On a site dedicated to food it seems appropriate that I tell you about the best dining experience that I ever had. I should qualify this statement further by defining it as a restaurant dining experience. The dinner was at Vue de Monde; a modern French restaurant in Melbourne, which has been showered with the highest of accolades, amassed awards aplenty and takes months to get into. It is run by Shannon Bennett. Shannon has been the “it” chef for quite a while. A fair effort in a town that prides itself on its food and restaurants and is as quick to condemn as is it to praise.
So how was the dinner and what made it so memorable? Well, dinner at Vue de Monde is degustation only. You can have between five and fifteen courses. Now this appeals to me on a number of fronts, not the least of which is that I get to taste more than the standard three dishes in an entrée main desert situation. However, degustation menus have come under a fair bit of scrutiny in the food press here lately, eliciting such comments as;
“Is the degustation menu really about eating? Or could it be more about worshipping today’s chef – almost as rock star – as he showcases his creativity and theatrical presentation to a captive audience”,
“…some less-satisfied diners have been known to resort to a Big Mac on the way home after the eight, 10, 12 or so tiny courses”, and
“Is degustation a pretentious waste of time, or the perfect way to sample the work of top chefs?”
No prizes for guessing my position on this debate, so on to the food.
One of the standout reasons for this being the best is that as I write this in May 2007 I can still remember every mouthful I had of the meal eaten in late December 2006. Now although I am sure that they exist, I never saw a menu at Vue de Monde. After being seated and offered an aperitif, the principle food waiter explained that the kitchen had over 80 dishes and that the aim was to uncover our food preferences and create a degustation menu to suit. We chose to have 5 savoury and 2 sweet dishes. In the end this was probably one too many! After you include the amuse gueles, the palate cleansers and the tempters, not to mention the petit fours you end up with a lot of food. Our sommelier convinced us to get the matched wines. A decision well made. We had some very unusual pairings, but each brought out the best in both food and wine. There was nothing that failed to impress and this extended beyond the food itself. From the Laguiole cutlery and beautiful flatware, to the Alessi toothpick holder and the test-tube vase (that looked more like a sculpture than something that would merely hold a flower) everything contributed to a look that balanced individuality and style.
I won’t bore you with the blow-by-blow description of each course (many a friend has already endured this painstaking recollection, if you wish to hear me wax lyrical about each bite, drop me a line and I will be MORE than happy to!). Instead, I will pick out a couple of highlights.
The last savoury dish was a piece of slow cooked pork belly resting atop a jellied French onion consommé, accompanied by batons of apple and blood pudding flambéed in Calvados brandy with a finishing touch of a citrus foam. The dish was paired with an Australian Nebbiolo. What an impact! The combination of flavours and textures was sublime. So taken with this dish was I, that, after the necessary research, I went shopping and got all of the ingredients and tools necessary to re-create the dish at home. Whilst my culinary foam may not be to Ferran Adria’s standards, I think I have done okay! To ensure nothing was missed, after much hunting and investigating, the very hard to come by Pizzini Nebbiolo was also acquired. It will be drunk when I get the foam 100%.
The other dish (if you can call it that) that I rave the most about was the “pre-desert” tempter. It was a small icy pole on a little stick. Not a difficult concoction, but what grabbed me was the flavour pairing: raspberry and tarragon. Sensational. I have since served a granita version of this with very finely sliced and oven baked pineapple to drooling dinner guests.
The final thing that stands out in my mind about this experience was the very last interaction with the staff. To set the scene properly; it is a Friday night in Melbourne two days before Christmas. It is raining. Every man and his dog are in the CBD. And they all want cabs. We are amongst the last to leave the restaurant and the maitre d’ has called us a cab. Standing in the doorway trying to avoid the rain, we are most pleased to see our cab arrive. The Vue de Monde doorman goes to the cab to open the door for us. However, just as he does, a group of rude and drunken diners emerge and go straight to our waiting taxi. After a stream of abusive from the leader of this merry pack they take what they clearly see as their rightful seats and disappear into the night. Great! Just how we wanted the night to end. After trying valiantly but unsuccessfully to get through to the taxi company to order another cab, our lovely doorman walks to the main road and stands in the rain until he hails us a cab. Now that is service.