78 Williams Road Prahran, Victoria 3181
I was sitting in the grand dining room at Woodland House, sunset bathing my padded table in a luxurious golden glow, nibbling on a fried duck tongue, wondering if this kind of restaurant matters any more. Fine dining has been buried a thousand times. I've written stories declaring it dead myself. People want casual. They want to get in, get fed and get out. They don't want to spend.
And yet. It's so nice to be sitting here at a table that's better dressed than I am. I've certainly never worn anything so proficiently ironed as these tablecloths. Delightful initial impressions only become more lustrous as the parade of lovely, interesting food rolls on.
Other bonuses: conversation is easy with well-spaced tables and grandma-friendly volume, the curly-whirly decanters are marvellous, and the wine that's swirled in them is equally enchanting.
Many people still need to be told that Woodland House is the place that used to be Jacques Reymond and that the paterfamilias handed the mansion restaurant to his two head chefs at the end of 2013. Hayden McFarland and Thomas Woods put their youthful stamp on the place while honouring the majesty of the double-storied Victorian building with the special food that such premises demands.
The bowl of duck tongues is part of an array of fancy snacks that lands early; they're fried and succulent and there's no need to fret about the quack factor. Smoked eel custard is like eating a fluffy cloud that's floated over a chimney.
Razor clam, grilled over coals then panko-crumbed and fried, is tickled with horseradish. Simple pan-cooked whiting – sweet, delicate – sits in tomato "vinegar" (a light, complex soup that bounces off the astringency of tomato seeds). It's split with turmeric oil, adding mystery orange splashes and curry backnotes. What a lovely dish.
A wagyu rump cap, glazed in oyster sauce, laid over eggplant puree and served with a fresh shiso leaf, is indicative of a new direction here: it's produce-focused and refined. Restraint is powerful when it means coaxing ingredients towards deliciousness.
That's also exemplified in a roasted and glazed duck dish which is served with a side plate of fresh elderberries on the vine. They're in season for three weeks and here they are, being elderberries. You can just about taste honour for the farmer.
Service is an ongoing headache for restaurants and it's particularly troublesome at the top end. When excellent maître d' Gareth Burnett left at the end of November (he's now at Igni), chef McFarland ended up working the dining room to plug the hole.
He made the best of a tricky situation, chatting to diners and tweaking dishes as a result. The front-of-house intel has been great for the kitchen; the food is the most considered and confident it's been and, though the service team is still a little underdone, fine dining feels very alive indeed.
Rating: Four stars (out of five)