163 Commercial Rd Prahran, VIC 3181
Raise your hands, class of 2000. Keep them up if you've been waiting patiently for chef Paul Wilson to go through his taco phase and bring back his truffled polenta and egg from Botanical and Radii days. Your time has come.
It's old tricks in new digs for Wilson and partner Bec, who have finally, after many delays, opened the restaurant section of their all-day brasserie, bar and cafe on the edge of the Prahran Market with executive chef Dave Marshall on the pans.
The standard, across the board, is incredibly high. You're seeing ingredients Wilson has grown to love – including some Central and South American treats – meeting techniques learned in the terrifying kitchens of London during the shouty years. It's a strong combination.
Sweet, tiny Moonlight Kiss oysters have their vinegary mignonette doctored with a little celeriac. It's nice. A fat herb-flecked blini comes with either the big mellow pop of trout roe from the Yarra Valley ($25) or stunning blue scampi roe, pure essence of salty shellfish for $125. The cultured cream is confronting, but fine once you identify the sharpness as vodka.
There is whiting carpaccio, chunkily cut and amplified with a slightly spicy, smoky and bitter puree of buddha's hand and aji amarillo chillies. Wild capers make it the restaurant's cross-continental poster child. The other is a gently smoked tranche of chervil- and seaweed-topped ocean trout with a textbook devilled egg and piccalilli-like relish of fennel and tiny radishes. Every flavour works. And no disrespect to Wilson's Cal-Mex or Peruvian dishes, but I don't think a single taco or blue corn pavlova stood out as much.
Wilson's return to classic form isn't just something for long-time Botanical devotees to get excited about. Geared to capture a wide audience from shoppers to drinkers to old Botanical fans, it's a broad brief: a bar specialising in white liquors (gin and vodka cocktails tricked out with condiments are a big thing) and a paleo-gluto-friendly cafe by day.
It can be confusing to book. You're asked to pick a section – maybe one of six seats at the seafood counter where you can do a fish-focused deg for $160, or the high table offering $75 rotisserie set menus. In reality, you can get all of this a la carte in the one room – a sharp-lined space of charcoal tables and eucalypt tones, with the bar to one side, the kitchen to the other and artworks of semi-nudes from Robert Doble and Jacqui Stockdale overseeing all. Grab a seat.
The better advice is to bring a few friends. A by the glass list has flex and new bottles are opened daily, but throwing back to Botanical days, you can also grab a bottle straight from the bottle-shop for a $15 mark-up on your La Majone Picpoul de Pinet.
It's also a menu that requires assistance. You can't pass up the signature. Manjimup truffles explode out of that polenta dish, cooked down for half a day until it's silk, then eased with ricotta and parmesan. A soft egg, stored with truffles, is dropped centre dish, with more black gold shaved on and a curl of aged parmesan laid over like cheesy veil. You can almost see the smell.
And you need the numbers for the chicken, now among the best in town. It gets a two-day run-up to table, the half Milawa or whole Sommerlad bird being brined with a mix involving apple cider before being slow smoked and finished in a hot brick oven to order. It's just set, juicy and smoky only in a haunting way, arriving impaled on a spike, on a trolley, with brass pans of croutons and greens. Asked why the gravy so good, a series of pictures come back showing huge vats of bones being cooked for days like something out of a delicious horror.
A lot of diehard Botanical fans are here. They'll find smart service from industry vets like Braydon Harris, who you might remember from Circa. But there's appeal for Wilson's Newmarket followers too. Happy hour jugs of cocktails and cheap fizz are coming to that external glass atrium, which you see being a summer magnet. I don't know if Prahran was expecting a party and a proper restaurant. But it got both. Shine on, southside.
Pro Tip: Book for a normal table and order a la carte for the best range.
Go-to Dish: Half Milawa chicken, brined, smoked and roasted.