1121 High Street Armadale, Victoria 3143
|Opening hours||Lunch Fri-Sat; dinner Tue-Sat|
|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|
Amaru is riveting, fun and delicious, offering a pinnacle dining experience. You'll have time to contemplate its place in contemporary Australian fine dining as you prance through the $250, 14-dish, three-hour-ish tasting menu.
The restaurant opened in 2016 in upscale Armadale, a neighbourhood where auction boards spruik private schools and the number six tram swooshes past Victorian shopfronts. Owned by chef Clinton McIver, the 34-seat venue is nestled among boutique retail outlets.
Sheer curtains create a sense of mystery from the outside and a cosseted feeling once you're sitting in the earthy, modern dining room where well-spaced tables, brushed grey walls and statement artworks create a setting for unhurried luxury.
A sense of calm is emphasised by an open kitchen where chefs engage in small movements with quiet intensity. There's no clashing or clanging.
On the dining floor, accomplished waiters transpose the soft skills of people-reading and the hard skills of plate-carrying and food-and-wine expertise into the applied art of hospitality.
The overwhelming impression is that everything has been considered: from the beautiful, handmade crockery and cool playlist, to the warm bathrooms and, of course, the food and drink, Amaru is a study in intention sparked successfully into action.
But what is intended? The main project is to envelop diners in a special experience, to blur the world outside, to elevate the act of dining. There's showiness in the display of artistry and technical ability, but also generosity: look how much we put into pleasing you!
Meals start with a brace of cutlery-free snacks, including a delicate and disarmingly pretty prawn tart, a sheet of pickled kohlrabi folded like origami to conceal sunflower praline, and a tiny bouquet of leaves tied with fig leather for swiping through preserved roe emulsion. The detail is everything: the leaves, which include sorrel, ice plant and three types of mustard green, are gathered with the poise of ikebana, the arrangement dressed with spritzes of fig leaf vinegar and fig leaf oil, an atomised vinaigrette.
Half the dishes incorporate seafood but, beyond the exquisite qualities of sashimi scallop or gently cooked mosaic of coral trout, there's sensitive and surprising playmaking with texture and temperature, sweetness and brightness, every dish a layered adventure.
Marron seems straightforward – shellfish tail in a bowl – but eating it reveals many facets. The marron is blistered on hot coals, glazed with garum (a house-made, aged fish sauce), then laid over a puree of four types of seaweed that have been charred, smoked and pickled. A sauce poured tableside is made with fermented swede, adding acidity. Pineapple compote brings sunny bite and sweetness.
I love knowing how this dish is knitted together because it says a lot about the way in which Clinton McIver's kitchen team – including talented, young head chef Cam Tay-Yap and sous-chef Jhye Cockram – build menu items seasonally, but also across time as they preserve ingredients. But you can also just eat it: "really bloody tasty" exactly describes it too.
Food is expensive, wages too, and any restaurant that isn't reducing waste is putting money in the bin. Leftover sourdough is turned into miso which is magicked into a buttery, yeasty caramel sauce. It shimmers alongside a brioche dessert that hides kumquat marmalade and Davidson plum in a puck of toast-flavoured, frozen marshmallow. Think jam and bread, but made by angels.
Tackling a tasting menu can feel like being slowly bludgeoned by calories. Amaru's menu is a hefty feed, but a lively one. The careful use of ingredients means some elements – mead, quince, native plum, for example – are repeated in different forms. This shows economy and creativity, but also gives the experience coherence, just as a melodic theme anchors a symphony.
You see it in the interplay of sweet and savoury, too. There are no screeching corners to the dish progression; mushroom even flavours one dessert.
Amaru's wine library spans 450 bottles and roams from quirky to grand; drinks matches from head sommelier Jarryd Menezes are rich and exciting.
There are fun, house-made, non-alcoholic drinks, too: I love the "clarrot", a fermented carrot, blackberry and pepper leaf juice, which makes a stunning pairing for venison, the only meat dish.
It's hard to fault the experience: it's enthused, soulful and satisfying. If fine dining is your cup of clarrot, Amaru nails it.
Vibe: Modern Australian tasting menu in a boutique setting
Go-to dish: Barbecued marron with pickled seaweed, desert lime and fermented swede.
Drinks: Outstanding wine list and great food pairings, including thrilling non-alcoholic options
Cost: $250 ($200 menu available at lunch)
This review was originally published in Good Weekend magazine; Besha Rodell is on leave