04 August, 2011


500 Victoria St, North Melbourne; (03) 9329 5228

Degustations really are gourmet at its best.

The first time I settled in for a degustation I couldn't wrap my tongue around the pronunciation. True, I was in Italy, and struggling to keep up with the emphases as I grappled with languages across Europe. We drank Montepulciano and Vernaccia di San Gimignano, appropriate as that was the very town we sat in. We snacked on sumptuous plates of meat while looking at this view:
Degustation experiences have been thin on the ground in my homeland, but I had the pleasure of one recently, on a weekend redolent with indulgence.

A close friend visiting from Sydney, who used to live in Melbourne, realised that there was no reason not to spend an entire weekend between bars, cafes and restaurants. An excellent notion of gourmet travel, to my mind. I happily signed up for the full tour, the highlight of which was an eight-course degustation, with wine, at North Melbourne's Libertine.

We lined up at 6:30 and rolled out, suitably stuffed but also wonderfully nourished, after 11. It doesn't get any better than sitting in a plush room - in this case at a table with wedge-shaped chairs that looked like pieces of pie nestled in a Trivial Pursuit token - and having kind, informative people bring you food and wine for four and a half hours.

We started with an amuse bouche of pumpkin and cauliflower soup. This simple taster stayed with me so that the following week I endeavoured to make it for dinner with the same velvety creaminess. I thought I was pretty generous with the dairy, but it wasn't a patch on this offering, which was as rich as it was petite.
The dishes proper started off-season, with a plate of slivered artichoke and courgette with chevre, toasted grains, quail egg and salsa verde. Great colours, with the vibrant greens of the veg and verde clashing against the brighter egg and cheese. The grains add both textural and colour contrast.

Wine: 2009 Fontenille blanc, Sem/Sav blanc (Bordeaux)

The next plate was matched the colours of the first nicely, but presented a different flavour spectrum. This time we have King George whiting with avocado mousse, almond, radish, lemon olive oil. Avocado is a smooth substance as it is, and moussed it was quite sublime. The thinnest of radish slivers added extra crunch (as did fish bones in one of the dozen pieces of whiting delivered to the table).
Wine: 2008 Labet Bourgogne blanc Vielles vignes, Chardonnay (Burgundy)

For many, fine French dining is synonymous with rich, decadent foods such as foie gras. I was at a table with several veterinary scientists, and we debated the merits of that cruel and indulgent dish. Our waiter informed us it was only on the menu as it was so close to Bastille Day - the chef doesn't cook it otherwise, but he was still using up the 14 July supply. It came in two forms - foie gras brulee and mousse - served with with olive dust and apricot smear. Highly enjoyable in the mouth, if not on the conscience.
Wine: 2007 Gunderloch Redstone Riesling (Rheinhessen, Germany)

After that indulgence it was time to cleanse, with this rather unusual shot of basil seeds
Happily more recognisable food was on its way: roasted duck breast and leg with persimmon Armagnac jus, peas and baby leeks (well, leek). This was my favourite dish of the evening. It looked great on the plate, with a scattering of Brussels sprout leaves. The jus was rich, the peas were sweet, and the meat was succulent.
Wine: 2007 Willm Pinot noir (Alsace, France)

More meat followed, this time Moondarra wagyu steak with pied et paquet, sauce bordelaise and potatoes. The rest of the diners had made a no-offal request at the start of the meal. Me, I'm pretty partial to the extra bits of animal, and through the pied et paquet the chef snuck some onto our plates. In the traditional Marseilles version, this is a packet of tripe and trotters. Ours came across as more of a dry sausage in uncooked casing. It did it for me, but not for most of the table :)
Wine: 2005 Ch√Ęteau Lucas Cote de Castillon. Merlot/Cab Sav (Bordeaux)

And so we came to the end of the savoury side of things. That didn't mean we were at the end of the good stuff. Au contraire, on the way was this marvellously named, and marvellous tasting, cumquat and Cointreau souffle, with a simply delicious dessert wine to savour alongside.
Wine: 2007 Tendresse de Jurque, Gros/petit manseng (Jurancon, France)

A few apple jellies, madeleines and marshmallows later, we were on our way into a chilly night, deeply satisfied.
The whole meal, wine included, was $150. Without the wine its $95. Given what we could have spent on a three-course fine dining meal with a bottle of wine or several between six of us, I think this represented superb value dining.

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