180 Flinders Lane Melbourne, Victoria 3000
|Opening hours||L D Daily|
|Features||Bar, Business lunch, Degustation, Groups, Licensed, Lunch specials, Private dining, Wheelchair access|
|Prices||Expensive (mains over $40)|
|Chef||Andrew McConnell, Ben Pigott|
|Payments||eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9650 8688|
Ho hum, another Andrew McConnell restaurant.
Actually, I was tempted to reprise my glowing, superlative and otherwise slavishly devoted 2011 review of Golden Fields, the restaurant euthanised for Supernormal (''sets the scene for fresh, informal dining, blah blah'') and simply change the name. But I need to earn my keep - and Supernormal, which I hereby predict will eclipse the success of its progenitor, deserves better.
And so to the new. There's a karaoke room downstairs, for starters, in case any private-dining parties decide to get their Diana Ross on. There's a ramen window at the back and vending machines with Peko candy. Supernormal lures Golden Fields' food away from its refined, Euro-styled St Kilda home to Flinders Lane, where it falls into the corrupting embrace of Asian pop culture.
The fitout is the biggest point of departure, although unlike his other gaffs it's a grower rather than an immediate showstopper. McConnell and Projects of Imagination could point to the unforgiving nature of the concrete bunker anchoring a new office building; a Brutalist space cursed with a couple of aesthetic dead zones they've shrugged away with a ''who cares?" rather than any real attempt at disguise. Or they could point to Supernormal's addendum ''Canteen'', which makes a virtue of the hair-shirt ascetic lurking underneath the subtly fluoro-lit ceiling, like the dystopic dream of a Seoul salaryman.
It's definitely conjured buzz. McConnell's restaurants always give plenty of buzz. They attract the people who create it and the people who follow it. It's a call-and-response thing. You wait on wooden benches - you'll only get a table when all your dining companions have arrived - squirming in dread as the hordes pour in.
A lot of chefs wonder how he does it, but starting with this kind of produce is half the battle. The raw bar is a place of manifold pleasures, including the ama ebi prawns, a creamy-textured bite of sweetness with a sprinkling of togarashi, the Japanese pepper mix. There's a disarmingly simple thing of lightly pickled, heat-licked bonito that plays off the compelling tension of the full-flavoured fish against fermented wasabi leaf. Or a lobe of sea urchin - custard of the sea, says our waitress, proving McConnell's battalion of staff are as eloquent as they are proficient - cradled on a seaweed cracker.
It's a menu that brings the habits of a very modern Australian chef to Asian food. Japanese, Korean and regional Chinese provide the base material to craft a genre that's both like and unlike its source material. In fact, the dumplings - the part of the menu subjected to the least ''interpretation'' - are also the least successful. There's simply no place in this town for stodgy potstickers, and the fried pigs' head bao is simply OK.
But I'll join the queue for smoked beef tartare bedded in clam-briny mayo and decorated with fried shallot and mustard leaf. Or the lamb ribs, slow-cooked to melting point with a ruthless crust that bristles with cumin. Not to mention the white-cut (poached) chicken slathered in a glossy, viscous sauce of black sesame, with spring onion and cucumber providing the alleviating crunch.
The rolled pork belly is more fanciful and provocative. A cold dish, the staff will warn you, it's a fine example of reverse engineering - pancake-thin slices of fatty, big-flavoured pork wrapped around a fresh interior of white kimchi, a fragrant dribble of red oil leaking out like a crime scene.
Golden Fields' record-smashing lobster roll has made the trip to the city. The peanut butter parfait, too - no subtitles required here, although the standout dessert is all about honeyed lobes of fried custard sloshed with ginger syrup. Let's call them the Chinese churros. They're sensational.
Drinks are elevated in status at any place that emphasises the small plates/bar seating thing. Supernormal's booze prices are certainly in touch with inflationary cycles, but on the positive side it shows the quirk that's typical of the group, including McConnell's prejudice against sauvignon blanc, which doesn't get a look-in on a by-the-glass selection. Why? Because he can, I guess. And that, in a nutshell, is Supernormal. Plenty of hum; very little ho.
The best bit The raw dishes
The worst bit No bookings at night
Go-to dish Pickled bonito, wasabi leaf, $16