While still abroad, in some derelict South East Asian shack drinking some form of what the locals loosely referred to as ‘beer’ and with our Melbourne arrival deadline looming ominously in the hazy future, I decided it would be a smart idea to do some research on the Melbourne restaurant scene and drop some CV’s via email to employers of interest. Of the 4 resumes I fired off into the ether that day, unknown to me at the time through either drunken stupidity, or just plain ignorance, 3 of them happened to be owned by Chef Andrew McConnell. His ever-expanding empire of high profile eateries is a florescent bulb in the dark to young ambitious moths of every culinary background. It was only after landing a job at McConnell’s then brand new ‘Supernormal’, that I truly began to understand the scope of this empire, a well oiled hospitality machine seemingly churning out a new restaurant/bar/store/eatery every couple of years with consistent and unwavering popularity.
So it was, a year after the cessation of my involvement with ‘the empire’ my new employer suggested I undertake a research trip to the newest of McConnell’s new restaurants the ‘Marion’. After he offered to pick up the cheque for an evening of fine food and even finer wine, I could hardly refuse the task laid before me. And so after roughly 2 months of working 70-hour weeks, ‘date night’ with my wonderfully patient partner was revived in glorious fashion.
On this crystal clear, 8°c Wednesday evening in Fitzroy, I hastily finished up the last of my work for the day, clumsily slapped a hot iron over the shirt I had hastily stuffed into my work bag that morning. We had of course tried to make our booking the night before we intended to dine, and so were given the last available slot at the Marion at 6pm. I had arranged to meet my partner at the venue to ensure we would make this ambitious deadline. Of course I had factored in just enough time to drown a sneaky pint at the craft beer bar across the road from Marion before meeting up for our much more civilized evening ahead.
“2 mins away.”
My momentary blanket of blissful solitude was torn away in an instant. The rectangle of universal knowledge in my pocket unceremoniously informed me of my impending social obligations as I simultaneously mourned the loss my precious anonymity, and relished the company of a familiar face. We still had 12minutes, just enough time to throw down another cup of personality before having to act like adults for the rest of the night.
“At Catfish. Pint?”
Stuffing the universal communicator back into my pocket I ordered up two more glasses of goodness just in time to receive my expected and slide into a freshly vacated table. It was going to be a good night.
6pm on the dot! Backing the last mouthful as we headed for the door, we straightened ourselves up and made for the other side of the street. Navigating the dawdling crowd of Melbourne’s self-pronounced ‘elite’, we claimed our table in the city’s newest shrine to western decadence.
Stark, backlit white walls cut off by the luxurious brown leather banquette; bare wooden tables with gold trim; the whole place exuded elegance through simplicity. Empty wine bottles lined the backs of the bench seating leaving you with little doubt what the main focus of this Gertrude street gem is. So, ‘when in Rome, do as the Romans do’. As I am a bit of a novice when it comes to wine selection (to put it mildly) I have learned to ask the expert advice of the wait staff in attendance, this also allows me to gauge the competency of the service at the same time. I enquired about their selection of “natural wines”, having taken a very beginners interest in “minimum intervention wines” or “natural wines”, more for their slightly yeasty flavour profile than for any desire for natural products, or even worse buying into the hype that is a fashionable wine (and natural wine is surrounded by a tonne of hype just by the way!).
We had obviously come to Marion to eat, but my main focus this evening was to educate myself on wines a little more. Having said that I can’t for the life of me recall the name of a single glass we shared, but what I can say for the wine list at Marion, and the consistently high standard of service that defines a McConnell establishment; this was the first time I can remember going out to dinner and not wanting a beer, or even looking at the beer list at all. Once we set our wait person in motion, we pretty much let him call the shots as to what to drink as we progressed through our meal, only changing tack when we decided to switch to red half way through the night.
Now I guess we should talk about food. Another feature of every one of Chef McConnell’s restaurants is really top quality oysters, freshly shucked and served simply with minimal, if any, garnish. After devouring our first two ‘Coffin Bay’ oysters (one of my personal favourites here in Australia) we couldn’t help but get another round of these briny delights as we started on our second glass of vino for the evening. Finally we actually looked at the food menu, and remembering that the boss had foolishly offered to pick up the bill, we unleashed our rabid hunger on that kitchen. First up was the Mortadella and Ox tongue. To me there aren’t many better things to begin a casual night of feasting and drinking than a charcuterie offering of some kind (any kind!). Sous vide ox tongue, sliced impossibly thin with lightly warmed Mortadella and sprinkled with freshly grated horseradish.
Next was my personal favourite for the night. Smoked eel with kipfler potatoes cooked out in butter and thin slices of fresh radish. Sparsely garnished with a few tufts of chervil lending mild anise freshness to the richness of the eel and butter.
Another McConnell staple found its way to our table shortly after this, along with another bottle of wine. There seems to be some version of a tartare at each of these fines establishments, and while they are all good, I felt that this venison version at the Marion was a wee bit of a let down. Being such a lean meat, I felt that the venison would have benefitted from the presence of something rich to boost the dish. It was however a great dish, but paled in comparison to the eel that preceded it that day.
At this point of the night we were glad that we had had the foresight to order at least one vegetable dish in the middle of this meat avalanche we had created for ourselves. The Jerusalem artichokes, roasted in their skins, and served with apple and witlof was a welcome reprieve, and a wonderful combination of earthy flavours coupled with the sweet crunch of the apple and the savoury freshness of the witlof.
Lastly we descended back deep into meat country, taking out two animals with one plate! I can never go past duck on a menu, or for that matter a pork dish, luckily at Marion I was spared having to make the impossible choice between them, or worse giving in and ordering both and suffering the pain of indigestion and the shame of my gluttony. Corned duck and slow cooked pork jowl served with braised cabbage and delightfully sweetened with a prune puree, all swimming in a delicate jus that added moisture, depth, and richness without overpowering the other flavours on the plate. I could have eaten two, but as we have already discussed, shame and indigestion are always lurking behind that next plate…
We rounded out our research assignment with some stinky washed rind cheese (you know, the kind that smells like you vomited into your socks after you have not washed them for a week) and since I wasn’t paying, some Talisker 10 year old whisky, another personal favourite. It was a great night, from a great team, at a great venue, by one of Australia’s finest hospitality firms. Having left the safety of the McConnell Empire to pursue my own creative endeavours, a part of me quietly wanted to find fault with this new venture and thus validate my exodus. But I can’t, it was exceptional, as I had expected, proving yet again why this group is so successful. Top marks, even from this slightly jaded former subject!