78 Williams Road Prahran, Victoria 3181
Would you be alarmed if I told you one of Woodland House's suppliers is a pet shop?
Don't freak out. There are no guinea pigs or budgerigars at this serene mansion. Rather, chefs Hayden McFarland and Thomas Woods source premium retail hay for preserving experiments. I tasted the results of one such investigation during my 10-course degustation: persimmons were bletted (that is, over-ripened to spoonable, fermented mush) by laying them on hay for a fortnight. My pulpy persimmon was partnered with tete de moine, a glorious Swiss cheese formed into cute rosettes. It was geeky but good.
It's 18 months since Jacques Reymond's head chefs bravely took on their maestro's 30-year-old mansion. They couldn't help but preserve an upper-end focus in this Victorian pile but they've made valiant efforts at tie-loosening. The food is contemporary, delicate and elaborate, driven equally by ingredients, flights of fancy, tradition and technique.
Sometimes the effort is palpable but the best dishes push past complexity to deliver a transporting experience.
The accomplished, respectful vegetarian menu includes standouts like sweet, silky pea bavarois with grilled pear and thrillingly simple goat's cheese steeped with fig leaf. I also loved scallop with bone marrow (yes, I know that's not vegetarian) and a brilliantly mad dessert with celeriac and fermented pineapple.
Maitre d' Gareth Burnett makes the place. He knows the food and grand wine list backwards and, more importantly, is adept at deducing whether diners want him to deliver drollery, deference or gentle guidance, all the way from greeting to "I'll get your coat".
Just before the jacket is shrugged on, you'll have nibbled cocoa-dusted nuts. They are ridiculously delicious but don't look tricky. Discovering that making them involves days of toil is a relief. That's how it should be at fancy restaurants: you eat food you could never make yourself but revel in the ease of enjoying it.
Rating: four stars (out of five)