525 Collins Street Melbourne, Victoria 3000
MOLECULAR gastronomy has become the fusion food of the era, a once popular cooking style that, having plunged in fashionability, no longer dares speak its name. The excesses of this cooking style - a blend of science and culinary craft that lives to surprise - and the number of chefs who fell in love with its dusts, smears, foams, airs, dirts, soils and pollens without really understanding how to properly use them has seen it become something of a pariah, with even its original and best-known proponents (elBulli's Ferran Adria) distancing themselves from the term.
And so it seems to be at Hare & Grace, the city tavern headed by Raymond Capaldi, one of this city's most recognised practitioners of molecular gastronomy.
Granted, Capaldi's menu at his latest venue is simpler and less MG-centric than at his previous restaurant, Fenix, in Richmond.
There are no liquid nitrogen-poached palate-cleansers to have you puffing steam from your nostrils before the entrees arrive but you'll still find basil chlorophyll and aloe vera jelly, tahini custard and several flavours of dust in the mix (including a walnut dust sprinkled over and about the whipped butter that accompanies the bread).
But at the same time, Hare & Grace touts itself as focusing on ''seasonal, simply prepared food done with an edge and style''. Not a whisper of MG. So what's really going on here?
For starters, it should be said that one of the main things going on is some excellent cooking, particularly now that Capaldi is full-time in the kitchen after the recent departure of his second-in-charge, Daniel Schelbert.
You could beg to differ that it's ''simply prepared'' but the yabby ''sandwich'' entree ($22) is an absolute riot of flavours and textures, and it looks the bees' knees, too. Sitting on a thin, fried slice of brioche, is a tumble of poached yabby tails, peeled cucumber slices, full-flavoured cherry tomatoes, broad beans and a pale-orange, bold crustacean-flavoured mayonnaise that teetered on the edge of being too sweet. There are also chickpea leaves, tiny borage flowers and a pale-pink pile of yabby and prawn ''dust'', soft-textured and gentle-flavoured, made by mixing crustacean oil with maltodextrin powder. It's a colourful, pretty dish with plenty happening, none of it seeming superfluous.
It's also a dish that would look right at home in a fine-dining setting but at Hare & Grace, in the former New York Tavern at the Rialto, the dial is set firmly to quirky rustic, starting with herbs and vegetables growing in raised beds at the entrance and continuing through to exposed bluestone in the dining room.
The most obvious design feature is the forest of Joost-designed bare tree branches hanging (sometimes swaying) upside-down from the wood-lined pitched ceiling, giving the room a slightly spooky-fairytale look.
They could also be interpreted as tree roots, which, given that H&G's logo is the silhouette of a Beatrix Potter-style hare, might mean you're supposed to be in the underground burrow of said civilised hare.
It's certainly cosy with carpet, upholstered wooden armchairs, friendly lighting and old-school illustrations of animals (pig, sheep, rabbit) adorning the walls. Tables are made from polished packing-crate wood and candles flicker in brown glass jars. There's also a bar with a separate menu (schnitzel, carbonara, steak), further pitching the feeling at relaxed and casual.
There's a similar feel to the wine list, an admirably short, two-page affair that's interested in offering you variety without dazzling you with multiple vintages or credit-card-pulverising labels. The service toes the same line, unfailingly affable but a little short on details when the next artfully plated multi-ingredient dish arrives.
There might be a thoroughly enjoyable reinterpretation of cauliflower cheese ($16), a beautifully textured dish that includes creamed cauliflower, crisp breadcrumbs, little ''gnocchi'' (Comte cheese whey mixed with kuzu powder before being piped into iced water to form soft cheesy globules that look like baby mozzarella), all topped with dehydrated cauliflower florets.
Less complicated was the slow-braised beef cheek ($38), tender and robust with a traditional dark crust and nicely teamed with a superb caper and cream puree, soft marrow, a slice of subtly herbaceous poached tongue and a grilled celery heart, all topped with pale-green celery leaves.
There's chicken ($35), too, slow-roasted for juiciness and then pan-fried to give the skin some crunch, sharing a plate with a crumbed and fried chicken shank, some super-soft carrots and pureed sweetcorn. There are also gingerbread crumbs which over-complicate things and are at odds with the other ingredients, particularly the corn.
Excellent sides, include a salad of tart, under-ripe peaches, cucumber, aloe vera jelly and bitter orange oil ($10), a refreshing little number, despite the odds.
Desserts stay on course and are pretty, whimsical things. Blackberry trifle ($18), a deconstructed version of the species with berries and flowers sitting on sponge macerated with sherry and rum, cosies up to a slightly odd but successful tahini custard, while a frozen chocolate mousse bar ($16) coated in chocolate shared a plate with a gorgeous Pedro Ximenez jelly that looked like a chunk of amber unearthed from a chocolate soil.
Compared with Capaldi ventures from yesteryear, Hare & Grace showcases the chef cooking in restrained mode and the food is better for it. There are moments when the ''dust'' and ''soil'' flourishes seem unnecessary - a sort of cartwheeling when it would be better just to walk - and the refined presentation appears at odds with the homey space in which it's served but that doesn't hide the fact there are really good flavours to be had at prices that, for the level of skill involved, are absolutely reasonable.
There are certainly elements of molecular gastronomy at Hare & Grace but don't let that put you off. Chef Capaldi, for the most part, seems to have moved on, too.