23 August, 2008

The Press Club

72 Flinders St, Melbourne; 03 9677 9677

Listening to David Sedaris at the Melbourne Writers' Festival recently, I was taken with his statement that sometimes he feels like his life has become a story. At such times he resists the compunction to take out his notebook and notate what's happening, as he doesn't want to do anything to bring the situation to an end before its natural conclusion.

There's a tenuous link between that concept and my recent dining experience at The Press Club. Originally I was going to say that I took my inspiration from a recent post at AOF's Confessions, where she discusses the idea that by constantly thinking as a blogger - analysing and worrying over lighting conditions for photos - we diminish our ability to savour our eating experiences in the moment. I think Sedaris' notion was closer to my reasons for not photographing my food at The Press Club though: troubling myself with that usual aspect of my dining excursions didn't fit in with the way I wanted to experience this rare and treasured treat.

I am, nevertheless, compelled to record it here. I have read much about George Calombaris' skills and the awe in which many hold his treatment of Greek cuisine, and had experienced it in reduced form at The Press Club Bar. I hadn't quite understood what was meant by a lot of the language: Lethlean uses phrases like 'modern, yet reverent' and 'springboard' comes up a lot, but now, having taken on the full dining experience it's quite clear. The ingredients are classic, traditional – lamb, beetroot, honey, cheese, mushrooms – yet their treatment is revolutionary without being unapproachable, without making them unrecognisable.

With the quality on offer the menu is expansive without being so extensive that choice seems impossible. It divides into small and large dishes and while 'kerasma' is available - a chef's choice of dishes, with or without dessert and wine - we decide to control our intake; given our tastes and predilections the four dishes brought to our table almost order themselves.

Seared scallops souvlaki, Santorini caper leaf keftedes (meatballs) and cauliflower vinaigrette arrives skewered on its own sword. A salad of cumin-roasted beetroot, pistachio biscuit, yoghurt cheese and Attiki honey offers so many combinations (there's a picture on the restaurant's homepage): the nuttiness of the cake-like tower of biscuit, soft and spongey when you cut into it; the sour-savoury cheese wrapped in herbs; and the honey, undoubtedly sweet but in such a fundamental way that it doesn't so much taste sweet, as demonstrate sweetness. (You know you're in a good place when the food promotes musing on the metaphysical.)

At Melbourne's best Greek restaurant it would seem requisite to order the lamb: in this case a 'hot off the press' lamb spit with white bean skordalia, lemon potatoes and marouli salad (lettuce dressed with dill and vinaigrette). The lamb, as expected, is superb: tender, moreish, extraordinarily flavoured and textured. It would be hard to imagine a better fine dining experience. Unless, as was my blessed experience, you had ordered the duck.

The duck. Perhaps I should have written the post as just a reflection on this one dish. The menu description reads as: slow-cooked duck in olive oil, mushrooms, garlic, parsley and greek kafe and sokolata soil (a crunchy, crumbly mix of coffee and chocolate). There's a process to its consumption: as the soil is sprinkled onto the duck it begins to melt into it, at the same time breaking down the meat, which was already separating so willingly from the bone, even further. What takes place is so much more than a fusion to produce a new flavour combination. Instead the ingredients alchemise – creating an altogether new entity unlike any flavour made up of the component ingredients.

The Press Club has been hyped, praised and awarded. In this case it's deserved: this is extremely high quality, innovative, thoughtful food. After our experience at The Point, I will say that I find it surprising that restaurants at this level seem to assume diners want to stay the night - both meals lasted 3.5 hours - but the staff at The Press Club were so enthusiastic, genuine and knowledgeable that I almost felt compelled to forgive their interest in re-setting tables rather than bringing us dessert menus.

Alchemy and metaphysics. George Calombaris is an exciting man to have in the kitchen, and the anticipation over Hellenic Republic grows ever greater.

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