This restaurant has now closed.

It’s a truism that visitors to a city often miss out on some wonderful food experiences because of a lack of local knowledge. Restaurants, cafes and bars abound in major tourist areas and a great many of them leave a lot to be desired. They’re expensive, noisy, offer poor service and the food is, at best, unremarkable and sometimes downright awful.

Happily, Trocadero – a brasserie that opened in August 2012 – is the antithesis of a tourist trap. It’s located in Hamer Hall, the main concert venue of Melbourne’s arts precinct, on the banks of the Yarra River and boasts a delightful view across to the CBD. It could easily be an establishment that doesn’t need to try very hard – lots of passing trade, a great spot to sit and enjoy a drink (inside or out) and easily accessed by tourists and locals alike but it doesn’t rest on any of its positional advantages. Greedy Girl has dined there four times now and each time has left impressed by the quality and the value of the food.

There’s an Italian sensibility to chef Nick Bennett’s cuisine, perhaps reflecting his previous gig as a sous chef at Cecconi’s Cantina, with some wider European and Asian influences. The dishes have clean, fresh flavours with a touch of creativity that sets the cooking apart from a standard brasserie. A signature dish and one worth getting on a plane for is his onion risotto, a dish of golden perfection with salty, cheesy and slightly sweet flavours and a beautiful array of textures thanks to some charred onion rings, pickled pearl onions and toasted grains.

On each of the three previous visits, such was the comforting nature of this dish, Greedy Girl couldn’t go past ordering it and had to be sorely tempted to divert from the script this time. But we’ll come to that – there were starters to scout first. With the sun streaming through the windows and a glass of Rimauresq Cru Classe 2011 rose from Provence in hand, we perused the menu and the daily specials written on the mirrored walls. We chose berkshire pork cacciatore and venison calabrese salami from the standard menu. It was shaved so thin that some of the fat in the berkshire pork was translucent. Both meats were incredibly tasty and soft, served with a couple of salted grissini. A delicious, light start.

Gluttonous husband chose a special starter, crispy fried soft shell crab with a green mango salad and a peppered caramel. Greedy Girl was first exposed to soft shell crab in Singapore about 15 years ago and needed an attitude shift to get her head around eating the shell. Fried crisp, the shell has a slightly papery texture and a willing conduit for any accompanying flavours. On this occasion it was an amazing peppered caramel. Sweet, sticky, spicy, it lurked almost unnoticed in the bottom of the black serving bowl but its flavour was extraordinary. It was just as well the dish was being shared because it was substantial in size and in richness – the green mango salad proved to be a good foil to cut through the strength of the caramel.

For mains, Greedy Girl was tempted away from her onion risotto mainstay to a special – lobster risotto with preserved lemon and radish (pictured at the top of this post). On arrival, the wait staff informed us there was only one serving left (but more on that later). Greedy Girl, an avowed lobsterphile (no correspondence please, she realises this is not actually a word but rather a state of dining euphoria) immediately put up her hand.

It’s said you eat with your eyes as much as your tastebuds and this was one spectacularly pretty dish. The risotto was dressed with a lobster veloute giving it a strong flavour that almost overpowered the preserved lemon. The thinly sliced radishes and what appeared to be a few shavings of fennel were there exclusively for texture. It almost tasted like a lobster bisque with rice thrown in although was obviously nowhere near as wet. It was an interesting, enjoyable dish but way too big and rich for Greedy Girl to devour. Gluttonous husband to the rescue.

For his part, he was busy polishing off hapuka with smoked beetroot, pistachio, pine mushrooms and horseradish. Hapuka is a member of the grouper family with firm, white flesh. It was cooked extremely well from the way it flaked apart. Greedy Girl tasted the flesh and enjoyed its mild taste. Gluttonous husband tucked into the smoked beetroot and marvelled at the way it went with the fish. Using the famous last words: “I know you don’t like beetroot but you should try this”, he smeared some on another piece of fish and proffered the fork to Greedy Girl. Seconds later, a hearty ‘blah’ reverberated around the room and a gulp of rose tried to dispatch the memory of the taste. Can you truly call yourself a foodie when there are ingredients you just don’t like? Greedy Girl remains intent on continuing to find out!

Given that Trocadero occupies part of the floor space in a concert hall, it’s a popular venue for pre-theatre dining. When you book by phone you get asked if you’re attending an event and the staff get you through your meal relatively quickly. It’s also a key reason that, by 7.30pm some of the daily specials are already sold out.

A word about the service and seating arrangements. On a previous visit, we’d communicated that we weren’t going to the theatre but we were seated at possibly the worst table in the restaurant – in a passageway between the main dining area and the bar – a veritable hive of comings and goings and easily the noisiest spot outside of the bar. By 7.30, when we’d barely begun our starters, suddenly the main area was deserted. Why not seat the people who want to linger at a better spot?

Trocadero is a fantastic addition to Melbourne’s dining scene and certainly far outstrips any of the previous establishments that have been part of the arts precinct. It’s great value for money (some special dishes can get a little pricey) and, generally, it’s very comfortable. Even though it caters for very large tables, you don’t feel encroached upon. A top tip for locals and visitors alike.

Tagged under: , , , , , , ,