03 March, 2011


Level 1, Crown Metropol, cnr Whiteman and Clarendon Streets
(03) 9292 8300

A bit of fine dining never goes astray. Well, actually it easily can - price can take the joy out of choosing; snooty staff can make things unnecessarily uncomfortable; substance can be subsumed into the restaurateur's idea of style.

Our recent lunch at Maze suffered from none of the above. It was almost we who went astray, as we wandered around the Southbank-facing Crown building for a while before hitting on the fact that Maze is in fact in Crown Metropol, the building behind it on Whiteman St. A tip to punters - the 'maze' logo might look easily solvable, but the location piccie on the website is the true puzzle!

Gordon Ramsay is not known as a shy man, and you wouldn't expect his restaurants to have dull interiors. Each member of his empire has a described 'ambience'; for Melbourne, it's stylish and inviting. And it is, although without quite escaping the fact that you're essentially in a hotel lobby. Enormous, curtained floor-to-ceiling windows allow in the sunlight that defines the ambience, and pick out the many tones in the carpet. The huge cane lampshades would reach the floor in most restaurants, but with Maze's elevated ceilings they swing high above, drawing the eye to a labrynthine wood sculpture interspersed with bird silhouettes.

Maze does an excellent value set lunch: from a list of 10 items (seven savoury, three dessert) you can pick any three for $38 or four for $49. They're known for their small serving sizes, but their food follows the maxim that top-quality, full-flavoured dishes are just as filling as those that spill over the sides.

Here's a sample of what came to the table:

While a dish of yellowfin tuna tartare looked skimpy, hiding in the middle of its ample bowl, this tete de cochon was presented as a more regular entree size. It's pig's head, boiled and boiled til the skin falls away and gelatinises into a wonderful goop, which is then set, crumbed and fried. More rillette than terrine, it was an excellent start. It's served on a wafer of watermelon, with yellow beetroot and crispy pig's ears. This is not a shy plate, neither in ingredients, combinations nor flavour.

This slow-cooked octopus bared its suckers proudly, and partnered wonderfully with a couple of morsels of super-dense, salty chorizo. Dotted around the plate were nasturtiums, along with tiny cubes of grilled capsicum.

These two pieces of John Dory came glazed with a sticky red wine sauce. The gyoza-looking item in the foreground is in fact a cashew concoction, while on the left are cubes of pumpkin on a pumpkin disc.

Cubes and discs were a common element to most plates. I felt almost Lilliputian, stabbing my weighty, outsized fine-dining fork at those tiny samples of produce.

This dessert pannacotta was a cleansing end to a robust meal. The pannacotta nestled under shaved coconut, with mango puree wedged between. A splodge of salty caramel on top was a bold contrast to the sweet and cool flavours underneath. On the side is an olive friand.

I must also mention the bread, pictured above - it's replenished throughout the meal, lest diners should experience a piece less than oven-warm. It's generously salted and served with a whipped seaweed butter. It's delicious, but a pat of the regular stuff would have been welcome alongside.

Lunch menus are an excellent way to test a restaurant before a bigger event, or as a way to experience somewhere you wouldn't otherwise shell out for. Maze nails it on the menu and price. What I'm waiting for is a restaurant to introduce the lunch wine menu. Most wines on offer cost more by the glass than the individual plates (each are available at $14). It's wonderful to have access to a cellar as copious and proudly displayed as Maze's, but if you've only set aside $40 it's tough to up that by a third to toast your meal.

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