Vue de Monde, Melbourne – a changed Vue
In the Melbourne Good Food Guide awards earlier in 2012, restaurant of the year was awarded to Vue de Monde, an establishment that has long flown the flag for French haute cuisine in Australia. On seeing it had been awarded three chefs hats Greedy Girl was, frankly, skeptical having dined there around nine months earlier.
The tom toms had been beating loudly since chef/entrepreneur Shannon Bennett moved the centrepiece of his culinary empire to the 55th floor of Melbourne’s second tallest building, the Rialto. Much was made of the kangaroo skin chairs, the fearsomely expensive Christofle cutlery resting on Grange vines and, of course, the panoramic vista of the city and Port Phillip Bay.
And spectacular it was – the dramatic, blacked-out lift whisks the diner on an express trip to the top of the building. Staff press concealed buttons to open swinging doors leading through the glass-fronted, temperature-controlled wine racks to arrive in the dining room proper, hugging two sides of the building, around a central, open kitchen.
All the famed accoutrements were in evidence. Settling in for what Greedy Girl hoped would be a fine feed, she left several hours later having experienced a significant piece of theatre but hardly raving about the flavours. It was good but hardly great and lost out considerably when compared to other dining experiences in Australia and around the world.
It took a dear friend’s milestone birthday to lure us back. Like Noah we proceeded two-by-two to the chef’s table and snacked on parsnip crisps with a quite extraordinary macadamia nut and apple dip while we waited for the guest of honour. Once she arrived and the first glass of champagne was poured, we braced ourselves for the onslaught.
If the average daily calorie intake is around the 1500 mark, the full-on degustation at Vue de Monde is possibly a week’s worth. Never one to back away from a food challenge, despite the potential damage to arteries and thickening of waistline, Greedy Girl and Co. (including gluttonous husband) promptly went into chow down mode.
First came the ‘snacks’. Our absolutely delightful waiter James presented us with four to get the party started. Oysters were warmed in the shell and slicked with a tiny amount of garlic butter. Second were tiny celeriac parcels filled with a sesame paste. Third up were crispy smoked eel cubes mixed with white chocolate and caviar and fourth was loin of wallaby, served on an Himalayan salt block, heated to 60 degrees. The wallaby, sliced thin, was raw but cured by the heat and salt.
James rolled each sliver of meat around a wild garlic flower with a pair of red lacquer chopsticks, chatting animatedly all the while. Did Greedy Girl say French haute cuisine earlier? French techniques, bien sur, but here was multi-culturalism laid bare. Having eaten kangaroo on innumerable occasions, this was Greedy Girl’s first taste of wallaby. Very flavourful. A very good start. It was, however, a little weird to eat with one’s hands and not have a napkin to blot the slightly becrumbed, greased digits, let alone any errant traces left on the mush.
And so into the menu proper. First up was a very pretty-looking dish of crab with avocado, wafer-thin slices of German radish, garlic flowers and coastal herbs. Again, light, fresh and continued to whet the appetite. Bring it on.
Appearing at our elbows in time for the second course was a hot towel. Perhaps, Greedy Girl mused, this was a variance on the napkin. We soon learned why. We were treated to a delightful marron tail from Western Australia and encouraged to pick it up in our fingers and dip into an avocado-based smear and then into a salty, fine marron powder, presumably from a roasted shell. For ‘afters’ there was a marron sandwich with a splodge of shredded flesh, presumably derived from whatever could be salvaged from the claws, between two wafers. This dish was seriously good. Resisting temptation to lick the remaining avocado from the plate, Greedy Girl mopped with a piece of bread, kept warm in small leather pouches containing a hot rock.
Seated at the chef’s table, we had front row seats to what was happening in the kitchen. It’s a triumph of sustainable design with no whooshing open flames and a bevy of workers going about their business with ruthless efficiency and very little chatter. On our previous visit to the Rialto incarnation (more about the restaurant’s ‘other lives’ later) each course was presented by a chef and, as mentioned earlier, the resulting feeling was more about style and theatre rather than flavour. This time, the delightful James and his colleagues presented most of the dishes, except for our next course, a take on French onion soup.
We’d seen the 70s-style coffee percolator before which is the vessel for the broth infused with onion skins, poured at the table over a bowl of onions done in several styles. Crispy onion rings, there was picked pearl onion which had the most outrageously wonderful flavour and a variety of other types. As a final flourish, black truffles from Western Australia were shaved over the top. The soup was, in a word, delightful. Did it gain anything from the truffle? Not one bit. There was none of that unmistakable aroma or taste.
Next up was what James described as brunch. A duck egg (yolk only) quivered on top of a bed of celeriac puree and accompanied by asparagus in a number of styles. Thin ribbons gave additional texture alongside breaded spears and a variety of herbs, including mint and leaves. Who needs bacon with eggs when you can have this? Greedy Girl would happily devour it every morning for a month and was equally pleased to hoover it up on a cool Melbourne evening.
Showing the restaurant is happy to look after dietary requirements, our beautiful guest of honour had opted not to have what she termed ‘visible egg’. She was presented with a delicate platter of sliced pork fillet with braised pork cheek. Greedy Girl has had plenty of fine dining experiences where, on expressing dislike for a particular ingredient, gets the dish as it was originally conceived – just with that ingredient missing. As a result, the dish is rarely satisfying.
It was time for a palate cleanser. A dish of herbs and flowers was placed in front of each of us with a small wooden pestle. Our friendly waiters brought over a soda fountain containing liquid nitrogen and sprayed liberally. We were instructed to pound for our lives. The snap-frozen herbs crumbled to dust and the liquid nitrogen quickly evaporated. All commented we didn’t want to end up like the unfortunate teenager in the UK who’d required her stomach to be removed after drinking a liquid nitrogen cocktail. It would have made eating the rest of the meal so much more tricky, but I digress … Once pounded into dust, we were then given a quenelle cucumber sorbet to mix in. Very cold, very refreshing.
We were heading into the serious part of the experience now. Our next dish was cubes of line-caught barramundi with a thin coating of prawn, served with a bone marrow butter. Very strong flavours that worked exceptionally well together.
Next up was pigeon. From Queensland we were told but assured the birds hadn’t flown all the way south. Probably would have made them a little tired and stringy. We had breast, served rare and cooked quickly, while the thigh was done in a confit style overnight for nine hours. The difference in flavour between the two styles was extraordinary with the confit thigh tasting far more gamey.
Into the final savoury dish for the night, Greedy Girl’s pathological hatred of beetroot meant she was the odd woman out. The others had wagyu beef skewers prepared on a portable charcoal burner at the table with a medley of beetroot flavours and leaves with a butter and beetroot reduction. All at the table raved while Greedy Girl was very happy with her lamb loin and crunchy, almost sweet skin served separately. It was almost like a lamb ‘crackling’ and again remarkable. This was served with what was termed ‘mustard air’ – light, not outrageously strong in flavour, but a thoroughly yummy condiment.
It was time for dessert/cheese. All starting to groan under the sheer volume, we opted to forgo the first of the desserts, a mandarin confection and go straight for the tonka bean souffle, served with a dark chocolate mousse piped on top and a quenelle of smoked chocolate ice cream sinking down into the fluffy, sugary hot air. It tasted great but Greedy Girl ate around what she considers to be the most over-rated element of all sweets – the ice cream. Gluttonous husband was very happy to accept the melted leftovers.
No chance of putting a hand up for the cheese cart, we went straight to coffee/tea and petits fours. Australian quirkiness was well in evidence here with jellies shaped like coins on a two-up ‘kip’, chocolates containing honeycomb popping candy, edible musk leaves, chocolate and raspberry lamingtons and a frozen sorbet that looked like the gumnuts from the eucalyptus tree – and smelt like it too.
We finished with some coffee, not for the faint hearted at $10 a pop although Greedy Girl and one of her delightful dining companions asked for tea.
No problem said our friendly waiter, he’ll send over the tea sommelier. Yep. Tea sommelier. We had a particular Chinese green tea called ‘Ali Shan’ which apparently is an oolong variety from Taiwan. It was prepared with all due ceremony. We got to smell the leaves, they were placed in a cast iron server at the table and water was poured from a Chinese iron pot. Our sommelier kept a close eye on his ‘egg timer’ to ensure the ultimate steeping time and then strained it into a glass jug, thence into our handmade pottery cups. It was delicious. It was $20. A cup.
Having occupied our little bit of real estate for five hours, we needed to get upright and redistribute the weight. Bills were settled and we headed for the exit, accompanied by James who gave us a goodie bag containing tea, granola and honey (for our breakfast, he explained) and some chocolate-chip cookies in case we found we couldn’t make it home without additional sustenance.
Greedy Girl has enjoyed the privilege of a great many fine dining experiences but cannot remember receiving service of the level of personality and warmth than that provided by James. He said he’d been at Vue de Monde six months. One can only hope he continues the way he has begun. It was an absolute treat.
Vue de Monde has had many incarnations since it began life in a tiny shopfront (with tinier kitchen) in Carlton. In those days it was an utter revelation. It then moved to rather more salubious digs in Little Collins Street and, after, a couple of trips, Greedy Girl and gluttonous husband stopped going. The food had evolved into something that, while technically exceptional, just didn’t float our boat. The first foray when it moved to its multi-million dollar Rialto refit we felt was also more about style than substance. That’s no longer the case. Save, scrimp, beg – do whatever you can to experience one of not only Australia’s great meals but one that would stand up anywhere on the world stage.
With thanks to Vue de Monde for supplying the photo at the top of this blog.
Vue de Monde
Level 55, Rialto
525 Collins Street, Melbourne