Sitting behind a flower pot fence opposite Melbourne’s gorgeously lush Royal Botanic Gardens, it seems only right that Davis Yu’s latest venture should have a slightly wild and untamed side. The sprawling townhouse (once home to another of Yu’s ambitious eateries, The Millswyn) manages to blur the boundaries between inside and outside, and esembles a boutique version of the Bennet family home (in Pride and Prejudice, of course) with its green tiled fireplace in the main downstairs space; conservatory-meets-verandah coffee house; intricate cornicing and old-school light switches; and rabbit-warren maze of upstairs rooms (a private dining room, bar area, balcony and toilets that are larger than my apartment).
But this is no lesson in Regency living conditions – not if the curious collage of images and phrases that decorate the rooms are anything to go by. Taking cues from popular culture, the walls are covered with heavily painted doodles, while in the toilets black and white photocopies of scenes from iconic movies serve as wallpaper. Oddly, it works – and rather than imparting too much personality, provides an uncluttered canvas onto which head chef Sean Judd (Mopho and Chin Chin) can project his accomplished, fresh-tasting dishes that demonstrate a strong nod to his Asian restaurant heritage.
David Yu took Melbourne by storm last year with Touche Hombre and Claremont Tonic. Bursting with neon lights, pop art posters and a pulsing soundtrack – some of their more playful quirks can be found here, the witty cocktail list, for example. However, I think it is fair to say that, despite Louie’s all-day eatery opening hours, it offers a much more refined sense of occasion.
We start off on a real high note – kingfish sashimi, shredded kaffir lime leaves, baby coriander and shallots delicately drizzled with coconut milk. Wow. After the plethora of ceviches popping up all over the city, this understated raw fish offering managed to pack a punch without relying on heaps of citrus juice. Instead, the savoury deep-fried shallots offered a subtle contrast to the sweet fish and palm sugar and soy (I think) marinade. The chillies were just hot enough and the creamy coconut a welcome cooling note. Beautifully balanced and utter perfection.
It’s not the first time someone thought of combining seared scallops, pea puree and morcilla (Spanish blood sausage), and Louie’s version just didn’t hit the highs of the first dish – it was tasty, but the sausage and puree all proved a bit too much for the delicate scallop. It was an excellent sausage, however, crumbly and rich.
Next, steamed buns stuffed with delicately battered crispy oyster, kimchi and sriracha. The chilli sauce imparted a great creeping heat, and a tangy vinegar / mayo was in there too, but the kimchi just didn’t really come through in the shredded carrot and cabbage. A tasty take on the (increasingly ubiquitous) steamed bun, just not quite the Korean flavours we were hoping for. We were rewarded by the glazed pork belly a few courses later, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
The only real misfire of the whole meal was the grilled sweetcorn on the cob with miso butter, yuzu kosho and salted ricotta. Again, this has been served up across the city recently, and while we appreciated the Asian take, the miso butter wasn’t really strong enough to make this anything more than (well-cooked) corn on the cob. After feasting on a number of delicate dishes with well-balanced flavours and incredible attention to detail, finding ourselves suddenly gnawing on a piece of corn only served to take us out of the moment. Leave the corn to Touche please, Yu.
Everything was quickly back on track when our salad arrived. Yes, a salad. A vegetarian salad at that. We would normally avoid such meat-free follies, but couldn’t resist the sight of grilled peaches and zucchini flowers (with lovely symmetrical char marks) sitting on a bed of freekeh and labne studded with cracked almonds and juicy raisins. The peaches were firm but surprisingly juicy and the sherry vinegar dressing added a great edge. It’s dishes like this that showcase Judd’s ‘clean’ ethos and will have people running straight from the Tan to dinner and be able to walk away at the end of the meal with an (almost) clear conscience.
We say almost, because the next course was a meaty, sticky, carb-fuelled extravaganza. Samjang glazed pork belly (this was pork belly heaven – the holy trinity of juicy meat, rendered fat and sticking-in-your-teeth crackling), sitting on what might be the most amazing component of a dish we have experienced so far this year – kimchi peach emulsion – with a refreshing and zingy cucumber, watermelon, bean sprout and mint salad. That peach emulsion rocked our world – a stunning orange colour, bursting with a peachy kimchi flavour that was unlike anything we have ever had before. Combined with the salad (yes, another salad) the pork belly was complete. Until we decided to check out Louie’s (sorry, Heston Blumenthal) triple-cooked chips. Crunchy and indulgent, we probably didn’t need them, but we ate them.
And then just to completely finish us off, we dug into a gloriously oozing chocolate fondant. Passionfruit ice cream lifted the glossy melted dark chocolate centre, while violent crumble (the thinking person’s Crunchie) added (sticking-in-your-teeth) textural interest.
It’s worth mentioning the Robot Ninja Sorachi lager, from Rosana in Victoria, which we hadn’t come across before. And the tasty soft drinks served in oversize jam jars.
Rolling out of the restaurant three hours later (we blame the rain), we tried in vain to avoid the gaze of Lycra-clad joggers. No we haven’t done any exercise today, and yes we just ate a lot of food, but surely it will only be a matter of weeks before a lap of the track is a euphemism for lunch at Louie?
131-133 Domain Road South Yarra