Melbourne fine dining – Amaru
Greedy Girl and her dear friends Pucci Girl and the Francophile always get together to celebrate birthdays. A belated ‘bonne anniversaire’ dinner for Greedy Girl recently took place in one of Melbourne’s more well-heeled suburbs, Armadale, at Amaru.
Melbourne fine dining has, admittedly, been in a little bit of a funk of late. Apart from the extraordinary Attica and Vue de Monde, most of the high-end action seems to have been in Sydney, although new players such as Lume in South Melbourne and the revival of the ex-Loam team at Geelong’s Igni have kick-started fine dining back to life. Amaru is another relative newbie and it’s perhaps not particularly surprising then, that the restaurant is the vision of ex-Vue de Monde chef Clinton McIver.
McIver is undoubtedly a chef of great talents – in between Vue de Monde and opening Amaru he was able to put a suburban bowls club in the outer Melbourne suburb of Clayton on the culinary map. As of early 2016, he’s taken over a shopfront on High Street, Armadale for a very small restaurant, serving inventive and adventurous food.
A long and fairly narrow building, there is a handful of tables for small groups at the front of the restaurant, with a large spot down the back, separated from the open kitchen by a wall. That’s where we found ourselves one dark and chilly night, to sample the tasting menu described on the restaurant’s website as “a small contemporary dining encounter valuing sensibility of flavour and produce, first and foremost”. It’s a very small space with muted decor, but far from sterile. Greedy Girl and gluttonous husband took advantage of a ‘love seat’ at the large group table, which could easily accommodate 10 or more. There is also, apparently a ‘chef’s table’ which can seat up to six, on high stools directly overlooking the kitchen counter.
While there are a number of options for diners at lunch, in the evening it’s a tasting menu for the table, with various dietary requirements accommodated. We had six ‘snack’ plates to start, six main and then a small sweet offering to finish. The ingredients used and the style of food was very unique and, for the most part, quite enjoyable.
First among our snacks were trout pearls with a hazelnut emulsion, served with purple potato chips. Greedy Girl had a lot of purple potato during her recent US tour and, for the most part, thinks they’re incredibly overrated. These however were very good and the seasoning was excellent.
Next was a delicate-looking dish. This was described as eel, onion and pickles. Eel is an ingredient that often polarises diners. Greedy Girl has had several dishes featuring eel, particularly throughout Victoria, which have been extraordinary and this was right up there. The little crunchy ‘meringues’ were a fantastic texture.
We then moved to artichoke skins with fresh walnut. The edible items here were also hidden among various props but this was a delicate mix of flavours, accompanied by some oaty shards that were very nice.
The next dish was exceptionally vibrant. From the first look at the plate we thought we were in for scallops but these turned out to be elegantly-shaped kipfler potatoes served in a cabbage butter. It was enjoyable but we thought it could have used a fraction more seasoning.
Next up was was another unique combination – swede, natural yeast and blood sausage. This took Greedy Girl back to her childhood, where blood sausage (or black pudding) was a weekend treat. Greedy Girl relished it – until she found out what it actually was and teen squeamishness took over. As an adult, however, she enjoys it in moderation, enjoying the depth and richness it brings. The puffiness of this dish gave it a light and welcome texture.
Next was, in Greedy Girl’s opinion, the dish of the night, Chawanmushi with mud crab, onion juice and horseradish – pictured at the top of this post. This can be succinctly summed up: absolutely delightful. The delicate look of the dish, the aroma and the flavour all came together in perfect harmony. It was worth the price of admission alone …
But as one dish delighted, the next was a little bit of a let down. This was organic hen egg, hidden inside wrapped strips of celeriac, with sea butter. From the look of the dish, we thought it was calamari. The celeriac tore apart (with a fair bit of resistance it has to be said) to reveal the egg inside. It didn’t really have much flavour at all and we didn’t enjoy the texture.
We then moved to octopus from Western Australia with shaved squid and sea grapes. This was an exceptionally pretty plate of food and the flavours and textures worked well – a big contrast to the previous dish.
Next up was dry-aged pigeon smoked in hay, with leek hearts, charred leek oil and a burnt rock oyster. Greedy Girl eyed it warily, not being an enormous fan of pigeon but this was almost enough to sell her on trying more of this particular meat. It was a beautifully presented dish with an interestingly mild flavour to the pigeon. Greedy Girl generally steers away from anything that is too ‘gamey’ but this was enjoyable.
We were into the latter stages of the menu. Next was toasted hay, apple vinegar, unfiltered olive oil and muntries also known as native cranberries, most often found in the lower eastern parts of South Australia. We had to search among the various items contained in the dish to find them but they were very pleasant in the mouth.
In the more unique tasting menus, concepts of dessert can be challenging. Here, we had roasted artichoke with Fuji apple and verbena. Beautifully presented, it was a delightfully light dish that managed to be comforting as well. Very, very clever.
And there was one more little treat – ‘four pillars’ jubes with a shiso ganache and sunflower. A lovely mouthful to finish on.
Apparently the chef and his Brazilian partner (who is often found front of house), made up the name ‘Amaru’ as a hybrid of an Aboriginal word ‘amaroo’, meaning beautiful place and amar, the Portuguese word for love. There is definitely a worldwide feel to the staff, with a Japanese sommelier. Everyone is clearly passionate about the food, but it can be tricky to get much detail about the dishes that we could understand. Still, the welcome and the service is authentically warm and personable.
It has to be said that this strip, once a very vibrant shopping area of Melbourne, has turned into a bit of a wasteland in recent years so opening this establishment in this location is a very gutsy move indeed. Greedy Girl applauds the food and the ambience, and hopes it thrives. This level of creativity in Australian cooking should be fostered.
1121 High Street, Armadale