2 Ryan Place Geelong, Victoria 3220
|Opening hours||Tue-Thu 3pm-10pm; Fri-Sat noon-10pm; Sun 11am-4pm|
|Features||Accepts bookings, Wheelchair access, Licensed, Degustation, Gluten-free options, Vegetarian friendly|
|Prices||Expensive (mains over $40)|
|Payments||eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 5222 2266|
Who serves par-cooked potato as a penultimate savoury course? Aaron Turner. And damned if you won't be downing tools and throwing hands in the air. In the hands of the chef who made onion ice-cream a thing at Loam, now shuttered, but winner of The Age Good Food Guide's Regional Restaurant of the Year in 2012, the humble spud is transformed into aglio e olio with extra crunch. Al dente shoelaces are cooked in their own starchy water, and tossed with the infused oil plus crisp-fried discs and flowers of society garlic. Pretty, complex – it's an underdog dish for the ages.
Serious eaters have spent the past two years awaiting the return of Turner's simple-yet-mindblowing combinations that celebrate ingredients for what they are. They've had his Nashville hot chicken to tide them over at the Hot Chicken Project on Little Malop Street.
But it's Turner's innate ability to read flavour, see new possibilities in flavour combinations that are not insane, that's been missed. Fans hoped, but weren't sure, if the easy, natural essence of Loam could translate from an olive grove in Drysdale to the rear of a Bikram studio in Geelong.
They can now exhale.
Igni is not Loam, but some of the best bits are here: wild plums pilfered from verges and weird succulents grown by their dirt guy, Bruce Robinson. The menu this time is a set five or eight courses, but it's still tailored to diners' desires. Loathe poultry? Want to triple down on dessert or only eat things that go with white wines? Discuss, and they'll deliver. Vitally, Turner has got some of the band back together and with Andrew Hamilton acting as hype man and Jo Smith on the wines, you're in for a helluva ride.
Proceed past red-faced Bikramites to Ryan Place, an alley boasting an air of Melbourne-level grit. Inside, Igni is as clean-lined as a thoroughbred with ample bar and kitchen-side seating in a palette that's thematically fire-related: smoky walls, sheer drapes and charcoal chairs meet tables of ashen wood.
Action comes by way of the kitchen and the centrepiece grill – Turner's new toy – and sparkle from bottles of craft spirits including Australia's earthy play for the Campari crowd, Red Okar, here served with tonic for a bracing, barky aperitif. The pastel abstract of a night garden by Ngaio Lenz gives eyeballs somewhere soft to relax.
Turner has lost little energy in his time away from the tweezers. The opening flurry of snacks, if anything, shows a sharpening of skills. Saltbush leaves dusted with freeze-dried vinegar are a school-yard snack with serious sting. There's a single slice of house-cured guanciale; a fine brittle twig of beef jerky, and chicken skin crackling rafting cod roe. Gentler: a chilled mussel in a spinach duvet. Arresting: the fermented green plum that you'll like if you're into the salty-sour funk of Japanese umeboshi.
It's the recognisable catching you gently by surprise that makes Igni so fresh but easy to like. The goose fat-basted beetroot steak, sugars condensed from the grill, combines with thyme and comte-enriched whey with a peppery shroud of nasturtium leaves for a brilliant next-gen version of beets and goat's curd. Freakiness is not Turner's thing. Instead there's barely grilled marron looking like a piece of pop art in a luminous Basque pil pil – butter and fish stock – with two Kosher-style pickle spears.
You wouldn't give up that combination of sweet creamy-textured seafood with its sharp and luxurious pals for love, money, or even another beetroot, but there's serious FOMO to contend with here. The marron shells are charred to enrich chicken broth that will envelop someone else's raw squid. One minute we're feeling smug, maybe even a little superior that we've been deemed staunch enough for the pigeon – a perfect liverish quadrant of breast and crisp leg, tiny claw attached, with a soda pop-like wild plum sauce – until we learn there was also goose.
The cheese course bridge is literally a course. The roquefort crumble and shredded mint concealed beneath a hail of iced Meredith feta is our pick over the mild yellow cheese Turner has had maturing in hay and pig fat for several months, but the latter's a better fit for Tom Shobbrook's dry and nutty salvia.
On wine: matches are excellent, following a similar local ethos as the food without being dogmatic. By chance, our dish progression leads to a red-heavy line-up, which is fine when it runs the gamut from a chilled, cherry-fresh '14 La Amistad to the hefty, eucalyptus of an '08 Vogel shiraz, but take note the kitchen will work to wine preferences if that's your priority.
Dessert might be summer berries with a whey sorbet and fresh little pellets of icy berry juice, and a very oceanic quinoa crisp ice-cream sandwich dusted in seaweed powder.
What makes Igni one of the most comfortable, casual and refined dining experiences we've seen for some time has everything to do with experience. The rolling list of dishes climbs to 30 at weekends, yet the kitchen is almost disturbingly calm, the moves quiet and economical. Service is enthused, professional and self-aware – everything it should be in 2016. Everyone's having fun, and so will you. Brace yourself, Geelong. The world is coming.
Pro tip Staying over? Head to Wai Bo (214 Pakington Street, Geelong West) for yum cha the next day.
Go-to dish The society potato (part of the $100 tasting menu).
Like this? Ex-Attica sous Peter Gunn is bringing his tasting menu restaurant IDES to Smith Street mid-March.