850 Whitehorse Rd Box Hill, VIC 3128
Is this Melbourne's most avant-garde smashed avocado? It's art on a plate: I see a splash of impressionism, a stroke of cubism, a dollop of pluralist 2018. Not just a lively breakfast, it's a considered study that places two-tone green arcs in a verdant colour field. There's the icy cool of sliced green tomatoes, bright circles of nasturtium leaves, the emerald pop of fresh edamame, snow-white splotches of cashew cream, and an underpinning wash of smooth mashed avocado.
OK, OK, it's just breakfast but we are at an Art Series Hotel so perhaps you'll forgive the dodgy art theory. The Chen, Australia's seventh art-inspired hotel, is part of the 36-storey, 500-apartment Whitehorse Towers, the tallest building in Victoria outside the CBD.
Whitehorse Chloe, home of the arty smashed av, is the all-day restaurant which operates as hotel dining room and public eatery. It's bright and stylish with nice nooks, sprightly bamboo plantings and soaring ceilings towering over a mezzanine dining room.
The hotel celebrates artist Zhong Chen, born in China, trained in Australia and London, and for the past decade living here in Box Hill, a vibrant Asian hub which can make the 109 tram feel like a flight to Hong Kong. I love this neighbourhood.
Chen's cross-cultural background and playful art are reflected in the contemporary fusion of the restaurant, which is owned by the same Chinese-Australian dynamos who have Hash Specialty Coffee in the city and Camberwell. Their chef, Jin Jang, is Korean-born, US-trained and has cooked at such Melbourne restaurants as Neil Perry's glam Italian Rosetta.
Chef Jang delights in combining his many influences. Pork hock is cooked on the bone until it's fork-apart tender then slathered in a tasty tomato and bean sugo. Lobster comes in a matcha bun.
A signature duck dish, The Chen, is based on Jang's mum's recipe for tea-smoked duck: he puts it into a broth with soba noodles and samphire, an indigenous coastal succulent. It's delicate and satisfying.
The "brekkie board" includes Vegemite toast soldiers, a dippy egg and coffee-and-bacon jam. This clever concoction is made with finely chopped bacon, an espresso shot, maple syrup and cumin, cooked to a salty, sticky mess then spooned onto the board where it gleams naughtily, deliciously. I don't take Bitcoin but all clients please note that you are welcome to pay me in bacon jam.
Congee, Chinese rice porridge, is easy to find in Box Hill Central, the bustling shopping centre overshadowed by Whitehorse Towers. You could get it cheaper there, but not better than Jang's smooth, subtle congee with beef brisket, the meat cooked sous vide with reduced shaoxing wine until it's very tender but pleasantly lifted in flavour.
The dish is beautifully garnished with sprouting cauliflower but I did find myself looking in vain for the spicy, pungent condiments you'd find at a specialist congee joint.
On the other hand, congee joints don't tend to have excellent batch brew coffee, fruit smoothies, a solicitous interest in dietary restrictions or particularly friendly service.
And, much as I love the take-a-number eateries in Box Hill Central, none of them has ever caused me to ponder Picasso.
Rating: Three and a half stars (out of five)