It is really amazing how much our impression of what makes a good restaurant has changed over the past few decades. The thought occurred to me Saturday afternoon in Melbourne as Mrs Prick and I readied ourselves for dinner with a bracing episode of The Brady Bunch in the hotel room – specifically “The Babysitters”, in which Greg and Marcia are left to sit for their siblings while Mike and Carol take in dinner and a show and Alice is off on a hot date with Sam the Butcher. Yeah, I know, but in my defence (a) those old episodes are classics that hold up surprisingly well, and, (b) they’re fascinating pieces of social anthropology, providing an insight, albeit a stylised one, into family life in a ‘70s-era boomtime California where Davey Jones and not the Grateful Dead was on the stereo and the worst thing a kid might smoke was tobacco. It’s no coincidence that the Brady family was conceived by Sherwood Schwartz whose much-derided Gilligan’s Island, for all its goofiness, was actually a skilful look at the uniquely small-d democratic nature of Cold War American society. And with its relationship between the Skipper and his “Li’l Buddy” more speculated-upon than that between Christopher Pyne and James Ashby, it may have been a surprisingly progressive show as well.
Anyway, where was I? Restaurants. So in this episode of The Brady Bunch Mike and Carol leave the kids to go off to a fancy restaurant and a show. And what a restaurant: Curtains everywhere. Pale blue everything. Snooty maître d’ (“Erm, wine list sir, erm…”). This is what, thirty or forty years ago – and for a long time before that – we in the English-speaking West considered fine dining. The episode was shot six years before the famous Judgment of Paris, so Mike suggested they order a fine French Burgundy (and even though the Bradys never held a Bacchanal, it was also shot long before the writers would have to write in a line about “None for me. I’m driving!”. Perhaps they’ll dub it in later).
Fast-forward forty years and 7,500 miles: California is a basket-case, made all the worse by government debt and over-regulation (something foreshadowed when, after deciding to leave to check on the kids rather than eat at the restaurant, Mike has to pay a bill not just for the “cover charge”, but the “tax on the cover charge”). Australia, while hardly a libertarian paradise, is still by comparison in boom. And were Mike and Carol Brady to go out to a fine diner these days, the evening would not be filled with uptight wine captains but chefs and waiters floating around industrial spaces with body piercings and ink. Tony Bilson has closed his fancy hotel dining room (perhaps Sydney’s last outpost of haute-Brady cuisine) and is selling his wares at the markets: Sleeve tattoo gastronomy is the latest next big thing in high-end dining.
Not that this is a bad thing, if Mrs Prick’s and my meal at Fitzroy’s Cutler and Co (never “Cutler and Company”, as I discovered when I made the booking!) is any indication. Perched in an industrial space off the main drag of Melbourne’s hipster-infested Fitzroy (a pre-dinner drink at I Know a Place made us feel like we were in Williamsburg), Cutler is the latest venture of Cumulus Inc’s Andrew McConnell, and it epitomises this very modern, non-fussy but still clever and technically proficient style of cooking.
How proficient? How clever? How much beyond the “bistro” tag that the Cutler crew hangs on the joint? Well, the meal kicked off (and was there any doubt we were going to go the degustation?) with a few starters including a pair of the freshest oysters I’ve had in a while as well as “foie gras cigars”, served in a cigar box: The lightest imaginable brik pastry wrapped around an ethereal parfait, this was brilliant. (What the olives were doing there, I’m not sure, but they looked lovely in their Georg Jensen bowl).
Swordfish sashimi was a bright delight; Mrs Prick thought there was just the right amount of wasabi though I could have done with one less globule. A pickled octopus with aioli and smoked paprika was a gem. And a dish of spanner crab and abalone (something I’ve loathed since a bad experience in Shanghai) was, at table, surrounded by a golden chicken broth that was all umami and aromatics, as good a broth as I’ve had. These were accompanied by various wines: an Alsace pinot gris, a Manzanilla sherry, a white (didn’t know they existed!) Chateauenauf-du-Pape, and so on. Good pairings, though only the sherry really blew me away.
Things shifted gears with hay-baked carrots, a dish I was sceptical of but was delightful, especially with a bright goats’ curd. A presentation theme was developing as well: rustic ceramic, not bright white, plates (about time, I say) and off-kilter arrangements leaving a lot of empty or negative space on the plate. This was followed by what may have been my favourite plated dish of the night, duck two ways – smoked and fried – accompanied by morcilla sausage, beetroot and raisins. You’ve had the old seared-breast-and-confit duo of duck a million times, there’s no going back after this. This was a plate-lickingly fantastic, big, earthy combination of flavours, and went well with the SA Grenache, a nice shift away from the expected pinot noir. It was almost a shame to follolw this with the beef short rib, which was great, but too unilateral after the duck, and let down by the frankly uninspired choice of a Vasse Felix Heytesbury Cab-Sav. A lovely wine, but the Heytesbury chardonnay is the star of that line, and I would have thought they would have gone up the Yarra for at least one course. Then: a composed cheese plate, a celery granita on goat’s milk yogurt (very refreshing and I’ll try my hand at this some time), and a lovely plate of violet ice cream and ganache. All up, a great meal, and we didn’t mind having to walk back to the Westin when we couldn’t get a cab. (Oh, who the hell are we kidding? We were furious. But what can you do?)
There were some other off-notes. Service started out enthusiastic and the front desk welcome was like arriving home, but things flagged as the night wore on: If you’re prepared to let someone order the full Cleveland at 10 o’clock at night, you’ve got to go the distance with them. I also am not a fan of the multiple-servers thing: It may be old school but I like to develop a rapport with one waiter over the course of an evening, not have plates dropped off with varying degress of interest or care (“Carrots!”). The meal was also let down somewhat by the wine pairings, not because they were poor choices, they just weren’t inspiring. We went the “premium” selection, and wonder why: there was nothing hugely special on the list, though there were some interesting choices. Nor were there any Victorians on the pour, which was faintly amazing as for a restaurant that has such an emphasis on produce, the wine could have really bolstered a sense of place. (A recent trip to Sixpenny was a delight for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the excellent and deep selection of NSW vintages). Can there not have been one worthy red from up the Yarra? A bracing Toolangi Reserve Chardonnay to take the edge of the wasabi? Anyway, these are quibbles: a top night that points in promising directions.