625 Chapel St South Yarra, VIC 3141
|Opening hours||Tue-Sat 5.30pm-late|
|Features||Accepts bookings, Licensed, Bar|
|Prices||Expensive (mains over $40)|
|Payments||eftpos, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 8080 8080|
Are robots coming to kill us? Is Elon Musk minutes away from invading our kitchens with a sentient mixer? Will 2020 start an apocalyptic era of hospitality where only the mega rich can afford the rents, where iPads replace expensive waitstaff and labour cost-cutting in the kitchen means chefs won't know how to cook? Look, no way to sugar coat it. The hospitality industry is in a state of flux and you better believe we're going to see some shifts, good and bad.
Which is why we're back at Omnia. On the one hand, it's only moved house, from its extremely coiffed pop-up in South Yarra, to its now permanent home in Chapel Street's new luxury development, Capitol Grand. But what's going on beneath deserves more attention.
This is the first of three restaurants, headed by chef Stephen Nairn, that will eventually fill this complex (also featuring glittering shops, day spas and a David Jones food hall as its milk bar). There is no avoiding the fact that big businesses like this are going to be making their mark on the dining landscape. But with cash comes opportunities, and the team charged with building Capitol's restaurant empire has decided to use its powers for good.
Omnia's old-school bistro menu might look built merely to satisfy the broad church of its residents upstairs. And it will. Vintage classics – sticky buttered flounder and real-deal ratatouille – should please the veteran set, who are here in force, audibly appreciating the attention paid to plump pillows and sturdy chairs, while the modern classics trending everywhere, such as steak tartare and duck parfait with proud Parker rolls, loop in everyone else. But a lot of this classicism is actually in aid of future-proofing an industry on the edge.
Nairn and manager Kevin McSteen both came up through the ranks of serious kitchens and dining rooms: Eleven Madison Park, the Fat Duck, Vue de Monde. And they're worried. Nairn says chefs are coming to kitchens with star-studded resumes, but they've learnt little more than to tweeze very beautiful plates. McSteen says waitstaff might be able to keep pace after serving through the fast-casual boom, but they've never been taught the dark art of reading a room. Together they want to make Omnia an old school hospitality school.
McSteen is reviving the role of maitre d', welcoming guests in the airy brick atrium, watching with an eagle eye as his students-in-training do their parts, swooping in to lift the tone with conversation and pick up any balls they've dropped. Even if the team is newer, he is omnipresent enough to lift the bar.
There are also lessons behind each dish. A bundle of pickles, precise batons of multicoloured veg, are tidily secured with a chive to make a pretty bite, but Nairn says its also a mindfulness exercise for the chefs to do precise work. Glossy sauces ring with depth. Quails are expertly deboned and stuffed with a fluffy chicken mousse.
Perhaps the nerdiness of this precision doesn't get your blood up, but the results should. The parfait, formerly a garlic-heavy situation at the pop-up has come into its own, the firm, silky pâté sealed beneath a glistening, winey gloss, countered by tart pickled pear and those fluffy, glazed Parker rolls.
Tartare of rough-chopped flank steak goes a smoky, creamy, spicy route, bound by a smoked pepper aioli and finished with a precise blast of pepper dust and delicate, lattice-cut crisps known as pommes gaufrettes.
The room has its own brief to meet mixed needs.The front, an airy brick atrium with those plump cushioned banquettes and its central bar will be the go-to for daytimes and breakfast (come the new year). If the mirrored ceiling, faux ferns and fluoro-slashed David Bromley paintings jar a little, the rear is a darker, more sophisticated bunker of its own, with deep horseshoe banquettes, marble tables and ringside seats to the kitchen show.
Old school doesn't mean it's a non-stop meat and cream party. Raw kingfish shines against a cool ripple of kaffir-infused jelly and crisp apple. The ratatouille is a universe from a bunch of veg cooked to death. The concentric rings of zucchini, peppers, eggplant and tomato have been taken to the brink of collapse but not beyond, giving you a rainbow of all their flavours.
But if you are going to belt your arteries, this is the place. A whole duck sees the legs removed and confit, the crown rubbed in leatherwood honey and roasted so hot the skin becomes deep purple crackling while the breast, carved in the kitchen after presentation, is still blush. It's a $94 showstopper, no liquid nitrogen in sight.
Add a wine list as deep in curious and deeply classic jewels as you imagine Capitol's backer, Larry Kestelman, would expect, and a liquid-centred cheesecake that is the silky love child of cheesecake and creme brulee, with a bonus bite of blackberry sorbet on the side, and I think we can all be happy to go back to the old school.
Pro Tip: Get dessert; the pastry section is where precision really comes to the fore.
Go-to Dish: Honey-roasted duck for two ($94).