The call came in a few weeks ago. Millie's husband was heading abroad - it was time for another degustation dinner. I was given a list, sent out a few emails and after a bit of banter, Millie and I decided on The Estelle Bar and Kitchen in Northcote.
Northcote? Well, it is a bit out of both of our radars. See, being from Adelaide, I know what's what in a 20 minute radius - anything else is on a need to know basis. Northcote, in the 12 years I've been here, has always been out of my radar. Stupidly, the suburb is ten minutes away by car when Hoddle Street is flowing, is just another part of Melbourne I had no idea about. Both Millie and I were pleasantly surprised - being Eastern Suburbers this inner Northern suburb was well cool. It needs to be investigated further.
Taking our seat at the bar, where we were set for the night, we were wondering what we were in for. Busy, but not so busy that we couldn't hear ourselves thinks, casually decorated, but one up from Formica chic, The Estelle is welcoming, but slightly edgy. The well stocked bar and hip coffee machine let you know that these guys know what they are doing.
Oh - they know what they're doing.
Quickly, we settled on the seven course degustation menu. There was a five and nine course on offer - the seven seemed about right. A glass of Louis Roederer Premier Brut was ordered. Damn, Millie - she introduced me to French Champagne a while ago - and I'm at loathe to go back to Australian sparkling. With the glass of poo, an assortment of amuse bouche were served. Pork crackling with a tangy mousse, melon in wraps and baked Jerusalem artichokes.
The staff here are great. Friendly without being cloying, knowledgeable without being know it alls. They took note of our dietary requirements. Millie doesn't eat fish or seafood. This was noted. I wanted to feel special too, so I told the waiter that I didn't like banana. For some reason, that made him laugh. According to Millie it was something to do with the way my nose wrinkles when I say it.
No banana on the menu. Cool.
First course was presented. A baked eggplant (aubergine) with a soy dressing, daikon radish and toasted sesame with a lime mayonnaise. For something so simple, it set a very high bar for the rest of the meal. The thing that The Estelle does best of all is textures - and this course set the standard. Creamy eggplant, tangy mayo, crunchy sesame seeds and the crisp daikon. A great start.
Millie and looked at each other - there was something in the reviews. This was quality.
We had a different second course. Being a non-pesce, Millie was given goat's cheese, rolled in lavosh ash with beetroot and orange. She said it was one of her favourite dishes of the night.
For me, I was given a bowl of gazpacho with smoked salmon with a horseradish foam.
Now, I'm not really one for molecular gastronomy. Generally, I think foam is a bit wanky. Not this one. The essence of horseradish was the perfect foil for chunky gazpacho and superfresh salmon. I was happy - an very impressed that finally I'd got what this foam was all about. It's a bit like me and Picasso. Takes a bit to get my head around.
As our plates were cleared, we were asked if we had any objections to steak tartare. It appears some people can't fathom raw steak. Millie and I aren't those people. Served with a quail egg, rustic potato chips and a garlic and sprout puree (the thing that looks like mashed kermit in the beaker) the wagyu tartare was stunning. Subtle and melt in your mouth. How can people not like steak tartare? Certainly wouldn't prepare it myself, but on one of these nights, it's a definite. The green sauce in the beaker was wonderful too - incredibly subtle, setting of the wagyu tartare perfectly.
By this time, our poo had been drained and a glass of wine was required. The wonderful Spanish sommelier suggested a Henty Farm Chardonnay, of which we were both given a glass that seemed to be bucket sized (allegedly a carafe servicing) Light, fruity and fresh.
The next course was the vegetable course. Celeriac, currants and turmeric. Perfected prepared and roasted. The celeriac creamy with the currants and bespoke vegetables providing some interest.
At this halfway point, Millie and I were wondering how soon we could back here - Millie wanting to bring her husband back and me wondering if I could talk my book group into going here for Xmas lunch - though we'd have to book now for next year. It can be a bit hard to get into. We booked for this three weeks ago for a Tuesday night - and were still seated at the bar, not that it was an uncomfortable experience at all.
The next course was my favourite - and Millie's 'meh' course.
Millie was giving a plate of duck three ways - duck sausage, croquettes and something else. She said it was nice, but not up there with the rest of the dishes.
I was given a bowl of crab mornay - sweet blue and swimmer crabs in a mornay sauce with a crumb topping and infused with curry oil. It was eye -ollingly good. I sat and savoured every quarter mouthful - for this was a dish to be savoured. From my reaction, Millie made comment that she wished she ate fish. For me, this was one of the dishes of the evening.
What followed was another favourite our ours. Corned beef, roast beef with a burnt carrot puree. From the description you'd think, 'Hmm, maybe not so much.' I have memories of corned beef as a child - an how my dad used to cook it and stink out the house. This was nothing like that. With the slice of simply roasted beer and the sweet, caramelised carrots - glorious.
After the success of the savoury dishes, we could only wonder at the glory of the desserts.
We weren't disappointed.
The thing I love most about degustation dinners is you get to eat like a hobbit - first entree, second entree, first main, second main, afters, third main, then first dessert. You have to love this way of eating. The great thing about The Estelle's degustation is that the courses are sized just right. You don't walk away stuffed to the gills, but you are happily sated. When you get to first desserts, you're looking forward to it - there is enough room.
For first desserts a mix of sour cream ice cream, pumpkin, salted caramel and Chinese five spice and some other lovely bits for good measure. I loved this dish with a passion. Another plate I wished would not finish. Pure joy on a plate.
Another comment about the degustation here, the courses are perfectly paced. You're not sitting around waiting forever, nor are you being hurried along.
The last proper course was what was listed as Albert's Chocolate Garden. It was described to us as chocolate dirt with foliage. A dark, smoked chocolate soil with a ganache below and edible flowers. I'm not a chocolate lover - it's normally the last thing I will go for on a menu. I enjoyed this, the unexpected smokiness, the textures - for Millie, it was a bit too smoky.
We asked for the bill and were presented with the following - not so much an amuse buche, but a goodbye present. A berry coulis with musk foam and dehydrated raspberries - it reminded me of musk sticks and redskins. Bliss.
Surprisingly, with the two glasses of wine and seven courses, we were stunned. $125 a head.
This is a place I'd go back to in a heartbeat - even if it does mean a trip up Hoddle Street. Friendly, trendy, knowledgeable staff, stunning food - not too stunning that you don't know what to do with, but surprising enough that you're left thinking about it for a few days. Childhood memories of corned beef, musk sticks, molasses, and thoughts of why, and how somebody would think of putting sour cream, pumpkin and Chinese five spice together.
Thoughtful, though-provoking, texture savvy food.
Can't recommend The Estelle highly enough.