Tulip

Larissa Dubecki
Terracotta flower pots on the tables add nice detail.
Terracotta flower pots on the tables add nice detail. Photo: Eddie Jim

Shop 9, 111 Pakington Street Geelong West, Victoria 3218

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Opening hours Mon-Tue 5:30–9pm ; Wed-Thu 12–2:30pm, 5:30–9pm ; Fri-Sat 12–2:30pm, 5:30–10pm ; Sun Closed
Features Bar, Accepts bookings, Family friendly, Gluten-free options, Groups, Licensed, Long lunch, Outdoor seating, Vegetarian friendly, Wheelchair access, Events
Prices Moderate (mains $20-$40)
Chef Matt Dempsey, Graham Jefferies
Seats 70
Payments eftpos, AMEX, Cash, Visa, Mastercard
Phone (03) 5229 6953

It's terribly easy to miss the latest restaurant from chef Matt Dempsey. The little sibling to the lovely Gladioli is cunningly camouflaged as a hole-in-the-wall cafe right near a bona-fide hole-in-the-wall cafe; a confident double-bluff that meant we had to circle Pakington Street like a couple of Subaru Forester-driving gangstas before spotting it. It's narrow and quaint with a sweet table for two out the front, but just before you start worrying on their behalf about economies of scale, it opens up like the Tardis into a respectable-sized place with all the polished concrete, pale timber and decorative terracotta pots a diner could wish for.

Gladioli, meet Tulip.

Dempsey and collaborator Graham Jefferies (you might remember their last escapade as co-head chefs at Geelong waterfront restaurant Baveras) have opened a smart restaurant doing smart contemporary food; the sort that tips its hat to fashion without over-thinking it. It has echoes of some of my favourite dining spots in Melbourne. Saint Crispin springs to mind, or maybe that's because Tulip also does similar snackage, including salt and vinegar-flavoured puffed pork crackling with an amplified crunch that bounces off the walls. The urge to order a serve is as contagious as norovirus.

Go-to dish: Grilled octopus with chorizo, capsicum and fennel.
Go-to dish: Grilled octopus with chorizo, capsicum and fennel. Photo: Eddie Jim

The undercurrent of predictability aside (and what smart contemporary restaurant worth its sea salt isn't currently having adventures with dashi, or smoking, or ''blackened'' this and that?), Tulip is a conclusive mix of well-executed contemporary-ness.

Everything is served on sharp, smart crockery by a smart, sharp waiter (that said, it's a quiet lunchtime - but that's the kind of service that can be hardest to get right) and the prices are kind.

I'm not sure who was cooking on the day we visited, and it probably doesn't matter. The verdict - it was good. They do chicken giblets on toast in a rich tomato sugo of long-simmered loveliness slicked with garlic-driven olive oil.

I appreciate its stand for the pleasures of simplicity, although the kitchen's preoccupation with flavour quickly takes things in a more conceptual direction. The octopus, for example, is rustic cooking made far grander, adding waxy slices of chorizo, sweet strips of roasted red capsicum and brilliantly glossy black squid ink wafers and fennel in triplicate, including pollen used as an aniseed spice-bomb.

Kingfish from Portland has an oceanic bent with a clean, light cure, sea succulents and salty dashi powder - one of the more obvious excursions into modern technique - balanced by yuzu cream and sharp bursts of pink grapefruit. The perfectly cooked pork belly goes deeper into the Japanese thing, matching the meat's swiney funk with the clarifying crunch of shredded kohlrabi in a bonito and mirin dressing, flags of wakame gracing the top and the whole shebang mollified by eggplant cream. A typically smart plate of grilled zucchini and green beans maximises interest with blobs of parmesan cream and a bristle of toasted buckwheat.

It's all pretty light, unimposing, balanced and deft, save when we get to the beef short rib. Not to besmirch the rib, but it's a mighty thing, the bone merely a formality as the meat shucks off it in one clean movement, the sauce a green harissa that walks on the mild side.

Dessert drives home my recent revelation that to be truly successful a chocolate dessert has to be about different intensities of chocolate flavour. The pave - flourless, dense, crisp-edged - has it all sewn up with a rubble of chocolate bits and a grown-up thyme ice-cream, all buttressed with wings of caramelised white chocolate. It's so good I hoover the lot and nearly fall asleep driving home along the Princes Freeway.

To differentiate Tulip from its older sibling, I'd say it's less the destination diner, more appealing to a wider demographic base. It's less earnest, perhaps, although the sharp little wine list is similarly all-Victorian and the presentation similarly faultless.

Inverleigh got the gong with Gladioli, but Geelong needed a place like Tulip. Here it is.

THE LOWDOWN

The best bit Some pretty keen prices
The worst bit
Uncomfortable chairs
Go-to dish
Grilled octopus with chorizo, capsicum and fennel, $14

Twitter: @LarissaDubecki or email: ldubecki@fairfaxmedia.com.au