|Opening hours||Lunch Thu-Fri noon-3pm; dinner daily from 6pm|
|Features||Licensed, Bar, Accommodation, Business lunch|
|Prices||Expensive (mains over $40)|
|Payments||eftpos, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9116 8888|
No wonder there's a staff shortage. Within the past few months alone, Melbourne has taken delivery of five major new lifestyle hotels, each jam-packed with bold designs, interactive experiences and competitive mini bars. Between the glam new Hilton in the 1930s Equity Chambers site on Little Queen Street, the Quincy, the Lancemore, W Melbourne, and Next Hotel at 80 Collins (plus South Yarra's Ovolo a little further afield and the still-to-open Ritz-Carlton), there are well in excess of 1000 brand new rooms, suites and penthouses all vying for the same domestic dollars.
To make matters spicier still, all are banking on restaurants and bars they hope will become destinations in their own right. The W has summoned the might of Coda chef Adam D'Sylva for Lollo. The Ovolo has just this week opened Lona Misa, an entirely vegetarian restaurant uniting vegan superstar Shannon Martinez and chef Ian Curley. And then there's Luci, the Hilton's heroine, filling the grand hall of the hotel's heritage-listed premises.
That address matters, placing Luci in the heart of the legal district and blessing it with a helluva bone structure. Designers Bates Smart worked in consultation with archaeologists and architects to carry out a modern-restoration. The old caramel wood panels, infused with the smell of old money, were sent away to be retouched, and the original elevators have been restored to their glory. But a crisp white paint job on the soaring pillars in the great hall that Luci fills, combined with its glowing rectangular light fixtures, and a flush of velvet seats and banquettes, give the space just enough of a now edge.
This Hilton is not trying to play in the same irreverent space as the W or Next, where pools double as nightclubs. It is celebrating nostalgia, sophistication and old-world grandeur.
This is the brief executive chef Sam Moore was given for Luci and its sister, the Douglas Bar – not an easy one in a town now blessed with Gimlet and Chancery Lane. That bar, a dark saloon located in the hotel's entrance is possibly a secret weapon in a part of town that thirsts for a sharp cocktail program. Bartender Gee Shanmugam is formerly of Prahran's excellent Galah, and his twists on golden era cocktails are well resolved in elegant glassware.
They're also solidly backed by wagyu-based charcuterie, cheeses (Australian and French stars), and bites such as creamy spanner crab housed in extra short pastry cups beneath neat scales of apple, and tiny hand-piped parmesan doughnuts that hint at executive chef Sam Moore's proclivity for precision and aesthetics.
Looks matter to Moore, with his dishes cleverly mimicking the patterns and symmetry that define the hotel's aesthetic. Flowery rounds of golden and crimson Somerville beetroot fringe a slow-cooked, sweet slab of beetroot that conceals a cashew cream heart.
A pork and pistachio terrine is a well-flavoured and extremely precise piece of pâté, as angular as the room's deco lines, with a regimental platoon of pickled cucumber rounds and celeriac roulade to brighten the dish once spread over hot triangles of toast.
Luci has been open since March 22, and while the plan was to be a la carte, like many city restaurants scrambling for staff they are managing costs and function with set cartes – two or three courses at lunch and dinner, tweaked to give in-house diners a bit of variety.
Between two sittings, lunch is your friend. Then, the room's dramatic corners are illuminated, lively and crunchy (it's pretty dim at night). The more straightforward day menu is possibly also the more successful of the two.
The terrine and beetroot are chased with an expertly crisped fillet of barramundi with confit cauliflower and puree, a blushing hanger steak, sliced and sluiced with a pleasant chimichurri, a crisp salad peppered with kalamata olives and cucumbers. Daytime desserts pull from the cafe's cakes and they show off a precise chef's skills in a perfect crisp-shelled white chocolate tart with pistachio and a ring of late-season raspberries.
Dinner? Things get a little trickier, but not better. Pork tortellini crowned with air-dried candy stripes of pancetta seemed a little wan, likewise pumpkin gnocchi, the sole vegetarian main, fails to wow either as a concept or in execution, and steamed Murray cod striped with sheets of broccoli stem and swede, washed with a caper butter, is another stunning-looking plate that doesn't have the contrast and life of lunch's fish.
Precision, when it is there, is Luci's strength. It's perhaps not the most heart-palpitating menu, but that broad spectrum offering can be gold for business meetings so long as the wine and service are up to scratch. Both are, courtesy of utterly polished restaurant manager Marjorie Vieira, and a New-Old World list that will open up as business does.
Hotel restaurant mandates have always been hard. Chefs must please every guest, which usually means curtailing excess creativity. But right now, hoteliers want exciting stories and absolute safety on the same plate. Stuck in the middle of those polar expectations, Moore does a fairly good job. Luci has highlights, but won't scare the horses. There's draw for a local business crowd. I don't know if it's a destination restaurant, but it's a place I'd be happy to find at my journey's end.
Pro Tip: Breakfast is open to all, making this a glamorous morning meeting option for upper Bourke.
Go-to Dish: Crab and apple tartlets from the Douglas Bar are a good place to start.