Saturday, 18 April 2009

Jacques Reymond, 17 April 2009

After a few questions enquiring where she would like to go for her birthday, my mother’s only response was “somewhere French”. As she did not want to be anywhere near the city centre, this ruled out Vue de Monde, Bistro Guillaume and The Brasserie, but left a number of possibilities. After I pointed out the exceedingly high ranking of Restaurant Jacques Reymond by both Gourmet – second in Melbourne, only after Vue de Monde, and The Age – the only three-hatted restauant – not to mention the pretty Victorian mansion setting, my mother agreed that this would be suitable.

On Friday afternoon, then, we arrived at the restaurant – after nearly missing it, so discreetly signed on Williams Road, and having an interesting time getting the car through the slightly narrow gate posts.

The house itself is tastefully decorated, with walls in a very Parisian shade of grey and aubergine, tangerine and leaf green upholstery and accents. On a side table in the hallway, next to the current volume of the Relais and Chateaux guide, was a bowl of enormous wild pine mushrooms.

We were greeted by an extremely charming member of staff, who looked after us throughout the meal and managed the astounding job of making easy, polite conversation with us and the other diners, whilst attending to all gastronomic needs. I have read reviews commenting on the excellent service at Jacques Reymond and, unlike so many other places, this is entirely true.

Seated by the window, we had views out onto the courtyard which featured outdoor dining tables (surely lovely on a summer evening) and olive trees which were thriving enough to bear lots of fruit.

The tables were laid with crisp white tablecloths, Swiss (I think) glassware, Christofle cutlery and Bernaudaud porcelain. We were brought menus and the wine list which dazzled (not for the credit crunched, but extraordinary in its length and breadth). Freshly baked rolls and house-churned butter (something which had helped convince my mother that this would be a tolerable venue for lunch), and chilled water were brought while we attempted to choose our dishes.

The lunch menu allows diners to choose two, three or four courses, with perhaps a dozen or more savoury entrée-sized options and around five desserts.

We decided to go for two savoury courses each, which admittedly did not make the decisions any easier. I was unusually lucky given the number of possibilities. I am a fish (but not meat) eater who hates the vegetarian food typically available (all vegetarians know the sort – let’s compensate for the lack of meat by killing the diner with oil, cream, butter and cheese), and this is coupled by an intense hatred of rich and excessively portioned food (a pet hate is thoughtless dishes with too many rich ingredients together, e.g. salmon and cream, when there should be more contrast).

(I am particularly irritated, as well, by the way almost all restaurants in Melbourne seem to offer vegetarians either a pumpkin, soft cheese and pine nut dish or a beetroot and goat’s cheese dish. There are other things we like to eat too! And as these are fairly cheap and easily replicated dishes, I refuse to pay proper money for them. and I despise a “chef” for whom this is the zenith of their originality in vegetarian cuisine.)

Exceptionally, Jacques Reymond features French-ish Asian-ish dishes, which are thoughtfully composed and sensibly sized.

I was spoilt for choice. In such instances, one tends to go for dishes which would be difficult to make at home, either owing to a lack of special ingredients or equipment or patience.

The waiter brought out the bowl of wild mushrooms I had admired in the hallway, explaining that they had been brought in from country Victoria after conditions had been suitable for their growth, and enquired whether either of us would be interested in the chef preparing something with them. I have never wittingly had wild mushrooms, and I still feel cheated that when we went to The Lake House last year there weren’t any on the menu. This interested me immensely.

Having established that the filling would not be fatty, like the unfortunate pork belly she had had at another inferior establishment, Mama went for pork cheek dumplings in dashi, and veal with spaezele.

Though enticed by the thought of kingfish, buckwheat and miso, I deemed this too similar to things I cook anyway. A similar rationale ruled out the house-smoked trout and horseradish.

I therefore went for the Tasmanian oysters and sashimi tuna with truffled sour cream, and the off-menu suggestion of a wild pine mushroom risotto.

The oysters and dumplings were brought out first. Mama’s comment on the dumplings was that they were fluffy like Yorkshire puddings, which seemed like an odd comparison but she pointed out that this was no bad thing, given how much she likes Yorkshire pudding. The pork cheek was, she reported, lean and very flavoursome – presumably, given the cut of meat, it had been braised for a long time. The dashi stock was apparently delicious, and was mopped up with bread, leaving nary a trace.

My dish was brought out on a rectangular glass plate. Four large oysters were set on little piles of salt. The oyster flesh was topped with the most finely sliced, and intensely sweetly oniony shallots/spring onions and salmon (?) roe. Underneath the flesh was micro-diced tuna, which melted in the mouth. I have only ever had one oyster before in my life, out of curiosity, at South Melbourne Market where you can get oyster shots for the ludicrously reasonable price of $1. My experience at Jacques Reymond was, however, several orders of magnitude better.

After an appropriate interlude, and more bread, the second dishes came out. The veal was topped by around four, eight inch long giant (grissini-sized) spaezele, which were apparently crunchy on the outside and pleasantly chewy on the inside. The veal looked very tender, rosy pink on the inside, and was accompanied by fennel, peas, (I think) grapefruit segments and microherbs.

My risotto was generously portioned, and the quantity of mushrooms used (fried until slightly crisp in butter) was extraordinarily luxurious. The mushrooms were magnificent – flavoursome and incredibly meaty in texture. I know, as a semi-vegetarian, that mushrooms are often touted as a good substantial meat substitute, but (with the exception of vast field or portabello mushrooms – and even then, something is lacking) this sometimes seems like wishful thinking.

Not in the case of the pine mushrooms. They were stunning. The risotto was delicately flavoured, with just enough bite for each grain, and garnished with shaved parmesan.

The meal ended with coffee and petit fours. Mama’s cappuccino was large, with a good dense foam and did not appear to be excessively weak. My macchiato was possibly the best I’ve ever had, the coffee being very smooth, sweet and nutty. I don’t know what beans they use, but it exceeded the (very good) Genovese macchiato I had at Healesville Harvest last year, which itself had eclipsed all the others I’ve had around Melbourne.

The petit fours were very petite, but this was only appropriate. Furthermore, as I discovered, they were also so divine and intensely flavoured, that one simply did not need more. A crisp base, they seemed to be tiny lemon curd filled cakelets, about three centimetres in diameter and topped by a large fresh (and, in turn, delicious) blueberry. The combination of the crunchy exterior and lusciously smooth tart interior was perfect, but, I suspect, far too fiddly for me to feel inclined to replicate at home.

In short, it was a fabulous lunch, and at $48 a head ludicrously good value, and one neither felt underfed nor dangerously dyspeptic. My only quibble was that there were no vegetarian options on the actual menu, though I’m sure that the chefs would be more than happy to rustle something up on request, as my mushroom risotto demonstrated.

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