What do you do when you find dinner too enjoyable? How is an irritable, jinxed diner like me to cope with a meal which delivers no disappointments and offers barely a scrap to quibble about? I felt embarrassed at how effusive I was. I sat through the meal thinking of all the people I needed to tell.
This might look like a puff-piece (an advertorial), especially as I dined as a guest of the establishment, but I assure you it isn't.
Interlude, at 211 Brunswick Street, Fitzroy (Melbourne, Australia), has attracted attention for chef Robin Wickens's use of avant garde cooking techniques and for the food he produces. I came to Interlude because of the techniques, while preparing an article on modernist cookery (oft confused with the concept 'molecular gastronomy', see here for the contrast) in Melbourne. Earlier in the year I had dined at one of the temples of this new cookery, Heston Blumenthal's The Fat Duck, and was prepared for a similar experience at Interlude (though hopefully slightly less theatrical). The Fat Duck review can be found by clicking here.
The meal comprised of fourteen dishes, of which four were sweet. The use of sous-vide, gelling, dehydration and other techniques is interesting and exploited well. I am deliberately not going to provide comprehensive detail about the dishes, and nor will there be photos. Imagine and then try the food yourself (or don't). One of the banes of any chef's existence is the expectation created by detailed reviews of specific dishes.
It started with some lattice potato crisps and beer nuts. The crisps were delicious (though eventually went soggy, as homemade crisps are wont to do) and the peanuts tasted of beer. A nice touch, but also one that led me to anticipate more surprises later.
A chestnut dish with elements that many might expect to be sweet, but which were in fact distinctly savoury. It was rich and almost overwhelming. I wondered if this would be a continuing problem.
Grits with buffalo wings (a type of chicken dish for those who don't know the term). No trickery. Not really. But the novelty of Mexican truffle was interesting. (Mexican truffle is really huitlacoche or 'corn smut', which is much less likely to succeed on a menu!)
Lamb with coffee. Let's just say it involved an atomiser. I'd had the atomisation thing done to me before (at the Fat Duck), with 'Essence of Lime Grove' being sprayed over the table. At Interlude the diner gets to self-administer the spray, with the unintended result that my wardrobe smells of coffee.
Like cauliflower purée through a straw… one of Wickens's better known dishes is a glass tube of four flavours. I don't know how successful this is. I watched four other diners 'eat' this dish, and most sucked and swallowed with barely an olfactory moment intervening. A pity. If you happen to go to Interlude, please let the contents of the tube dwell a while on your tongue.
Jerusalem artichoke soup. Very welcome on a cold Melbourne night. Combined beautifully with brussel sprouts and tonka beans, amongst other flavours.
Squab breast with quinoa, black treacle and blackberry. Perhaps the only dish where I thought the balance of flavours was off. It tasted fine, but the squab lost the battle.
Aged sirloin and rib meat. A whimsical presentation but serious food. Look carefully at the onion rings.
Venison with celeriac cream. Without doubt the most 'mature' dish of my meal. I would gladly have eaten this many times over. I began to wonder what it would be like to dine à la carte at Interlude.
Energy drink. Okay, it tasted like those effervescent indigestion salts. Lemony and tangy and fizzy. Not a winner for me. Certainly zaps your palate clean though!
Piña colada in a spoon. Heaven – though only if you have a soft spot for piña colada (me).
There's something wonderful about a table set with three dessert spoons and three dessert forks. Per person! A dessert lover's utopia?
Rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb. And a touch of cashew. But not a lump of rhubarb in sight. Whereas the savoury courses had, for the most part, used new cooking techniques for practical purposes and with obvious result, the desserts seemed to use these techniques to more entertaining or surprising effect. The difference between Robin Wickens on savoury and Pierre Roelofs on sweet?
If I tell you that the next dish comprised of the flavours parsnip, apple, vinegar, rosemary and date, and that these were presented as lumps, ice-cream, puffs, cream, cubes and crisps, would you be able to work out which ingredient took which form? It hardly matters when it tastes so good.
The third dessert consisted of sago, vanilla, pink grapefruit, almond, rosewater and yuzu. As long as you like rosewater, this is a fresh, clever dish. Less fussy that the previous dessert, but just as impressive.
And a surprise fourth dessert which leaves you wondering how a doughnut can be distilled into an ice-cream. A touch of whimsy to end the meal. I almost wished it had preceded the more sophisticated desserts, but I concede it would be a cute lead in to a digestif coffee or the like.
[I'm sure I've missed at least one dish, but hey, you get the picture!]
This is sophisticated, clever food without a hint of patronising the diner or prioritising tricks over gustatory enjoyment. I don't know how well it works à la carte because, as with all dishes that are in some way novel, there's a risk that the satiation-value of a meal is underplayed. I don't know how large the à la carte portions are, but I did see a table devour theirs very very quickly. Customers were not all dining there for the food experience, but all seemed to be aware that their meal might challenge preconceptions (positively).
It seems on the face of it that one of the three dégustation options is a better bet. The meal I had was something like the largest dégustation menu (17 dishes, A$175 without wine). I believe a diner would probably come away from that menu feeling that the meal had been worth it. Just as an aside, the wines were excellent matches to most dishes.
A final note: If you go looking for lay reviews of Interlude, you will occasionally find complaints that the dishes were 'too salty'. I was perplexed by this before I went, not understanding how a number of diners could have a similar complaint over a period of time, yet the restaurant has regular received high praise in the food media. Having now eaten at Interlude, I think I understand the problem. Well, it isn't a problem, as far as I'm concerned. I think Robin Wickens's cooking presents a strong umami profile across all of the savoury dishes. Umami is the fifth 'savoury' sense, often written about in association with Japanese cuisine and associated with the presence of glutamates which give a 'rounder' or 'fuller' flavour sensation. Mushrooms, cheeses, meat, meat stocks and a number of other foods fall into this category. Wickens's dishes are fantastically umamamami, but not in a monotonous one-note sense. These dishes were complex and full. The problem? I would guess that diners who aren't familiar with this sort of flavour landscape, or who perhaps prefer flatter or less orchestrated flavours, will associate the umami with saltiness.
Another glowing description of Interlude can be found at Morsels & Musings.
211 Brunswick Street
Fitzroy VIC 3065
Tel: 03 9415 7300
Note that Interlude will be moving to a new city location in the middle of 2008.