Woodland House

Larissa Dubecki
Tweaked: Woodland House's dining room.
Tweaked: Woodland House's dining room. Photo: Eddie Jim

78 Williams Road Prahran, Victoria 3181

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Permanently Closed

Is fine dining dead? The question gently percolating for the past 20 years reaches a head of steam on Williams Road, where two chefs are trying to exorcise the ghost of Jacques Reymond while staying true to the values of starched linen, amuse-bouches and petit fours.

It's no small task for Thomas Woods and Hayden McFarland, who are young enough to have turned the Victorian mansion into a tequila-slinging taqueria, but have stayed stubbornly loyal to the art of fine dining. It's terribly un-Gen Y of them, but here we are, at Woodland House (a portmanteau of their last names), where people dress for dinner and degustation isn't a dirty word.

The sheer inertia of their combined 12 years in Reymond's service means they haven't entirely cut the apron strings, despite some self-conscious moments designed to telegraph the fact le patron has left the building. Candy-striped napkins herald dessert, for example, unfurled in a bluster of ''isn't this fun?''. Or the gossamer sheet made from purple congo potato that looks like a Pantone colour swatch and comes wedged in an off-cut of yellowbox.

Cucumber and tomato, charred eel and sweet aniseed.
Cucumber and tomato, charred eel and sweet aniseed. Photo: Eddie Jim

Actually, I quite agree with their stance that if you're going to the trouble of taking on one of Melbourne's august dining institutions, why put the frighteners on a loyal and equally august clientele? The makeover has followed Coco Chanel's dictum of removing one thing. It's slightly - but only slightly - less opulent, more reliant on the building's fabulous bone structure; in the same vein, the food wisely doesn't try to mimic Reymond's rather unique avant-classicism and takes a slightly - but only slightly - pared-back path.

The influences are broader. You can trace the thread of several popular food-world trends running through the menu, such as the pigs' head fritters proffered at the start - exactly the sort of thing you might find on skanky old Smith Street - or the ''seawater caramel'' at dessert, which, depending on your bent, is either a sly wink to salted caramel or completely pretentious.

They're leaning more European, as well. The multi-course menu features Robbins Island wagyu, a rosy slab of muscular flesh with rocket and horseradish emulsion, bordelaise sauce, little mustard pearls and fried taro matchsticks - it's steak and chips for the one per cent - and a bombe Alaska with a rich seam of butterscotch ice-cream and a strange and salty curveball from whipped goat's curd. Jerusalem artichoke terrine with foie gras and chestnut cream veers similarly grand, the stonking richness unchallenged by an emulsion of prickly pear.

Superb: Pekin duck breast with cherry puree.
Superb: Pekin duck breast with cherry puree. Photo: Eddie Jim

It's very professional, well-mannered food from two guys clearly blessed with cooking flair, although at this early stage they can lack a sense of the hookline that sticks in your memory the next day. Miso-poached king george whiting with XO-sauced salsify quickly fades to beige, and a tomato jelly really begs for a flavour injection, although the dish it supports is a cracker, with fine slices of smoky charred eel making sweet music with creme fraiche gussied up with fennel pollen and a velvety gazpacho.

It's the support players that become the breakout stars. Bergamot citrus-spiked spanner crab dotted with a crunchy Korean grain known as Job's tears adds sparkle to a fairly sedate confit salmon with squid ink emulsion, and there deserves to be a food truck dedicated to the confit duck meat sausage rolls - mixed with cherry puree and swaddled in fried brik pastry - that hitchhike cutely alongside a superb Pekin duck breast with fried tongue and cherry puree.

The steely spine of old-school service remains, complete with Reymond-era maitre d' Gareth Burnett and a wine tome so dizzying that I had a crisis of confidence looking at the French stuff and ran for the safety of a Margaret River chardonnay.

It's a cautious first menu, but there's a truckload of promise. I hope they're given the chance to show what they can do in these strange days of glorified fast food. Reymond, it's fair to remember, did daily battle with the fine-dining-is-dead doomsayers for 30 years. McFarland and Woods are well-equipped to follow in his footsteps.

The best bit
The sense of occasion
The worst bit
It's risk-averse
Go-to dish Cucumber and tomato, charred eel and sweet aniseed.

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