243 High St Northcote, VIC 3070
There's only one question I want answered as I head towards ESP – the long-awaited resurrection of the Estelle's formal side, joined at the hip to the original Northcote eatery, which became an upscale neighbourhood bistro this year.
That question is not "what does a million dollars filtered through chef-owner Scott Pickett's brain look like?" (The answer is luxe – rows of spotlit glasses create a functional, twinkling wall feature. Panels of black glass make Christopher Boots' spacey structure of interlocking loops and the surrounding lights seem to hover over the 50-seat dining room of tables and the elevated bar that wraps the open kitchen).
No, my question is, can Scott Pickett read minds? Maybe. Restaurateurs often try to tap into the wants of the dining world. Much as I wanted this week's column to feature tinfoil hats and telepathic wonders, the only psyche being mined here is Pickett's.
This restaurant is personal. The work of a chef who favours all things rich, luxe and showy. And that can be a very good thing. You'll certainly be glad Pickett followed his love of Chedz down the rabbit hole of culinary reimagining – here a cheesy biscuit is piped with parmesan cream and shrouded in a furry cheese jacket. It's a two-bite nostalgia trip for anyone.
More party-snacks-turned-amuse follow. A paper-thin potato chip pillow filled with creamy tarama and crested with faux caviar pearls. There's a salt and vinegar crisp – a raggedy moonscape of fried jerusalem artichoke skin, its craters filled with the vegetable's blitzed heart and dusted with a vinegar powder.
The parade of unapologetic potency continues with a Eurofied Japanese chawan-mushi. The steamed egg custard, set in its bowl (mine a little too vigorously), is dressed with onion as char-edged petals, roasted puree, a few fine crisped rings, and a sweet consomme finished with raw black truffle.
Tasty? You bet. Delicate? Hell no. It's a solid gold palate wrecker. If you're after light and minimal, you might want to adjust your expectations. Pickett has no fear of laying it on with the big, bold and rich.
When he gets it right, dishes sing.
Sushi-grade kingfish is gently grilled then draped in a glistening black cape of agar-set squid ink, all lifted and texturised with lemony puree, a turnip mash and charred puffed rice. Veal cheek is soft and sticky, paired to a macaroni tube and verdant nettles, all napped in a collagen-rich, almost creamy jus.
There can be too many good things. Mud crab caged by shaved cauliflower is belted by golden raisins and vadouvan (that curry spice mix you might associate with your nan's devilled eggs).
Compared to the endless shock factor of fellow aspirational newcomer Lume, you'd almost call this the comfort fine dining, though there's a similar wacky sensibility to sommelier James Dossan's $90 wine match punctuated with the odd gin and sherry. The Luxembourg Bistro expat's pairing of ultra dry Georgian rosé with the crab is a bit of a ghost in the wake of all the onion from the custard, but an '05 Vallana Gattinara from Piedemonte is a brilliantly fresh scythe to the veal's softness.
You undeniably need the cut-through. The lightest thing on the menu is a pre-dessert juice cleanser and a sweet-savoury macadamia cream, bejewelled by a tart gel of native hibiscus flower, rosella, and a shower of lurid sorrel granita.
It's a standout dish, restraint on a plate.
When Pickett began Estelle, the tasting menus were famously cheap. Potent, yet brief. The room and service humble to a fault. It is now a $130 a head experience, minimum seven courses, backed by service so tight it's almost tense. It's no longer a neighbourhood restaurant, but a restaurant-restaurant in a neighbourhood.
Does Northcote want that? Did Pickett read the tea leaves right?
Pro tip For ringside seats, ask for the bar when you book.
Go-to dish The macadamia cream with sorrel granita and rosella gel is the biggest hit of fresh.
Like this? Simon Tarlington is pulling out a whole bag of tricks at Highline above the Railway in Windsor, 29 Chapel Street, Windsor.
How we score
Of 20 points, 10 are awarded for food, five for service, three for ambience, two for wow factor. 12 Reasonable 13 Solid and satisfactory 14 Good 15 Very good 16 Seriously good 17 Great 18 Excellent 19 Outstanding 20 The best of the best