312 Drummond Street, Carlton (map)
I visited Embrasse for the first time a few weeks ago, but that wasn't the first time I'd sampled chef/owner Nicolas Poelaert's food: that happened back in February, at the lunch that he and Provenance chef Michael Ryan prepared for the MFWF media launch. I met Nic at the end of the lunch and we talked about restaurants and his passion for growing heirloom and unusual herbs and vegetables to use in his cooking.
Nic's impressive credentials include time cooking with three Michelin star chef Michel Bras at his prestigious, eponymous restaurant in Laguiole, France (also home of everyone's favourite insect-adorned knives), at the original Vue de Monde in Carlton, and at Circa the Prince. His restaurant, Embrasse, opened in early 2009 in the building that was formerly home to Andrew McConnell's Three, One, Two and last September Nic was awarded Young Chef of the Year 2010 by The Age Good Food Guide.
I'd been saving a visit to Embrasse for one of my dinners with the charming A, who I hadn't seen in forever. When I arrived at the restaurant he was already sipping on a glass of bubbly and he immediately ordered one for me, cos that's the kind of guy he is. He's also the kind of guy who, when we are brought the à la carte and degustation ($90/5 course or $120/8 course) menus, decided with a smile that we just had to have the eight course degustation with matching wines. The wines were well selected by Embrasse's accomplished and congenial manager Camm Whiteoak (who was previously working his FOH manager magic at Attica).
Confession time: I never visited Three, One, Two (shocking, I know, given I'm such an Andrew McConnell fangirl), so the last time I'd been here was when the building was the restaurant Mrs Jones. I like the intimacy of the room, and the banquette seating in the front window.
To begin with, we were brought little balls of sweet buttermilk bread (studded with roasted raisins and dusted with red pepper powder) and pairs of cute appetiser spoons, filled with roquefort & apple and kingfish & beetroot jelly respectively.
The first dish knocked it out of the park in terms of presentation and subtle flavours: it's a méli-mélo ('mish-mash') of vegetables, emulsions and purées, homegrown herbs and flowers. Almost all of the vegetables, herbs and flowers Nic and his team use are grown in his gardens in Donvale and Warrandyte, and the importance of vegetables in the Embrasse kitchen is declared upfront in the menu's manifesto. The vegetables are blanched with a little salt and then cooked with a dab of butter. There were so many interesting things on the plate, at first I just tasted each paste, crumb and purée on its own before then experimenting with mixing them with other elements (as I like to do with Pierre Roelofs desserts). When you come to dine here, make sure at least one of you orders this dish, cos the vegetables need to be tasted to be believed.
The next dish was kingfish "steamed for just a little bit" (as the menu put it) and topped with panko crumbs and seaweed. It came with spinach leaves, steamed kohlrabi, rosy pearls of fingerlime, warm parsley water poured from a beaker into the bowl, and a pinch of powdered anis on the bowl's lip. The fingerlime gave the dish a zing and a pep that I really liked.
The kingfish was followed by one of Nic's signature dishes, which I'd tried at the MFWF media launch: john dory semi fried and semi steamed, stained with squid ink and served with pink grapefruit and a troupe of Daylesford heirloom beetroots standing at attention on a scrape of burnt carrot purée, which Nic makes in the Thermomix. The burnt carrot purée looks and sounds slightly bizarre, but tastes incredible (the recipe can be found here). The fish was just as moist and tender as I remembered it from last time.
After the dory plates were cleared, Camm approached us and murmured with a faux-serious expression on his face: "I've got a problem: my chef's gone rogue on me. He's sneaking an extra course into the degustation cos he wants you to try the pigeon. What would you like me to do?" Camm was tossing up whether or not to break with convention and serve a red before the white wine he'd selected to match the following pork dish. With a sommelier as capable as Camm, we knew we were in good hands either way. :)
And wow wow wow how gorgeous was the presentation of the pigeon?! Bendigo pigeon breast, Daylesford organic carrots, edible flowers and shiny coffee-flavoured dots that stuck to the plate like icing. The white kernels on the plate are last season’s dried apricot kernels (to be consumed in moderation, of course). The pigeon was full of flavour and went particularly well with the carrot, and the little bit of wrapped foil was a very cute touch.
After a palate cleanser of celery granita, the next dish was pork cheeks and crispy ear "cooked for a very long time", salmon roe, parsley root, wood sorrel and crumbled wasabi peas. Totally unctuous pork, and the unusual pairing with the salmon roe kept you on your toes in the texture department.
Next was the Jacksons Creek rump cooked sous-vide until perfect, served with a rich scoop of potato and yoghurt cream, toasted malt brioche crumbs, celeri rémoulade (my favourite French salad!) and a Thermomix-ed watercress and lentil coulis.
The beef was followed by an excellent cheese platter (which included more house made bread studded with sultanas) and then we were brought the first dessert: "taken on the idea of a snow ball... soft meringue, rhubarb cooked with elderflower, almond gateau, white chocolate". The meringue had a decadent texture and was a great match for the slightly tart rhubarb.
The final dish, which Nic brought out personally, was another I'd had the opportunity to sample previously: chocolate mushrooms (meringues with hazelnut parfait caps) on a chocolate crumb forest floor with tuile twigs and leaves and a sorrel and mint granita moss. BEAUTIFUL and DELICIOUS. Nic has just this week revamped the Embrasse menu, and I am relieved to see that this dessert survived the cut!
It was a sensational dinner, both A and I loved every dish.
Ah, but the other side of Embrasse that I also want to show you is the Sunday lunch, a relatively recent innovation. For $62 a head you get a four course French rustic lunch, served communally according to your table size. The week after my degustation with A, I went back to Embrasse with three girlfriends for a cosy, casual Sunday lunch.
Having been to a somewhat wanton 30th the night before, I arrived feeling wretchedly hungover and subdued. Camm sized up my condition and decided to prescribe a glass of pastis - STAT! - to send me on the road to recovery. Whaddya know, it worked and I was soon chattering away and able to enjoy the delicious lunch we were served up.
The soup course was pumpkin and pine mushroom soup, made according to Nic's mother's recipe. I loved that the bread rolls accompanying the soup were stuck together and arranged on a curved piece of bark, and that we were given a serve of shaved pine mushrooms and a jug of cream to add if desired.
The soup for our table of four arrived in a communal pot, which we ladled out between us.
For the Sunday lunch, wine is offered in 500ml carafes for $19.
The salad course had a base of burghul, buckwheat and green lentils. It also included little nuggets of crumbed pork belly and the most vivid purple potatoes I'd ever seen.
The meat course was a whole roasted wagyu rump cap from Jacksons Creek, with a jus gras. There was also Dijon mustard, relish and a side serve of heirloom carrots, braised fennel and potato croquettes. Hearty fare.
The dessert course, four pieces of pear and persimmon tart, was probably my favourite (though I do hate to play favourites): I think it's the butteriness of the pastry that did it. Added persimmon and Chantilly cream on the side.
Such a nice way to spend a Sunday afternoon! I'm keen to get a big group together and head back there for another Sunday lunch soon.
Oh, and if you're at a loss for what to do next Wednesday to celebrate Bastille Day, I heard through the twitters that Embrasse will be holding a special French traditional banquet ($90 a head, see details and preview the menu on the Special Events page of their website).