211 Queen St Melbourne, VIC 3000
|Opening hours||Mon-Fri noon-3pm, 6pm-11pm (open Sat evenings from April 2018)|
|Features||Accepts bookings, Licensed, Bar, Business lunch, Lunch specials, Long lunch|
|Payments||eftpos, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9089 6699|
Sometimes duck is just duck: bird on a plate. But when chef Joe Grbac is cooking duck it's a shrewd but tender honouring of produce, a showcase of flavour matches and a sensitive mastery of cooking techniques that ensure the bird is conversation-haltingly delicious.
The duck is hung in the coolroom for 10 days which dries the skin and intensifies the flavour. The breast is roasted and its skin caramelised: it's all dark golden and shatter-crisp giving way to dense but tender flesh. I murmured "best duck ever" as my companion's ecstatic susurrations about her fish dish flowed my way.
There's more on the plate: the leg cooked with fermented bean curd and hoi sin which deepens the flavours of the pull-apart meat; eggplant, its rich and slippery blackness batted back by black pudding; a glossy sauce with flavour for days. It's not a simple dish but it eats very easily. You don't notice the work, you just fall into rapture.
This dish speaks of Grbac's food and the approach at Saxe, his first solo restaurant, where he's as likely to answer the phone as man the pans.
There's no gimmickry, no "dining concept", just good contemporary food, French-ish but relaxed, served by accomplished professionals, in a classy, comfortable space that suits suits and culinary wanderers alike.
On the ground floor, bar and stool seating look into the open kitchen – lob without a booking for casual snacking and quality nosh.
The dining room is upstairs, framed by a royal blue banquette on one side and Victorian-era bricks on the other.
The wine list leans towards Europe and is organised by palate weight ("crisp and aromatic", "generous reds"). It's easy to navigate.
Many Melbourne diners will know Joe Grbac from Saint Crispin, where he was co-owner with Scott Pickett, and his stint at Press Club from 2009 to 2013. But it's his three years at London's the Square under chef Philip Howard (2004-2007) that Grbac still refers to when he talks about his menus: seasonal, thoughtful, precise but not showy.
It's an ethic that sees him return to compelling flavour combinations. Crab, asparagus and sea succulents. Slow-cooked egg with wild mushrooms, black rice and parmesan foam. Marron and chicken wing that offer unexpectedly complementary sweetness.
Some matches come straight from the garden: Grbac noticed that purslane (a lemony succulent) always pops up by his tomato plants so he figured they want to be together on the plate. They certainly seem happy about it: a composed tomato salad is sunshine in a bowl.
Clever touches abound. Swordfish is lightly brined with sugar, salt and lemon rind so it's seasoned from within and bursting with flavour. A riotous corn dish includes raw and charred kernels, corn custard and fermented garlic.
Stone fruit is poached in elderflower syrup made from blossoms in Grbac's backyard: it's served with bay-spiced rice pudding. In every case, it's about helping good ingredients be their own best selves.
Saxe has only been here since October but it's assured and accomplished and, as a stand-alone chef-run restaurant, is a pleasure to welcome to the city's top echelons.
Rating: Four stars (out of five)