So why would I review a Melbourne restaurant - especially one that isn't inspired by Jamie Oliver and called Fifteen - in a British newspaper? Because Melbourne's most exciting new restaurant is not Fifteen, it's an invader from Sydney called Rockpool Bar & Grill.
The swashbuckling, pony-tailed Neil Perry was the prototype modern Sydney chef when he opened the original Rockpool in Sydney in 1989, and is still Australian food's best ambassador. Now he has stretched himself as far as Melbourne, where together with head chef Khan Danis, he returns to the cornerstone of his cooking - great Australian produce.
Like Wolfgang Puck's new Cut in LA's Regent Beverly Wiltshire, Rockpool Bar & Grill takes its inspiration from the classic New York steakhouse, with a dash of Vegas glamour and Aussie can-do.
Although sited on the river frontage of a large casino complex, the entrance is via a dark passage to the rear, past the chef's office, the prep kitchen, seafood tanks and glass-walled beef maturing rooms to a dimly lit bar. The statement is deliberate: what goes on at the back is as important as the front.
Suddenly, it's showtime - the dark space opening up to a dazzling kitchen, soaring ceilings, shimmering eight-metre-high walls, towers of wine bottles and floor-to-ceiling windows reflecting river and skyline. The mood is boeuf moderne, with glossy dark woods, beaten copper, and photographic portraits of prize bulls adorning the menus.
Not surprisingly, steak is the restaurant's reason for being, dry-aged between 28 and 40 days and cooked over a wood-fired grill. Uncompromisingly sourced, the grass-fed beef comes from herds raised by Perry's brother Robin at the foot of the Blue Mountains, while Kobe-style Wagyu beef is from Northern Victorian producer David Blackmore.
Seafood is taken just as seriously: the fish line-caught rather than netted, and immediately iki-jimi-spiked; while lobster, abalone and mussels are all kept live in separate tanks on the premises until ordered. In brassy brasserie style, there is also comfort food such as spaghetti (with wagyu bolognaise) and suckling pig with mustard fruits.
As Perry knows, very fresh fish is best served raw, and his four raw tastes of the sea (£10) is proof on the plate. Delicate furls of hiramasa kingfish are simply dressed with olive oil and lemon juice; tuna is spiked with pepper, ginger and coriander; ocean trout is zingy with preserved lemon and harissa, and scampi (langoustine) ceviche is a-tingle with lime.
My son Max, a huge Jamie fan and keen pasta-maker, gets stuck into silky soft goat cheese tortellini (£10) with a touch of sweet raisin reduction under three perfectly cooked wild prawns from the Spencer Gulf. Unbelievable, he says. His girlfriend Cathy, 12 hours into a 24-hour flu, dives into six shiny, briny rock oysters (£9.50) swimming in their own sea-sweet juices.
The young staff are eager recruits to the cult of produce, and rave on and on about the local Port Phillip Bay snapper (£11.50). It is justified: the skin is as crisp as crackling, and the juicy, bright flesh barely in need of either the green olive butter or the smoky tomato compote.
The richness of flavour in great produce is a lesson in itself. Grass-fed rib eye on the bone (£24.50/500g) is scorchy, crusty and beautifully rested, with real flavour and real texture.
But now, a moment of silence, please, for the Wagyu fillet. At £45 for 200g it should be called Fukyu, but it is quite a trip, melting almost before it hits the tongue, leaving nothing but a clean, singing richness in its wake.
There is a choice of sauces and proffered mustards but the Wagyu needs nothing but a graceful Tarrington Vineyard 04 Victorian pinot noir (£38), from a 52-page wine list that has all you could ever want from France, plus Australia's Most Wanted. We all dig forks into a rich, lush potato and cabbage gratin (£3) as if we weren't already riched to the max. Just for a change of pace, we then share a slice of the famously creamy Rockpool date tart (£6.50), thrillingly served chilled.
At this point, flu girl realises she hasn't snuffled for hours, and declares herself cured.
I feel the same way. Everything here is done for flavour, and served with a kind of glamorous insouciance and youthful enthusiasm that is a smack in the face to bland mass-production and to the cynically avant-garde. It's the kind of experience that reminds me why I fell in love with food and restaurants in the first place.
While £150 for two may be the norm in London's hot spots, in Melbourne it has caused much muttering about "bloody Sydney prices". The same casino complex has also signed up Australia's first Nobu to open later this year, and no doubt the arrival of Nobu Matsuhisa will help put things into perspective for the well-fed locals. It is brilliant for Melbourne to get such a world-class chef and restaurateur at the top of his form. I think Nobu will do quite well here, too.
Scores 1-9 stay home and cook 10-11 needs help 12 OK 13 pleasant enough 14 good 15 very good 16 capable of greatness 17 special, can't wait to go back 18 highly honourable 19 unique and memorable 20 as good as it gets
Rockpool Bar & Grill, Crown Complex, Southbank, Melbourne, Australia, tel: 00 613 8648 1900, www.rockpool.com.au. Lunch served Sunday to Friday. Dinner served daily. Around £150 for two including wine and service.
Second helpings: More Melbourne hot spots
Vue de Monde Normanby Chambers, 430 Little Collins Street, Melbourne, tel: 00 613 9691 3888 Restless and risk-taking, owner/chef Shannon Bennett is Australia's newest culinary pin-up boy. Silky French cooking skills are here teamed with charming service, serious wines and a very modern agenda.
Lau's Family Kitchen 4 Acland Street, St Kilda, Melbourne, tel: 00 613 8598 9880 This St Kilda newcomer is run by the great Gilbert Lau, founder of the legendary Flower Drum, and his family. It may be just a suburban Chinese, but people kill for one of the few tables.
Fifteen 115-117 Collins Street, Melbourne, tel: 00 613 8648 6000 Melburnians have more than enough good Italian food already, but still Tobie Puttock's outpost of Jamie's charitable restaurant empire is booked solid. Can't have anything to do with all the publicity.
Email Terry Durack about where you've eaten lately at firstname.lastname@example.orgReuse content