Scorched

17 The Esplanade Torquay, VIC 3228

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Permanently Closed

Score:  14.5/20

THIS week's lesson is that it pays for restaurateurs to think locally and act laterally. Be a sneaky devil, in other words, as ably demonstrated by James White and Vanessa Joachim, who, when their duck bisteeya was failing to sell, changed the name to ''little duck pies'' and watched them waddle out the door. It's funny, really, because it remained exactly the same recipe, just made in miniature rather than the more conventional size that's cut into portions; a great and faithful example of a bisteeya, or, if you must, a little duck pie.

The complex problems faced by restaurateurs are compounded by setting up in a location that's slightly suspicious of the new. And as White says, Torquay's a bit of a parma-and-a-pot town. I'd hazard a guess - going by the bustling Sunday lunch during which the service was a little stretched (there was only Joachim and one other staff member on the floor) - that things are getting slightly more adventurous in Victoria's surfing hub.

It's a view hammered home by a table of family friends from Geelong, refugees from their city's listless food culture who have chosen to head down the coast - Scorched recidivists and I can't blame them.

Chef White and front-of-house manager Joachim are well known in the area, having worked at the ill-fated (now resurrected under new owners) Bellbrae Harvest, where they were starting to make a mark as a destination restaurant before their premature exit.

Surfacing two years later, after moving from the hinterland to a prime spot on Torquay's esplanade looking over the road to the Norfolk pines and ocean, has been a sea change in more ways than one. For their first operation as owners, they wisely bought an existing restaurant rather than blowing their dough setting up something new - and the choice of Scorched, a smart contemporary bistro, was a good one. The decor was given a bit of a spruce-up but, otherwise, the template remains unchanged, including sound-squelching carpet and a warm and sunny, slightly left of centre, colour scheme.

It's a blank slate, really, so any style of food could come out of the kitchen, but White has a thing for the Middle East inherited from working at Cath Claringbold's Mecca, as well as living just off Sydney Road in Brunswick for more than a decade. Here, he has abandoned the Asian influences that played a supporting role at Bellbrae to concentrate solely on the Levantine-Moorish thing, and by ''dumbing down'' (his words) his more aspirational cooking impulses, chef White steers a steady course somewhere between the refined and elegant food of Greg Malouf and the more homely stuff of his old stomping ground.

His menu has that progressive thing going on, with a single page of dishes minus headings, and a seamless, unpunctuated flow from smallest to largest. You'll want to share. It's hinged around ingredients familiar by now to many, although apparently not always to residents of the Surf Coast: sumac and ras el hanout, harissa, preserved lemon, nuts, figs and dusky spices.

I'd call White's bluff on the self-deprecation, too: his food at Scorched might be simpler than he used to cook but it has a real style about it, a flair for combinations and the wisdom to know when to leave well enough alone.

Oysters - Coffin Bay, freshly shucked, $4 each - come with a little pink scattering of finger lime, a great way to kick off a meal that begins with the arrival of a timber board with great sesame-crusted sourdough sticks from Zeally Bay, olive oil and house-made dukkah.

When it comes to salads, White has a particular talent. With those little duck pies ($19), for example, is a memorable tumble of brown lentils, radicchio and little dried Iranian figs revitalised with fig vincotto, which provides a great bitter counterpoint to the sweetness of the bisteeya.

With the cured ocean trout ($17) there's a sumac-spiced arrangement of halved seedless red grapes, leek and soused red onions with a refreshing vinegar kick. There's also a kick-arse stand-alone quinoa salad ($10) involving both the red and white versions of this nutty-tasting ancient grain (or pseudocereal, if it's scientific accuracy you're after) with tart matchsticks of Granny Smith apple, mint and flat-leaf parsley, little segments of pistachio and green olive for a perfect balance.

But if it's something fleshy you're craving, I'd highly recommend the quail - crunchy, delectably fried, with a tangy dusting of sumac and some extra harissa-added fire ($10).

More middle-of-winter comforting are the small pieces of braised lamb in what the menu describes generically as a ''Moroccan broth'', with chickpeas, vegetables, lentils, coriander and preserved lemon. It's a lesson in what to do with leftovers - and I don't mean that in a bad way.

Down the weighty end of bigger dishes, the roast pork belly ($32) is cooked beautifully but the ras el hanout-spiced chickpeas dominate even the robust flavours of the meat.

Nor is the regionalised version of creme brulee ($12) as convincing as the rest of the meal - faintly spiced with orange blossom, it comes draped in orange and grapefruit segments and shredded mint. I'd say it's there for the diners who still see Middle Eastern food as exotic.

They ought to check out the hibiscus tea jelly ($12), a wicked red glass of it. Pomegranate seeds and small squares of Turkish delight ooze into the dollop of labneh on top. Maybe they'd sell more by naming it English jelly trifle but it's a culture-crossing ambassador, whatever you call it.

See? Nothing to be scared of here. But plenty to enjoy.

Scorched will be closed for holidays from August 2-25.

Score: 1-9: Unacceptable. 10-11: Just OK, some shortcomings. 12: Fair. 13:Getting there. 14: Recommended. 15: Good. 16: Really good. 17: Truly excellent. 18: Outstanding. 19-20: Approaching perfection.

Food Middle Eastern

Where 17 The Esplanade, Torquay

Phone 5261 6142

Cost Typical prices: smaller

dishes, $11; larger dishes, $26;

desserts, $12

Licensed

 

Wine list Well constructed and reasonably priced.

We drank Crawford River Sauvignon Blanc Semillon (Condah, Vic) $9/$39

Owners James White and Vanessa Joachim

Chef James White

Vegetarian Five dishes

Noise Fine

Service Good, professional but occasionally stretched.

Wheelchairs Yes

Parking Street

Value Good

Outdoors Footpath

Web scorched.com.au

Cards V M Amex Eftpos

Hours Wed-Sun, 11.30am-3.30pm; Wed-Sat, 5.30pm-late

http://www.scorched.com.au