It has been well-publicised that Melbourne restaurateur-entrepreneur Paul Mathis is making 2012 the year to plant himself firmly in the hearts, minds and stomachs of hungry Melburnians. And it seems likely he’ll be successful too, with new outfits spanning genres, budgets and locations across the city and its suburbs. We previously visited his pizza emporium Firechief in Camberwell, liked what he was doing so decided to check out the very different Henry and the Fox, which is hidden down the Southern Cross end of Little Collins Street.

First thoughts? It’s a little bit quiet for 8pm on a Friday night, but then if Paul decided to open this place in the Paris end of Collins, it would be packed out every single night. Here’s a man who likes a challenge – he has made a bold decision to try and tempt customers to travel past the curse of the Elizabeth St invisible barrier. And from what we experienced on our visit, diners have every reason to. Once the good word gets out, we envisage girls’ nights out, lazy brunches, pre-footy drinks and nibbles (free snacks with booze you say, we’re in) and everything in between – that open decking area out front just screams after-work drinks.

Walking through the front door you will encounter a kind of L-shaped space, which moves from marble breakfast bar and open kitchen (where you can see head chef Michael Fox and his team calmly going about their duties) through to intimate dinning and mood lighting – we love the changing colours of the upside-down jam jar light shades.

On the evening we visit there is sultry live music, a really nice touch and demands you drink copious amounts of wine while contemplating the small-, medium- and large-share plate and pizza menu. And speaking of wine – they have a comprehensive wine list. We were directed to the last page, which houses a list of end-of-vintage bottles at very reasonable prices.

So what to order? We didn’t want to fill ourselves up too quickly so steered away from the pizzas. They are cooked in a classic Italian twin deck oven (sitting on the stone floor for a crispy base) at 360 degrees. Clearly, Mathis has decided that what works for Firechief will also work here.

We first met Michael Fox at the Stroke Foundation’s fundraiser evening Food for Thought, where he served a rich and meaty rabbit terrine. It was great to see him here in his natural surroundings and he helpfully took charge when it came to picking a selection of dishes.

Our food odyssey started with the perfectly cooked jamon and manchego croquettes. Piping hot, great crunchy breadcrumbs and an oozing salty filling studded with chunks of meat.

The cured kingfish, coriander and fennel seeds, mandarin and coriander shoots was a dish that beautifully combined fresh flavours. It played with a number of different elements but what jumped out was the balanced mix of aniseed and citrus. The coriander shoots also gave it extra punch. A less sour take on ceviche.

For those who have a need for a fantastic vegetarian dish – look no further than the goat’s cheese, roasted baby beets, pickled shallots, shiso and raspberry vinegar. This was a great earthy dish in which the salty goats cheese complemented the sweet beetroot. For a textural difference the freeze dried raspberries added a nice crunch. The cheese hails from Fox’s old stomping ground – Adelaide – we need to source some top tips from him for when we visit – any ideas readers?

Seafood pops up all over the menu and our next course was the seared scallops, apple and celeriac remoulade, caper and raisin puree and toasted pumpernickel. As Gordon Ramsey says at the top of his lungs every time we tune into Hell’s Kitchen, scallops are very difficult to get right. Michael fox has heeded the warning and ensured there was a nice caramelisation going on, while in inside was just cooked. This was the first time I had tasted the heavy, slightly sweet rye bread known as pumpernickel, and it brought a nice savoury contrast to the dish and anchored the light flavour of the scallop and apple ‘slaw’.

Keeping with the seafood theme, Moreton Bay bug tails, cauliflower puree with spiced cauliflower. One mouthful had us praising the succulent flesh and the smokiness/curried tones of the cauliflower. The puffed rice again added an extra crunch. There’s always a lot going on with Fox’s dishes, but it is never cluttered, thoughtless or over-the-top. Rather perfectly complementary components.

As much of a chicken fan as I was back in my younger days, I don’t often order it when I’m out. But the moist chicken breast cooked sous vide, quinoa, pistachio, fig and sorrel blew us away. This is the antithesis of a boring restaurant chicken dish. The fig was nicely chargrilled and finished with lemon oil to give it some zing.

What better way to end the mains section than with crispy pork belly, fennel, dill and orange. The belly was again perfectly succulent. The fennel was used to its full potential – sliced, pureed and in pollen form. The thin crackling was cooked without too fatty a layer underneath. The pollen gave it an aromatic and earthy hit.

Never one to give up when the going gets good we moved onto the ‘from our sweet larder’ dishes. First, a passionfruit party, passionfruit cheesecake, passionfruit mousse, jelly, granita and yoghurt sorbet.  Perfectly portioned WordMonkey stated that this was the dessert that we would be serving for out wedding in London. It even came in a mini jam jar – too cute! What I enjoyed was that there was no sharpness whatsoever. A standout dish.

Almost tipping us over the edge was the quince, pear, custard and coconut crumble with coconut ice cream.  This is a dish well worth sharing – and balanced the hot and cold elements well.

We can never turn down a doughnut. But we were feeling scarred after our last visit to Fenix where the dough was rock hard and heavy – we took one bite and pushed aside. It’s a very different situation at Henry and the Fox – these were light-as-a-feather sugar-coated balls of happinesss served with a Verona chocolate dip.

Chai Latte

Michael and Paul have a great team working their hardest to put this place on Melbourne’s dining map. Greg, our waiter for the evening, was on the ball all night and kept us entertained and thoroughly well-fed and watered.

Henry and the Fox is another different direction for Paul Mathis but one that will become a Melbourne stalwart. For those willing to hunt for a good meal that (at the moment) has seating available at a moment’s notice – do yourself a favour and give it a try. This will become one of our more frequent places to visit.

Henry and the Fox

525 Little Collins Street

CBD

Ph. 9614 3277

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