to make a sweet, umamiful, summery mess for soaking up with a fresh cob of bread.
If influences are still apparent in the chef's cooking – delivering the bread mid-meal is a classic Mark Best move and the pre-dessert, a sweet potato skin taco filled with blood lime mousse recalls Dan Hunter's sweet fried parsnip signature from Brae – he's reflecting the best.
Do you want a full rundown on producers for every dish? Maybe. But gauging each table's interest wouldn't go amiss. On the flip side, wine information is scarce. There's apparently a "sober" as well as the $85 "beverage" pairing before the premium $150 sommelier match. The name and origin of each bottle (a lot of French and German wines and a couple of funky sakes including an unfiltered number that's like drinking fruity rice pudding) is about as much detail as you get with your pour.
The question raised by Amaru is not whether McIver can cook. We know he can. Instead it's: "is this $200 dining?"
Right now, Amaru has a lot to say but it's yet to find its own voice. It's what you might call proto-restaurant, suited to those happy to roll with the punches – and pay – while Amaru finds its groove. You can see the potential. You can certainly taste it in the perfectly pitched dessert of burrata ice-cream, salty olive dust and strawberries, all drizzled in fruity olive oil.
Thankfully, there's a $49 lunch menu to ease you in while time, the great healer, fixes all.
Pro tip: There's a lunch deal for $49.
Go-to dish: The tomatoes in a marron shell and muntrie berry caramel.
Like this? Hit up Scott Pickett's ESP for luxe-classic mod-Oz, 245 High Street, Northcote.