Level 3, Crown Towers, Whiteman Street Southbank, Victoria 3006
|Opening hours||Fri-Sat noon-2pm; daily 5.30pm-11pm|
|Features||Accepts bookings, Bar, Business lunch, Degustation, Events, Licensed, Long lunch, Private dining, Views, Wheelchair access|
|Prices||Expensive (mains over $40)|
|Chef||Ashley Palmer-Watts, Evan Moore|
|Payments||Diner's Club, eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9292 5777|
If you've read Heston Blumenthal's book or seen the TV shows in which the UK mega-chef ferrets through the kitchens of kings, you might reasonably except Dinner to involve the man himself tramping up and down an oak table sewing the wings of a swan on a pig.
But no lutes or busty wenches trespass here. No Heston either, except in block letter form out the front of the restaurant.
Be it a letdown or a relief, the fireworks, fogs, bells and whistles of the Fat Duck have mostly – but not entirely – left the building with the royal purple carpets that were like walking through plush sand.
It's all tan banquettes and mossy greens now. Bareback tables, wooden floors and a mesh sheathed mural of fruit. There are David Bromley curios, including a proud cockerel statue, but the room means business. The predominant soundtrack is the exaggerated laughs of people greasing palms.
Historical British food is the schtick but at its heart, this is a contemporary bistro where the background story, in practice, is just a collection of fun facts to read off your menu. And that's just fine.
But if there's no swan-pig, where's the fun? Largely at the bar, if science is what you're after. A rotovap, extractor of essences through small-batch distillation, gets a belting here. There's a crazy Barossa terroir essence-of-clay vodka drink that's pure air-after-rain petrichor in taste. And a Bloody Mary that's been exsanguinated, and arrives clear, all tang and no body for a savoury apero. (Order a good negroni if you think that's a load of bull.)
A couple of showstoppers remain. Even though you've seen the meat fruit everywhere in the five years since Blumenthal opened this restaurant's London twin, you have to be hard of heart not to be impressed by the perfect mandarin impostor – satiny chicken liver parfait encased in citrus gel skin.
But meticulousness is the ace in the hole in this kitchen led by head chef Ashley Palmer-Watts. It's clever bistro food – you can even get steak and chips – with most thrills coming from killer sauce work.
Rice and flesh is essentially a cheesy, saffron risotto by a Hannibal-worthy name, the al dente grains dressed with bites of slow-braised roo tail in sticky little pools of winey liquor. That sticky sauce is a masterpiece – endless Vegemitey depth with a light anise lifeline.
You get that same high-definition, knife-edge balance in the smoked sea broth, which washes around nutty spelt grains and sea succulents in the frumenty, once made with dolphin, here served with charry curls of octopus. It's light and lithe and brilliantly complex.
Is it hard to swallow the prices? A short rib, uniformly tender in a way that suggests water baths and finishing on a grill, is brought to life with another rich, glossy sauce, crumbed nuggets of ox tongue and charred onion, and will set you back $70. A slightly oily braised celery number filled with a parmesan goo and dressed with a flush of shaved pickled beetroot, apple and smoked candied walnuts, like a veg version of marrowbone, is $48.
But if you're here, go large or go home. There's a price-free side of the menu to help. It's actually details like that you're paying for.
Also for some of the best service in Melbourne. That Edwardian breed of care where you suspect if you sloshed wine all over yourself, others would take the blame and possibly give you their pants. There's no robotic rhetoric. A heads up is given on price when discussing wine (predictably good, predictably pricey, non-predictably local). They can take a joke, make a joke, and never drop a stitch while delivering your plates with the synchronised grace of a swim team. High five, team Dinner.
Dessert? It's all about the tipsy cake – brioche nuggets in a skillet of brandy caramel with the pineapple you've been watching turn on spits in the kitchen, although the lamington – chocolate and jam in a cream tomb, coated with coconut, is a cute idea.
To voracious eaters, the tricks – much copied now – can seem quaint. But has N2 Extreme Gelato zapped the thrill from the post-dinner ice cream cones, whipped up in a liquid-nitrogen haze? Not when a fog pours all over your table while great balls of fire singe pigeons outside. That's entertainment.
Vibe: Like this? The service and vibe is closest to the Press Club, 72 Flinders Street, Melbourne.
Pro Tip: The private dining room is Melbourne's new sheriff of showing off.
Go-to Dish: The tipsy cake – brioche basted in brandy caramel with pineapple ($30).