Icon review: An ode to Stokehouse

When will we eat the likes of this Australian seafood platter at Stokehouse again?
When will we eat the likes of this Australian seafood platter at Stokehouse again?  Photo: Daniel Pockett

30 Jacka Blvd St Kilda, VIC 3182

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Opening hours Daily noon-3pm; 6pm-late
Features Views, Accepts bookings, Licensed, Gluten-free options, Groups, Private dining, Bar, Green-eco focus
Prices Expensive (mains over $40)
Payments eftpos, Visa, Mastercard
Phone 03 9525 5555

I get it. It feels like the end of the world as we know it. And like a weird time to be writing about restaurants. But as restaurants have now been forced to close their doors except for take away, it's also the perfect time to talk about Stokehouse.

This grand dame of St Kilda's dining scene, with its unbeatable views across the beach and very burnt backpackers, was launched by the Van Haandels in 1989. And it has weathered many storms.

Its fortitude is etched into the very bones of the building – those charred timbers, salvaged when the original restaurant burnt to the ground in 2014. Before that fateful blow, it had also survived the GFC and the very best worst behaviour that Melbourne's dining elite could throw at it.

Caviar and creme fraiche on crumpets.
Caviar and creme fraiche on crumpets. Photo: Daniel Pockett

Stokehouse is a true institution. A place to be seen. To preen and posture over big wines and bigger bits of beef, even if its pride and joy is serving seafood. It has been steered by many chefs, but it will never surrender its famous fish and chips lest there be a revolt mounted in terrifyingly sharp Louboutins.

Who knows how long this corona cold war will last, and which of Melbourne's mightiest restaurants won't come out alive. I hope Stokehouse does.

It was with those dark clouds on the horizon that I dressed up last week to do it right. At Stokehouse, that has always meant going for lunch and clearing your schedule. I did. And while this is the place for big boozy gatherings, this time I decided to go it alone. Partly because of social distancing, but mostly because Stokehouse treats single diners right: just a bit of extra chat, a table with a view.

Diners having a last dance at Stokehouse.
Diners having a last dance at Stokehouse.  Photo: Daniel Pockett

Seated at a crisp-clothed table with an eyeful of sea, I knew this was the right last supper to have.

I'll make half-arsed martinis during the dark ages until the gin runs out, but I'll be thinking about the Stokehouse one, surprisingly brined with a little seawater and beach succulents for crystal-clear merroir (ocean terroir).

I'll also be thinking long and hard about the warm disc of crumpet onto which they load a scoop of dark, glistening sturgeon caviar with an orb of creme fraiche and chives. A single-bite goodbye to the ridiculous joy of going out.

Heirloom tomato crudo.
Heirloom tomato crudo. Photo: Daniel Pockett

A note here: you will be reading this full of financial uncertainty. Do any of us have jobs anymore? At time of ordering, I did, meaning the only responsible thing was to throw as much money on the table as I could. This isn't intended as a tasteless ode to excess in difficult times, but as our restaurants go dark, I think it's important to reflect on what we've lost.

Timing of timings, Stokehouse had recently landed a cracker chef in fish-loving Jason Staudt from Sydney's Bea. I wish I was directing you to his new seafood platter for many or even just for one. It's a brilliant ode to the ocean: chilled clams, smoky and edged with a burnt orange emulsion; a scarlet prawn, so tender, with ginger tones; then dressed spanner crab in its shell with buttery brioche fingers to scoop, and a ceviche that explodes with citrus and chilli and vim.

When and how will we see its likes again? Not just the dish, but the eating of it, perfectly paired by sommelier Gavin Cremming to a 2017 Bachelet-Monnot Bourgogne Blanc, in a space curated to make everything taste that much better. In this case, it's under Pascale Gomes-McNabb's airy, fun fitout, that sees the whole room festooned with peachy fluted pipes. It keeps things convivial, however serious you want to get.

Pastry chef Lauren Eldridge's play on neapolitan ice-cream.
Pastry chef Lauren Eldridge's play on neapolitan ice-cream.  Photo: Daniel Pockett

For the coming months, I'll miss the expertise that went into making a perfect one-bite tartare, spiky with mustard and pickled caper leaves, nicely brought to temperature by a warm crumpet. I'll miss getting the very, very best of produce that is reserved for restaurants, such as heirloom tomatoes and peaches which were further enhanced by serving them with toasty almonds and an almond oil.

I'll miss the chance to be wowed by talents such as dessert whiz Lauren Eldridge. Her reinvention of neapolitan ice-cream as three perfect squares – vanilla anglaise, Davidson plum and the darkest chocolate – comes out as a show-stopping powder-coated stack.

I've heard chefs, baristas, bartenders and restaurateurs rightly describe themselves as the band that kept playing as the Titanic sank. Despite knowing each and every one of them might lose their job within a week, general manager Peter McMahon's crew put on a spectacular show. Bravo.

I hope those treading water find the strength to keep doing so. On the other side, let's play the role of those in the Titanic lifeboats who came back.

Est. 1989

Signature dishes: Fish and chips; "the Bombe"; oysters with champagne and fabulous hair.

Famous diners: Whoever wasn't here simply wasn't famous.

Delivery? Stokehouse is still deciding whether it will offer take-away services. Stay tuned via stokehouse.com.au/melbourne.

http://stokehouse.com.au/melbourne/