It's been a long time since I was unsure of what cutlery to use but I just don't know whether to pick up my chopsticks or my knife and fork. The table at Pearl, in the riverside Melbourne suburb of Richmond, is set with both, as delicate little furls of Western Australian pearl meat sit in a polished South Sea pearl shell before me. I choose chopsticks.
This is a not uncommon dilemma in Australian restaurants, as an upcoming generation of chefs fluent in both south-east Asian and European cookery open a wave of brave new restaurants. It is particularly obvious in Melbourne, where Australian cooking is being given its most original, most exciting and most Australian voice. Melbourne loves food. It is a city of great foodshops and markets, dedicated home cooks and loyal and dedicated restaurant-goers who are savvy enough to keep their chefs honest and up-to-speed.
Pearl is one of the most glittering of the new breed of Melbourne restaurants; a minimalist, glamorous establishment tucked away on the ground floor of a new apartment block near the River Yarra. A year old, it's still a bit of a scene, with its padded walls, Pirelli flooring, white moulded chairs, sleek bar, mother-of-pearl laminated walls, and loud, appreciative, all-age-and-stage, smartly dressed crowd.
Thirty-seven-year-old owner/chef Geoff Lindsay is a walking, talking barometer of the state of Melbourne dining. Through his years at local legends, Stephanie's, Blake's and Stella, he has cooked his way through French, Mediterranean and modern south-east Asian. Where he has been, Australian food has been. Where he is going, Australian food is going.
There is real strength of purpose here, with none of the flim-flam of fusion. In his kitchen, cuisines rarely stray over the borders of their own individual plates. So a fish head curry is spiced in the traditional Singapore manner, even if the presentation is somewhat radical – fish heads rampant, glaring at the ceiling. A dashi broth with beancurd, "dancing bonito", and local tuna and salmon is 100 per cent Japanese in inspiration. Orecchiette with long-cooked borlotti beans, broccolini and rosemary oil is single-mindedly Italian. And a mixed grill of lamb with fennel seed sausages, green pea custard and young beans is a salute to Lindsay's own Anglo/Oz upbringing.
The pearl meat – technically, the abductor muscle of the goldlip pearl oyster – may sound like tokenism, but is, in fact, a dish of some presence. The thin shavings have a sweet, abalone-like flavour that is sympathetic to the shiitake mushrooms, ginger, soy and chive buds with which they have been stir-fried.
This sets up the palate for what is to be one of the most original, surprising and satisfying meals I have eaten. A colourful, scattered salad of buffalo mozzarella, red and yellow peppers, lemon oil and basil resembles a pizza topping without the pizza underneath, an unexpected and inspired take on the tired old Caprese salad.
More in-your-face freshness lands, in a salad of marinated fetta, sunflower shoots and olives topped with a pale, glistening blob of clear tomato jelly. It is summer on a plate, with flavours running from sweet to acid to salty, and textures zig-zagging from crisp to crunchy to wet to wobbly.
Armed with the beautifully balanced Di Stasio Yarra Valley Pinot Noir 2000 from a sensibly Pinot and Sauvignon Blanc-laden wine list, I am more than ready for Lindsay's meaty treatment of bluewater barramundi. At its best (fresh and wild), this is a magnificent fish, but it is given added grandeur by being marinated in soy, teamed with Chinese sausage and gingered Chinese cabbage, rolled in a cylinder and fried until gloriously crisp and gnarled on the outside. It's a treat to eat; sweet, succulent and complete in itself.
Coconut-braised duck with crisp-fried shallots, mint, sweet Thai fish sauce and coconut rice is a hawker stall feast of honest flavours gussied up for the table. Individual bowls of fragrant rice, a frazzled, deep-fried egg and a rich duck-leg curry contribute different levels of complexity that combine to produce a dish that is a minefield of flavour.
There's no rest for the wicked here, as the puds are mind-boggling. First, a delicate, perfumed assembly of rose petal ice-cream, Turkish delight and Persian fairy floss, and second, a rare foray into culinary cross-dressing. The dark, square ceramic plate has four compartments, each holding a crisp taro dumpling crowned with a fleck of gold leaf and filled with a gooey, bittersweet Valhrona chocolate; like a sweet version of the foie gras cromesqui.
In other words, wow. This is not the work of a grab-it-and-run, anything-goes artist, but of a thoughtful, resourceful, cosmopolitan chef who has taken due notice of his time and place, doing what he knows and loves. His menu is his "songline", to borrow a term from the Australian Aborigines, tracing his path in life.
What Lindsay has on his side is the element of surprise. Walking into the place is a surprise, the menu is full of surprises, the high level of service and knowledge is a surprise, how well the ideas gel and the flavours harmonise is a surprise. This isn't as patronising as it sounds, because I thought I knew the restaurants of my home country like the back of my hand – so if I'm surprised, it's a fair bet that you will be, too.
Pearl, 631 Church Street, Richmond, Melbourne, Australia, tel: 00 613 9421 4599. Open daily 12-3pm, 6-10pm. Around A$180 (£70) for two with wine and serviceReuse content