Level 55, Rialto, 525 Collins Street Melbourne, Victoria 3000
|Opening hours||Wed-Thu 6pm-midnight; Fri-Sat, noon-2pm; 6pm-midnight|
|Prices||Expensive (mains over $40)|
|Payments||Diner's Club, eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9691 3888|
It's a restaurant with enough star power and history behind it that many Melburnians are confident they know Vue de Monde. The view. That cellar. Yet few restaurants have transformed so much.
Before its move to the top of the Rialto in 2011, it had a six-year run at Normanby Chambers. Back in 2000, Vue was merely a very good French bistro in Carlton, with a far less famous Shannon Bennett at the helm. From doing classics exceptionally well to doing theatrical food that mere mortals could not hope to replicate at home, the evolution has been well-documented over the years. And the story goes on. Welcome to Vue by Hugh.
Chef Hugh Allen is the latest (and youngest) chef to step into the top role as executive chef. Allen was promoted from sous chef in 2019, having been snapped up by the group in 2018 when he returned to Australia after three years at one of the world's great restaurants, Noma.
His ascent has been obscured by COVID but his influence is such that one colleague, who got in quicker than me, has dubbed the restaurant Hugh de Monde.
Some aspects of the experience remain unchanged. The swift ride to the 55th floor of the Rialto; the fluffy kangaroo skin chairs and table dressings of stretched black leather. Art installations remain important, with Melbourne street artist Rone having painted one of his haunting femmes over the entrance. It seems impossible that they will ever retire the trademark chocolate souffle into which a perfect quenelle of billy tea-flavoured ice-cream is dropped (while every diner films).
For diners, but also chefs and sommeliers, it has always been a restaurant where the sky's the limit, its kitchens and cellars stacked with the best ingredients money can buy – a Grange to match many birthdates, fat marron and bailer sea snails, cheeses so rank they could walk right off the trolley, and the mostly deeply marbled full-blood wagyu, a huge dry-aged swathe of which is wheeled out to tables with ribs tickling the ceiling, in a barbaric and beautiful ode to meat eating.
Despite having such rich fodder at his disposal, the mark Allen is making is a measured and elegant one.
Excess is having a bit of a moment in Australia, despite or perhaps because of the hardship of repeated lockdowns, with restaurants from Mimi's in Sydney to Chancery Lane in Collins Street doing $30 "bumps" of caviar right off the hand. Allen tucks beluga inside the delicate purse of a perfect plump blue mussel, steamed then chilled – the poor man's oyster elevated to dizzying new heights.
Australia's aquatic stars have come to lead the menu. You begin with rusty wire rock oysters presented tableside (or in the kitchen) by chefs bearing your choice of condiments ranging from finger lime caviars to lemon aspen for contrasting bright and briny bites.
Bailer shells, those enormous orange and black sea snails (here sourced from Western Australia), have a flesh that is sweet and floral, akin to abalone. Here it is cooked confit-style and served on coin-sized sourdough toast with a herb emulsion and wild garlic flowers pickled like capers. Poised on the rim of those huge dramatic shells, it's a wonderful wild Australian take on garlic escargot.
Drama is still at the heart of the Vue experience. There are the playful sleights of hand (tangy Davidson plum served as dehydrated fruit leather, like a lunchbox roll-up).
Wattleseed damper is charred tableside over a smouldering log of charcoal, and there's that display of wagyu before it arrives as a perfect bite of melting meat with wilted greens and tiny slips of potato puffed into balloon crisps.
Or there's the potential for outrageous wine service by master sommelier Carlos Simoes Santos. A paired tasting is a special time at $190.
Drama aside, some dishes just have straight-up star power. I can't say the exceptionally beautiful dish featuring coils of Shepherd avocado in a ginger and lemon aspen broth is the one for me, falling flat, at least on this occasion.
But the marron in native Australian curry broth has become a signature, the fat poached tail rising in a perfect arc out of an elaborate bisque-meets-curry sauce featuring mountain pepper, saffron, galangal, and a stock of mussels, barramundi bones and marron shells.
The buy-in price of $310-a-head for food alone doesn't make Vue an outlier, next to the likes of Brae ($300) and Attica ($320).
Everyone gets a tour of the kitchen (though it is made to feel like it's a special occasion), and chefs will often appear tableside to pour a sauce and deliver practiced lines (some with a little more success than others).
But for those who want to and can pay, Vue stands ready, willing and able to fly you first class. There is a vending machine of Dom Perignon. You can have a dish entirely obscured by black truffles. Or you can ask them to open a $9000 bottle of Krug with a sabre.
Theatrical dining had its peak around the time the Fat Duck came to town. But done properly, it makes fine dining fun.
There's a thrill to eating a rockmelon sorbet studded with acid pops of green ants, with your eyes full of the city's sparkling lights, and then closing with cleverly accurate gumnuts rendered in fresh eucalyptus ice-cream.
If you're going to do it, go for the top. Few can serve true end-of-days indulgence like Vue.
Cost: Chef's tasting menu $310 a head.
Drinks: Master sommeliers control the 88-page wine list that covers old world and new. Unbeatable.
Pro Tip: Save up to do the $350 premium tasting if wine is a passion. It's once-in-lifetime drinking.