Trent Jones Dr Cape Schanck, VIC 3939
|Opening hours||Daily 6-10pm|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, AMEX, Cash, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 5950 8038|
I wonder how many chefs envy Josh Pelham right now. Looked at one way, he's got a dream gig, captaining the recently done up RACV Cape Schanck Resort. There's a produce bonanza on his doorstep, a freshly minted dining room, a built-in audience of resort guests, but also, thanks to the peninsula's recently boosted profile, notable scope beyond.
On the other hand, what a terrifying brief. Any restaurateur in Melbourne will tell you how hard it is to lure, train and keep a talented battalion of staff. Try getting enough gun servers when you're 1½ hours down the coast, doing 14 services a week, within spitting distance of two other hot new highfalutin restaurants doing exactly the same? Sheesh.
Then there's the RACV factor. Maybe the acronym reminds you of getting a jumpstart in a ditch, but, founded as an automobile social club in 1903, it's probably Australia's closest semblance to an American country club. There are leisure resorts like Cape Schanck (a modern fortress-like structure, sprouting from a rolling coastal golf course), all across the state. The institution is steeped in history. So are many of its members. Picture then, being Pelham, tasked with satisfying a majority mature crowd but also creating contemporary appeal.
In that respect the one-time Scott Pickett protege, who you may remember last for bashing the pans at ESP (RIP) or setting up George Calombaris' Hellenic Hotel, deserves credit. He's paying dues but also making a little noise at Cape.
For the saltbush dashi broth lovers, Cape has your back. But the safety net is also strong with the elegantly restrained and easily recognisable. Do you want to drink a $20 glass of Loire sancerre, or a Marlborough sauvignon blanc, a St Andrew's Beach pilsner or a Crownie? The choice is there. As is some flex. Two courses are $55, three are $75. A la carte is always an option. Thought has gone into how to make this restaurant work for all the people who might want to use it.
But here's a tip. Make Cape a weekend mission. Possibly a summer one. Strangely, the dining room,
a mix of tan and black scooping chairs, bareback tables, giant bubble globes and a long, glitzy marble bar, seems designed for enjoying the sweeping views over the driving range. You can't see it on winter evenings and it can feel a little cold and RSL without.
When the A team is on (reliably at weekends), service, if not exactly slick, hits its marks and is highly enthused. I can't say the same of weeknights. Missed cues to offer drinks (and then bring them), pour water, clear glasses and advise on dishes makes the fine dining label come quickly unstuck. On a chill night, the open fireplaces remain unlit. Our early arrival sees us sent to the lounge, where we sit for 10 minutes before seeking out service for a drink. Cape has strong leads, but not strong understudies to make the package hum.
The kitchen does good work on Pelham's days off, but a CSI comparison of notes from trip to trip shows it's the weekend shift giving dishes the extra attention they need. Need it they do. Pelham's dishes are either complex or classic, requiring rigorous technique.
The tartare (of course there's one) stars salty, gamey kangaroo offset with sweet jabs of pickled pear, balloons of puffed beef tendon, saltbush and fudgy cured egg yolk. It's a well-conceived tightrope walk between the salty, sweet and rich, which one visit is just slightly off-key. Not so the slippery, supple squid ink raviolo. Filled with smooth, sweet scallop and crab, shrouded beneath frothed bisque, champagne foam and a salty sprinkle of trout roe, it's a buttery, oceanic bowl of comfort, hinging on solid saucework.
Cape is tricky like this: conceptually quite solid, patchy on consistency. Colleagues have raved about a risoni special, light and lovely, that formed the best base for black truffle eaten this year. Their de-boned and stuffed wings straddled the creative and cool and comforting divide. A snapper slicked in electric bright parsley-caper butter was restrained, respectful to fish, textbook. Salad with excellent steak sparkled.
The corn-fed chicken breast is perfectly cooked, the sauce rich and sticky, tarragon-fragrant confit legs deliciously captured in a filo roll, but my charred cos lettuce is chewy and olive green versus my friend's still lightly crisp version another night that made more sense. Do you judge Cape on its best night, or its worst? The price is the same.
Undisputed winner anytime is dessert. With guidance from Pelham, pastry chef Shannon Thirumal is having fun. The flavour wheel spins from spiced pumpkin sorbet to earthy chestnut mousse and caramelised quince.
A goat's cheesecake framed with compressed rhubarb and savoury river mint ice-cream is executed with excitement, precision and care. Every time.
Would that I could say that about the whole of Cape. For now, it's a tale of two restaurants, a wonderful win for the peninsula, sometimes.
Pro Tip: Go at the weekend.
Go-to Dish: Main Ridge goat's cheese cheesecake $19.