Just a few months ago, the closest we could get to restaurant dining arrived in vacuum-sealed plastic. What a joy it is to be back in the city, being looked after by a polished team of hospitality pros at Scott Pickett's new high-end French-ish bistro.
There's a wealth of experience at Chancery Lane, the latest from the Pickett & Co empire, joining Estelle, Matilda, Lupo and most recently Longrain, which the chef rescued from closure last winter.
Pickett must have nerves of steel, gambling on the hope that the CBD will again swarm with office workers, residents and tourists keen to drop a bundle on cocktails and comfort food.
The space in Normanby Chambers has a proven track record. It was formerly Shannon Bennett territory – Vue de Monde, then Bistro Vue, then Iki Jime – and the dining room has been smartly updated in tones of dark grey, inky green and burnished brass, and looks as sleek as a Savile Row suit.
Chancery Lane was once the name for this particular stretch of Little Collins Street in the legal district, and little has been left to chance to make the restaurant a hit.
Chef de cuisine Rob Kabboord has the fine-dining chops to lead the kitchen – his Westgarth bistro Merricote is still missed, and he spent nearly four years at Sydney's top dog Quay.
Sparky staff led by manager Alex Mouzos (also ex-Vue) offer unflappable service that is the right side of casual, not batting an eyelid as one coiffured guest sends a flute of Laurent-Perrier champagne sailing through the air and onto the floor.
The lengthy menu delivers special-occasion decadence and finely tuned French technique, with high-low elements of sophistication and nostalgia.
Almost every table seems to order a version of the lavish seafood platter, which can be split into parts or served as a $360, four-person blowout.
Elevated ceramic bowls glitter with crushed ice, artfully arranged with Merimbula oysters, Apollo Bay crayfish and Hervey Bay scallops. Firm, briny Mooloolaba prawns are peeled and ready to plunge into gin-spiked Marie Rose sauce a bit like your Nan used to make.
There's caviar, of course, available in single gram "bumps" or by the tin (eg: Giaveri beluga, $250) with buckwheat blinis and just-warm fennel sourdough rolls arriving on an endless loop until you say stop. The '80s power lunch is back, baby.
Yet there are surprising moments of subtlety, and two of the most memorable dishes are veg-forward entrees. A temperate tomato consommé is splashed at the table over a bright clutch of Castlemaine heirloom tomatoes – frozen in a sorbet, green, cherry, and roasted – and scattered with tiny croutons. It tastes of everything a tomato should: sour, sweet, tart.
Then a Meredith goat's curd tart lands in pastry as delicate as an egg shell, topped with a bouquet of marrow vegetables pretty like just-picked summer flowers: asparagus, zucchini flower, yellow squash – a love letter to great veg.
There's also plenty of "party food". The grill section runs the carnivorous gamut, with options from almost every animal available for one or two (which could probably feed more).
Pickett dry-ages his own meats out the back of Estelle in Northcote, and his considered cuts include Tasmanian T-bone, Milla's Farm corn-fed duck or grass-fed wagyu, cooked over coals on a Josper oven for a smoky kick.
The poulet au cidre – a traditionally no-frills Normandy-style chicken braise – is given the Rolls Royce treatment, creamy and sweet with apple, onions and fresh herbs and silver-served from a Staub iron pot.
A fleet of side dishes are unashamedly rich, bright carrots glazed in butter, a nest of crunchy pommes frites and mayo, and a scandalously calorific potato tartiflette is baked in cream.
A punchy selection of desserts continues the indulgent theme, with a must-order raspberry baba – Pickett's elegant take on the booze-soaked cake – served with a crown of raspberry cream and berries.
It's rather easy to overdo it at Chancery Lane, in the best possible way. Dining here is akin to strapping yourself in for the business class flight we're not allowed to take, and ordering one of everything.
And why not? After all we've been through, we deserve a treat. There's no better place to scale the heights of restaurant dining as it was BTV (before the virus).
Address Chancery Lane, 430 Little Collins Street, Melbourne, 03 9089 7598, chancerylane.com.au.
Open Tue-Wed, Sat, 6pm-late, Thurs-Fri noon-late.
Drinks A punchy list of cocktails, a largesse of liquor and a well-priced selection of wines from sommelier Hannah Day, offering French gravitas alongside local talent.
Pro tip Order lightly on snacks and seafood if you want to make it to dessert.
Cost Snacks $15; entrees $25; sides $15; mains $38-$115; dessert $17.
Gemima Cody is on leave.