Eat out: Gimlet at Cavendish House

The bones of Cavendish House were built for this kind of glamour.
The bones of Cavendish House were built for this kind of glamour. Photo: Penny Stephens

Oh my Gimlet. Andrew McConnell's latest project was worth waiting for. It's the restaurant every great city needs. The impossibly glamorous backdrop for that scene in the movie where the heart gets broken, the indecent proposal is made, and the politician is blackmailed. Often it's the setting for wealthy parents and adult children to play out their strained relationship.

In reality, of course, everyone here is friends and having a ball, but the point is, Gimlet at Cavendish House has the stature and swagger that if you needed to land a knockout punch cloaked in a velvet glove, you could.

That sounds dramatic but Gimlet is, to the point that it's set up like theatre in the round. Centre-stage is the bar, glassware aglitter. Behind it, the kitchen and its swarm of chefs is partially shielded by frosted glass.

The best seats? Hard to say. A handful of perches lines the bar, and a row of casual tables form the stalls. The inner line of lush U-shaped booths are pretty premium, but then, the dress circle of linen-clad tables on the raised outer tier allows occupants a view of it all. That's something you want in a society restaurant. You're meant to be seen, and you're meant to see who is summoning the $190 caviar service in its antique silver salvers.

Even though this kind of classic design is in vogue, in less practiced hands it often feels like a poor imitation, more Four Seasons Total Landscaping than Four Seasons.

But Cavendish House, the Chicago-esque corner slice of Flinders Lane and Russell Street with its rich mouldings and huge windows (lightly draped in wafty linen), was built for it. The details – custom Thonet chairs, Murano lights and endless antiques – carry the credibility.

Seafood salad starring a Skull Island prawn.
Seafood salad starring a Skull Island prawn. Photo: Penny Stephens

The looks matter, but the good taste is far more than skin deep. The Trader House crack team is here. Shane Lazzo (ex Rockpool) as maitre d'; award-winning sommelier Leanne Altmann on wines, and head chef Allan Eccles, previously at Cutler and Co and part of the launch team at Lesa, working the redwood-fuelled grill.

Would it be stupid to start with anything other than a gimlet at Gimlet? Not when Cameron Parish, a long-timer at the Everleigh, is leading a bar team.

The classics are guaranteed bangers (a martini served with three olives of increasing bitterness that alter the tone of each sip is a nice touch) but originals such as a Marigold Spritz, a golden thing pitching the tropical highs of passionfruit against the bitter will of Cynar and the pungent flowers, are worth investigating.

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That's the story of the menu, too. Eccles' a la carte menu is speckled with classics – a steak, a seafood salad, oysters and that caviar service – but there are the clear Trader House trademarks of veg-worship and confident updates that transform dishes without rocking the foundations of what makes them cook.

It's often the little things – Moonlight Flat oysters iced for a briny pop. Crudite carrots, radishes, and lightly spritzed witlof leaves tucked inside each other, so crisp they almost crackle. These come with a fromage blanc boosted by potent lovage oil, which has the qualities of parsley and celery dialled up to cologne. The bread and butter is predictable excellence.

It is a very mature, elegant menu. No faddish shokupan sandos or Insta-bait (bar, perhaps, the legally mandated cheeseburger and tuna sandwich on the supper menu). The smash hit snacks are the finest little gnocco fritto pillows filled with potent parmesan cream and topped with good bresaola – a crisp explosion of salt and umami gone in a flash.

Grilled asparagusa with buffalo mozzarella and fromage blanc.
Grilled asparagusa with buffalo mozzarella and fromage blanc.  Photo: Penny Stephens

And, while I love the resurgence of prawn cocktails, there's something about having a non-ironic seafood salad of chilled clams and Skull Island prawns poached in a court bouillon, countered with the savoury undertow of fermented tomato and crisp sea herbs, that really puts them at the kids table.

Serious doesn't mean sombre. Or sober. Gimlet has an electric charge, and an even more electric wine list. Altmann's list is the Old-New World collection you might expect, with flexibility, too. A 100ml pour of Jean Defaix Premier Cru chablis ($26) is always going to rock your world, but so is a bracing yet buttery 2016 Dupasquier Jacquere from Savoie or a Riverland vermentino/greco/arinto blend, both at $11 a glass.

I've seen just the tip of the iceberg but it's enough to know how much depth there is. It has the interest not to fade to fad.

The caviar service in antique silverware.
The caviar service in antique silverware. Photo: Penny Stephens

From a wood-fired oven, coals are moved to a grill that gently blisters asparagus to scoop through buffalo mozzarella that is tanged up with mandarin and a little fromage blanc, with pistachios rounding the dish. Even steak is more than steak. A proper portion of wagyu comes with a fragrant sparkle of mountain pepper, a tender leek heart and more of that arresting lovage.

Gimlet was built for another time – pre-pandemic, pre-recession Victoria. If you need an excuse to shake off guilt about dining in such a glamorous way at the end of this year (many won't and shouldn't, but if you do) make it this: Victoria's greatest wound was a loss of skilled hospitality staff.

McConnell's venues have always been Melbourne's own hospitality university and will do a lot of heavy lifting in replenishing that talent. It's really something, watching a big team glide through their paces.

Sorbets of cherry and almond praline.
Sorbets of cherry and almond praline.  Photo: Penny Stephens

It's also really something to have your hair blown back by such straight desserts: summer berries singing their sweet song, doused in a Fontainebleau cheese or a tangy duet of cherry and marzipan-y almond praline gelato with a cherry on top.

But that's always been the Trader House way: not too much, not too little, somehow always just right.

The lowdown

Address Gimlet at Cavendish House, 33 Russell Street, Melbourne, 03 9277 9777, gimlet.melbourne.

Open Tue-Sat noon-1am.

Drinks Excellent cocktails, local craft beers, and a diplomatically pitched wine list you can afford, or break your bank with.

Pro tip Supper is served from 10pm and may be your best bet for landing a seat.

Cost Entrees $23; sides $15; mains $38-$48, whole lobster from the grill $150.

Score Scoring is paused while the industry gets back onto its feet.