Lume review

The drapes have gone but the bones of Lume are largely the same.
The drapes have gone but the bones of Lume are largely the same. Photo: Jason South

226 Coventry Street South Melbourne, Victoria 3205

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Opening hours Tue-Fri 5.30pm-10.30pm; Sat 11.30am-3pm, 5.30pm-10.30pm
Features Accepts bookings, Bar, Licensed, Degustation, Private dining, Vegetarian friendly
Prices Expensive (mains over $40)
Chef John Rivera
Payments eftpos, Visa, Mastercard
Phone 03 9690 0142

Is Lume still Lume now that founder chef Shaun Quade has handed the kitchen to young gun John Rivera? Now that the fine diner's high-tech dishes (Quade's tumble-through-the-ocean sea pearl; the faux camembert made from cauliflower) have been ditched for a straighter contemporary menu with a gentle Filipino spin? Now that Quade's award-winning bartender Orlando Marzo, head chef Eileen Horsnell, and sommelier Dan Gibson have moved to new projects, too? The good money says nope.

The only survivor of this recent shake-up, caused by Quade's impending departure for Los Angeles, is the peachy room with its blondwood tables and spindly brass touches (although thankfully the dining room's gauzy drapes have gone).

Quade forewarned the switch would mean changes. "A more accessible three-, five- or seven-course menu," was his pitch. But I don't think that cuts it. Rivera is a promising up-and-comer who took out San Pellegrino's 2018 Young Chef of the Year Pacific Region title and has been bashing the pans as sous chef at Armadale's Amaru. But this is his first head chef role. It doesn't make sense to view this as just a new chapter for Lume but as a new restaurant, period.

Winning signature of crab tomato jelly with tomatoes and white cheese.
Winning signature of crab tomato jelly with tomatoes and white cheese. Photo: Jason South

Looked at this way, you can draw better parallels. To early-era Ides, for example, the Collingwood restaurant from former Attica sous chef Peter Gunn. Gunn's early offering delivered weird exciting hits, punctuated by wild misses that (most) adventurous diners were happy to endure to be part of something risky, fun and new.

That is the storyline unfolding in this one-time South Melbourne burlesque club.

Despite the more casual pitch, the vibe is still decidedly fine dining. Eager faces hold the door. The cocktails still sparkle. Literally. An negroni turned effervescent and infused with seville orange is like an extra bitter Aperol spritz. Marzo's legacy lives on in a whisky, apple highball that proves dark spirits can set you up as well as knock you down.

Kangaroo Island marron in 'tiger's milk'.
Kangaroo Island marron in 'tiger's milk'. Photo: Jason South

As dinner unfolds you see how Rivera earned Quade's faith. The biggest tick goes to an elegant tightrope walk of heirloom tomatoes and delicate cheese curds shrouded by a jellied tomato-crab dashi, all sweet crustacean, tang and the perfume of Geraldton wax. It's a signature to be proud of.

Less restrained, but showing Rivera's character, Kangaroo Island marron is awash with a smoky, spicy, rich party of macadamia milk infused with smoked padron peppers and sour mulberries.

When new sommelier John Paul Wilkinson swings in to pour you thoughtful and astute matches ranging from an umamiful Monsoon sake to a tightly balanced Gemischter Satz (Vienna's table wine made good) or a very restrained, semi-dry Kracher dessert wine to match a bracing closer of yoghurt sorbet and mango curls with hints of hops and fried saltbush, new Lume feels safe.

Frozen yoghurt with mango, saltbush and hints of hops.
Frozen yoghurt with mango, saltbush and hints of hops. Photo: Jason South

Other times, you see where Rivera is going even if the punch doesn't land. Of the snacks to start, onion doughnuts filled with diced sea succulents and ground almonds are delicious but moisture-sapping. Grilled pork belly impaled on a twig is also under-juiced but its dressing of fruity "black banana" ketchup (the banana is fermented in the manner of black garlic) and finger lime jewels is a trip. A light, coconut-tinged cucumber broth surrounding tender squid curls is beautiful, until a mouthful of vinegar means game over for the dish.

You no longer have to pay upfront when you book, but a $10-a-head booking deposit is still non-refundable (you only have the option to reschedule). Less rigour in sections is noticeable. Using a plastic measuring cup to dispense those pre-batched cocktails doesn't befit $24 drinks. The prices have not become more casual. Rivera's menus are $100, $140 or $170 for three-, five- or seven-courses (all bracketed with snacks, mind). This is opposed to $80 for five up to $170 for the "the road", a 14-course menu in 2017.

Certainly, a big team is working hard with top-quality ingredients and inventive ideas, but only the results count. On our visit, the savoury, tannic shiitake, ginseng and seaweed broth with bitter Philippines citrus calamansi and musky emu prosciutto is all off-key. Our cod, we're told, was dry-aged, shiso-wrapped and endured many other processes in pursuit of deliciousness, but all we taste is a sweet meyer lemon puree. Honey-lacquered, roasted Great Ocean Road duck breast is a pleasant family-style roast with grilled heart slivers and masterstock braised leg on the side. But the gravy with mulberries thrown in? So salty we find ours inedible. The strike rate, for now, is a little out of step with the spend.

A Walk in the Orchard cocktail is an homage to former bartender Orlando Marzo.
A Walk in the Orchard cocktail is an homage to former bartender Orlando Marzo. Photo: Jason South

In a way, this is Lume being more Lume than ever. Remember when it first opened in 2015? The degustation was too boozy, too long, and too inventive to feel particularly fun. Even so, facets shined, and in time Quade and co found their pace, built the confidence to deliver more by doing less. Rivera's been handed that baton.

I have faith he'll do the same.

Pro Tip: Dip your toe in with the shorter menu for now.

Go-to Dish: Crab and tomato jelly, heirloom tomatoes, white cheese (part of tasting menu).

http://www.restaurantlume.com/