243 High Street Northcote, VIC 3070
|Opening hours||Fri-Sun noon-4.30pm, 6pm-late; Mon-Thu 6pm-10pm|
|Features||Outdoor seating, Private dining, Bar|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9489 4609|
A decade ago, rebranding restaurants was as taboo as using dating apps or getting Botox. Now everyone's doing it, loud and proud. It can be a bittersweet move. See Nick Stanton's Ramblr on Chapel Street, one of the best houses of creative cooking in the south that will reopen soon as a pizza joint. There again, Andrew McConnell's refresh of Cutler and Co made it one of the best openings of 2017.
And so to Northcote, where Scott Pickett has punched through the wall separating his fine diner (ESP) and bistro to make one flowing resto-bar where the cooking remains tight but the flex and the vibe is turbocharged.
Technically this is his third version of the Estelle. Back in 2011 it was the little restaurant that could, a cutesy pink-and-black-tiled bolthole where Pickett and chef Ryan Flaherty were turning out molecular whizbangery. In 2015 Pickett threw major resources behind the room, but pulled the food back to a style befitting a neighbourhood joint, saving the big plays for the inky, glamorous Estelle by Scott Pickett next door.
Eating at ESP last year, the ship was as tight as ever. Luxe black leather chairs enveloped diners. Oysters came splashed with pine-y botanical vinegar. Wallaby tartare arrived under a cloche swirling with smoke. But more bums were choosing the seats next door (and at Estelle's swaggery new sister, Matilda 159).
Don't cry for ESP. This isn't a reinvention so much as a shuffling of the furniture. All the bits have been thrown in the air, sifted and resorted in a simpler way. The niceties that made this one of the north's special occasion restaurants remain, there's just a bit more flex.
The case is best made via a wagyu bolognese toastie ($14). On the one hand it's one of Melbourne's most OTT bar snacks – a take-no-prisoners assault of animal fats spiked with kimchi and buried in a blizzard of cheese. But just as you start to monster it, out comes a hot towel to maintain decorum. That's the new Estelle: the low brow lifted, the high brow relaxed.
You can eat a la carte in all areas, but a five-course deg is on the cards for $90. The heavyweight drinks list is still at your disposal – as is gun sommelier Fabien Moalic to drive it. The bergamot in an earl grey ice cube nicely embitters a negroni. A $22 red ale and a $44 Meursault from the Coravin can be thrown at your glass if you still want to live it large, now backed by a soundtrack of John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters.
On plate, you're looking at a best-of album from menus past. Kick off with the billowing crunchy clouds of puffed veal tendons you may once have had with French onion dip at Estelle 2.0. Now they ping sweet and smoky with a sugar, dashi and coffee dust.
Do you remember the parmesan cream that once filled pillows as an ESP amuse? It's now a salty, funky sauce (unnecessarily truffled) for cayenne-buttered baby corns, grilled in their husks.
The hand-rolled macaroni, a stayer from 2014, still comes coated in a parmesan froth, but a cacio e pepe twist and fine crisps of pork jowl kick it excellently into 2019.
It has been necessary to bring the two rooms into line via a quick renovation. The old ESP now fills the role of dining room and has had the dark panels stripped back to bricks, and its chairs switched for lighter forest green velvet numbers.
Do these new elements gel with the rough-grained tables, the retained uplit kitchen and artist Chris Boots' halo lights? Not seamlessly. But what matters more is the vibe is back.
One of the great things about reinventions like this is you get the excitement of the new with the benefit of experience. This is one of Pickett's nicest menus yet, cooked by a team who rarely slip. Sardine escabeche layered with bottarga and garlicky-spicy rouille sauce is Pickett's love of full-throttle flavour on a cracker. There's the fatty fun of golden roasty potato cubes electrified by vinegar dust.
The technical skill is still seen in the subtle elegance of spanner crab, picked and mixed with coconut and enfolded by soft waves of rockmelon compressed with kaffir lime kombucha.
Is the dessert better than it was before? Maybe you had just forgotten how good they are here. A spindly tuile resting over fresh raspberries, bright gin sorbet and creme diplomat with the menthol zip of strawberry gum is a perfect refreshing closer after all those luxurious fats.
This is still a restaurant that sweats its thread count, still delivers dishes of classic bones with strong Australian accents, and hopefully the reboot has ensured it can keep doing so for years to come.
Vegetarian Few options, but adjustments on request.
Drinks Excellent cocktails and a fine dining new-old world wine list with accessible options.
Cost Five-course menu $90, entrees $22-$24, mains $26-$39.
Pro Tip: Start in the bar with a drink and that OTT toastie ($14).
Go-to Dish: Raspberry, strawberry gum and creme fraiche ($19).