Ondine


Ondine

Ondine, 299 Queen Street, Melbourne, 9602 3477

For some, realisation comes later than others. The talent behind est est est was never entirely manifest for me until a dinner in June last year. I won't bore you with the details; suffice to say that Donovan Cooke's vichyssoise with freshly shucked oysters remains one of the most satisfying things I have ever eaten. And the rest of the food, wine and service dripped with inspiration, too.

By that stage, nearly four years into the restaurant's life, co-proprietor Frank Heaney had gathered a floor team whose enthusiasm diffused the sometimes funereal ambience of est. It was actually a fun night out.

But by then, talk was already rife of evolution; that est, in some form, would move from South Melbourne to something bigger and smarter. Probably in the city.

The owners had done what they could with Clarendon Street. And from a practical point of view - not that the diner should necessarily care what goes on behind the scenes - the kitchen was ordinary. Give these guys a smart room, with good facilities, it was reasoned, and you'd have a seriously good restaurant. An even better one than est had become.




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And so someone has.

Enter uber-architect Nonda Katsalidis, whose basement Republic Tower restaurant wasn't really going anywhere. Est closed; Luxe - est's St Kilda venture - was sold; plans to re-launch as Sous Sol, in Russell Street's Hero building, were put on the back burner.

And for now, Cooke, his wife Philippa, and front-man Heaney are running Katsalidis' restaurant. It's called Ondine. And it is seriously good.

A multi-layered space of infinite surfaces - glass, timber, carpet, bluestone, cut concrete, cement render, leather, sculpture and other modern art - the dining room manages both the intimacy that comes from being cocooned within warm materials with a modest ceiling height and the feeling of optimism and light that comes from the vast, abutting atrium. Access to Republic Cafe from the restaurant has been closed, making Ondine a discrete entity.

The things that were good about est est est are good about Ondine. Service. Wine. Personnel. And, of course, food. I don't want to imply any particular expertise on the Cooke/Sibley-Cooke food, but it seems to have lightened up over the years, drawing influences from Australia and local preferences without losing its classical roots. That's most obvious at lunch, when dishes are pared back to a simpler, less-embellished formula than at night (with appropriately lower prices). But even when the sun has gone, the food, while very refined, is never fussy. It's post French-classical, post New British, and thoroughly New Australian.

Tables are simple: good glasses, white linen, classic cutlery, sel gris, a disc of French butter, no pepper, supremely comfortable leather-upholstered bistro chairs (or banquettes). Petite, crusty submarines of house-made bread cruise the dining room in a basket borne by smiling waiters.

Right.

First, an intensely flavoured, frothy little yabbie bisque with Cognac that, like everything sensational, is short, sharp and leaves unrequited desire. Pieces of yabbie flesh are suspended in a slightly creamy soup that combines persistent shellfish/fortified liquor flavours with a seductive mouth-feel. The perfect tease.

Continuing with extraordinary liquids, a sparkling, vine-ripened tomato consomme ($20) comes alive in the mouth, scented with baby basil and other baby herbs as well as the obvious smells of seafood: pipi, shavings of calamari, a scallop. Two black pasta parcels - agnolotti of crustacea - lurk in the raspberry-coloured depths. The sweet-savoury flavour balance of the consomme challenges description; the dish is stunning.

So, too, is a salad combining grilled figs, various baby lettuces, smoked duck breast and roasted scallops, ringed with a jammy, golden and warm mustard fruit dressing ($19.50). Like all the dishes, there is careful order to the assembly of the components, but not so you'd call it overworked. Ondine's is a spare art.

This time, smoky, rare duck with a salty-chewy skin gets into bed with the faintly sweet, fleshy figs, makes love, and asks the scallops to make it a menage a trois. The addition of scallops perhaps shouldn't work, but it does, and it's absolutely memorable.

The menu is a wonderland of modern fine dining. A "tranche" of poached salmon ($30), pink flesh falling away in firm leaves, is served on a bright tomato "sauce gazpacho" studded with dried black olive. The counterpoint is a cannelloni filled with mudcrab and soft herbs, including coriander, draped in a creamy fish veloute that has seen 20 seconds of salamander flame, leaving salty brown hints. The dish is a stunner, although the crab, tonight, is oversalted, the only fault of the evening's cooking.

A simple, dark-roasted pigeon ($36) arrives, sectioned, on top of sauteed spinach and a gallette of ultra-finely sliced potato. The dish says a lot about Cooke, particularly the sauce: rich, powerfully flavoured yet light in consistency, it is a pigeon stock mounted at the last minute with foie gras butter and finished with pellet-sized zanti red grapes and their marinade, Muscat de Beaumes de Venise. A perfect expression of the liaison between game bird and grape.

Sorbet. The perfect lemon sorbet in a martini glass.

Then more grilled figs, this time part of a vacherin - a meringue dessert - with soft, piped and perfect vanilla icecream over them ($16). The meringue, too, is perfect: piped to create a raft of side-by-side tubes - like a li-lo - it has a distinctly art deco appearance, and each raft forms the upper and lower decks of a "sandwich". Blueberries in a red wine/star anise syrup guard opposite corners of the rectangular plate.

Last is a "tartlet" of fresh raspberries ($17), which may suggest a flaky pastry (it did to us): it is, in fact, a tart of sable pastry with its unique texture somewhere between shortbread and cake. It is layered with white Valrhona chocolate, a circle of berries dusted - like little alpine spruces - with icing sugar. A quenelle of lovely raspberry sorbet at the centre is touched with gold leaf. Notwithstanding the quality of the components, this was the only dish that didn't do it for me in a major way. Sable biscuits just don't ring my bells.

If only there were space to tell of other dishes.

Ondine has the potential to become one of Melbourne's signature restaurants. It has rigour. But for now, for me, it is the best classically influenced food in Melbourne, with all the extras. A must-visit restaurant.

THE SCORE: 17/20

Very, very sophisticated. The food of Donovan and Philippa Sibley-Cooke continues to evolve at Ondine. Which means it's probably the best food in Melbourne.

Where: 299 Queen Street, Melbourne, 9602 3477

Food: modern

Bill: about $110 for two (two courses and coffee) plus drinks; cheaper at lunch

Open: Mon-Fri midday-2.30pm, 6.30-10pm, Sat 6.30-10pm

Owner: Nonda Katsalidis

Chefs: Donovan Cooke and Philippa Sibley-Cooke

Wine list: excellent, not encyclopaedic, yet full of interest. Many price points are covered, although many are above $60.

Vegetarian options: two entrees

Smoking: courtyard

Seats: 100, private room 50

Outdoor dining: internal courtyard

Wheelchair-friendly: wheelchair patrons should inquire about special arrangements

Parking: street or paid

Cards: AE BC DC MC V

Scores: 1-9: unacceptable, don't bother. 10-11: just OK, some shortcomings. 12: fair. 13: getting there. 14: recommended. 15: good. 16: really good. 17: truly excellent. 18: an outstanding experience. 19-20: approaching perfection, Victoria's best.

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