By Tom Neal Tacker
This riverside restaurant located in one of Melbourne’s major urban redevelopment sites has undergone a rebirth. Chef proprietor Ray Capaldi has taken Fenix to its ultimate incarnation as one of the city’s top diners.
Sipping dry oloroso sherry, we perused the menu and dining room. Floodlit eucalypts rise from the Yarra riverbank creating a natural backdrop for the floor-to-ceiling windows that make up one wall of the large room. Decoration is minimal. The focus is all on the table: white linen-draped tables, capacious chairs with ivory leather seats and armrests, quirky but utilitarian cutlery and elegant glassware. We chose the degustation, the ‘Pollination Menu’ of seven courses with wine.
Amuse bouches of liquid-nitrogen-frozen whipped eggwhite bombs encasing kaffir lime and green tea reductions arrive, exhaling steam from a huge silver bowl, and are placed with a silver spoon on bare white plates. They resemble perfect little quail’s eggs. The maître d’hôtel Paul exhorts: “Just pick it up, pop it into your mouth and let it explode. Its slight tangy bitterness should work well with your glass of Ruinart Blanc de Blancs.” He was spot on about the combination and I loved the theatricality of it. We breathed like dragons, puffing clouds of steam from our mouths for a few seconds. It was a stunning introduction to our meal. From that moment I realised I was in for a terrific experience.
A Tzatziki of juice of cucumber, yoghurt ice, summer leaves and flowers arrived in a large clear glass bowl set into an enormous white flying saucer shaped plate with an off-centre indent. Cold cubes of Lebanese cucumber were submerged under delicate slices of Telegraph cucumber. Tart yoghurt ice crystals intermingled with hints of goat’s feta. Garlic flowers and tiny cress leaves sat perkily atop. From a swan’s neck decanter the waiter poured a thin stream of malachite-green chilled cucumber juice. With it was served the ‘05 Lost Valley Cortese. This was one of the most refreshing entrées that I have ever tasted. Next up: Pork Belly with coconut noodle, nouc nam, Thai salad and laksa vinaigrette, also served on an over-sized white plate, the perfectly crisped rectangle of pork skin and meltingly tender belly meat were surrounded by a Thai inspired salad of rao ram and coriander leaves, mint chiffonnade and young pea shoots. The laksa vinaigrette was a reduced but carefully spiced version of pure laksa. The coconut noodle was an inspired addition, looking like a creamy white rice noodle. Though the dish was very pungent, the accompanying ’05 Huia Gewürztraminer from New Zealand accentuated its flavours rather than obscured them.
We were advised that the Lightly Smoked Mulloway with cream of Indian cress flower, Tokyo turnip, Szechwan scallops and cider air could not be altered to the chef’s satisfaction if it was served without scallops to avoid our dining companion’s allergy to seafood. Instead, it was recommended that we replace it with Braised Kingfish with smoked eel, fondant of pineapple, aerated red wine and black pudding crumbs. The kingfish was braised in red wine and served on a little cauliflower puree, the acidic sweetness of the pineapple countered the richness of the black pudding, the eel’s light smokiness offset the earthiness of the braise and, I think veal stock, red wine foam. This came with a superb ‘04 Frogmore Pinot Noir from Tasmania’s Coal Valley. Of the many courses we ate on the night, this was the only one not to have impressed me utterly. I believe too many ingredients spoiled it; the pineapple and smoked eel could have made separate appearances in another course.
Next was the 36 hour cooked Spring Lamb with sweetbreads, pear, molasses and dates. The portion of lamb’s neck was cooked to a point of concentrated intensity, incredibly tender, moist and rich, while two small oblongs of pureed potato added more depth (with 50% butter, they had to). The date was a simple puree of sweetness and crumbled molasses flavoured biscuit was sprinkled over a tiny roasted half pear while the sweetbread lent further succulence. The ’02 Mt. Langi Ghiran Shiraz was the winner in a night of superlative wine matches.
The first of three desserts: a Peach with basil, Szechwan and pineapple was brilliantly coloured and flavoured with beetroot essence, the basil sorbet’s vermilion contrasting beautifully with the white peach slices mingled with pineapple bits and the musky spice of Szechwan pepper. It was served with the previous Ruinart Blanc de Blancs N/V now transformed into a Champagne cocktail with Aperol and Peach Schnapps. Next came the Honey Puffs, looking like popcorn served with a silky smooth yoghurt ice cream. It was an adult’s childishly imagined pleasure made real. An ‘02 La Tertre Du Lys d’Or Sauternes matched the slight acidity of the yoghurt ice cream and flowery sweetness of the honey. Lastly, the Chocolate, a striking array of dried cherries, chocolate shavings, chocolate cream, chocolate syrup and chocolate crumbs arrived on another long white platter, like a deconstructed Black Forest cake with a whole new topography. It looked like a contemporary artwork, shards of chocolate sticking up from a stream of dark liquid, maroon cherry spheres nestled among the spires. I stared at it for a long while trying to work out how to eat it without destroying its beauty.
Coffee was served cool in a tall Martini glass. It was a heady concentration of espresso with a lasting crema. I sipped it and thought, “Why not?” If a coffee granita, coffee sorbet and short black can be combined in one, this was it. Petits fours of rosewater delight, chocolate truffles and tiny Madeleines finished the meal.
Ray Capaldi requires his floor staff to attend four-day cooking workshops before they are allowed to interact with customers. He also requires his chefs to work the dining room occasionally so they are reminded of the importance of service. They are all exceptionally professional as a consequence. There is no stuffiness either. From the facial expressions I observed on other diners (the restaurant was full by the way), this is no solemn temple dedicated to gastronomic navel gazing. Instead laughter and the clatter of cutlery against plates filled the room. Happiness and bonhomie ruled.
$160 with wine
680 Victoria Street
Richmond, VIC 3121
Tel: 03 9427 8500