We all like a tasting menu, and we especially like one that doesn’t break the bank and gives us ample opportunity to sample each course with a matching half-glass of wine. And so this is probably part of the reason why we came away from ex-The Point Scott Pickett and Ryan Flaherty’s Northcote eatery - Estellle - feeling more than a little pleased with ourselves. I imagine it also had something to do with the efficient and friendly staff (our waitress ransacked the kitchen to find me a safety pin when the strap on my dress broke, despite it being smack in the middle of a crazy Saturday night service), and attractive, simply styled surrounds. Add to that a bar that is perfect for long, booze-fuelled grazing sessions, intimate courtyard and some of the nicest toilets to inhabit a converted garden shed I have come across.
You can order a la carte, but with a choice of 4,5 or 7 course tasting menus it seems this is the way to go – each comes with matching wines, should you so wish. We opted for 5 courses with just one of us going for wine over water (sadly, PhotoMonkey was on scooter duty that night). We were asked if there was anything we had spotted on the menu that we didn’t want to eat and if we had any allergies. A resounding no, bar my thing about animal insides and his thing about eggs.
So, first up a little taster from the kitchen, the cheesiest, moistest (in a good way – it managed to be dense with cheese flavour and yet light and crumbly at the same time) cheese ‘straws’ (for want of a better word) I have ever encountered and whipped crème fraiche with a kind of posh rice cracker sprinkled with black pepper perched on top. Light and perfect for nibbling on.
First course – heirloom beetroot salad, ashed goat’s cheese and pea shoots – matched with a grassy sauvignon blanc if memory serves. I know, we’re bad food bloggers who omitted to write down vital information; just take my word that it tasted good. This dish served to demonstrate what I first encountered back in London (at Gordon Ramsay’s Claridges, ahem, excuse the name check) – that even if you don’t like an ingredient normally and would never cook it yourself (celery, beetroot and rhubarb for me), chances are if a chef worth his salt has a crack at it you’ll be converted, for that meal at least. Well, this is what happened here – beautifully juicy, earthy yet sweet purple and yellow beets complemented by a salty kick of chevre. Perfect.
Next in the list of ingredients converted into mouthwatering meals (the simple menu is just a list of the main components of a dish) was smoked eel, carrot and camomile…
…and then confit salmon, spring peas and quail egg served with a reisling and a rose. Great range of flavours from the two fish dishes – fresh and a joy to eat.
The main protein dish was corned beef. Yep, that school lunch stalwart that had me sworn off any processed meat product for life. And yet here the dense square of beef is a rich red, as opposed to the anaemic grey of my childhood nightmares, and has been boiled to perfection. Moist, full of texture and plenty of flavour. Served with a parsnip puree it made for a surprising change from more common meat main courses. We got two wines here – apparently the barman was yet to decide between a shiraz and a cabernet sauvignon – so he sought out assistance. As a diehard shiraz fan I initially opted for the earthy/spicy tones of the former. However, it might have just been a bit too much for the surprisingly delicate flavours of the dish.
The dessert – a pretty in pink broken-up meringue dish with gently stewed rhubarb, rose and musk – was served with a glass of lightly fizzy moscato.
So there you have it – 5 courses, not one of them a dud, with a nice mix of wines. Great explanations of what was on the plate from the serving staff (if only we could remember them now!) and a lively, buzzing atmosphere. This place is a fine example of competent cooking that doesn’t push the boundaries, and nor should it. This is simple food, excellently executed – and at the end of the day, isn’t that what we all really want on a warm summer’s night?
What are your favourite degustation dinners in Melbourne?