Strange. I'm dining fine in Australia, yet the menu isn't French, Italian or Mod-Oz. I'm not surrounded by connoisseurs of Cantonese food (Flower Drum) and Greg Malouf's latest project isn't quite ready, so it's not exquisite Middle Eastern dining either. Some of the staff and chefs speak a cuisine-appropriate language, but are most likely home-grown. The cuisine is usually regarded as meat-heavy and conservative.
George Calombaris's very modern food successfully marries cutting edge with tradition at the Press Club. In his time at Reserve he attracted attention for his serious flirtation with modernist cooking (aka molecular gastronomy), being the third main proponent of that direction in Melbourne at the time. When he moved to the The Press Club, many diners looked forward to a continuation of this direction and were disappointed (though still wowed by the food).
The evening started in the bar, a separate area to the right of the entrance. The host/booking manager/lounge lizard at the entrance was too busy havin' a larf with his mate to bother opening the door, checking whether I was drinking or dining, or for that matter actually acknowledging my passing by. I found the bar and my companions for the evening. A long, minimalist space. Attractive. Hundreds of bottles of bar liquids displayed with rear/up illumination form a tempting display. In the far corner was a group of office workers having a drink and screeching in a manner strongly reminiscent of a group of girls in a Japanese bar. The acoustics are abysmal, screeching or not. The drinks menu is interesting, but doesn't constrain creativity or other suggestions from behind the bar. The 'ouzo flight' was impressive, with three measures, well explained too, presented with a glass of ice and a small carafe of water. Bar staff were engaging and helpful. The host/booking manager/lounge lizard flitted around, chatting to his mate, mistaking us for another party and almost taking us to be seated in the dining room.
Dining takes place in a large, dark space to the left of the entrance. Tables are spacious and attractive. Quite a few covers are squeezed into the room, but I only realise this in hindsight — the experience was comfortable throughout. An open kitchen provided unimpeded views of activity, but no views of the cooking (except the rotisserie in the corner) as tables were lower than the wall around the kitchen area. It was a calm, seemingly harmonious kitchen, too!
A good range of photos are shown on the restaurant's website.
I was surprised at how Greek the place felt. A fair number of the clientele were of Greek heritage. The floor manager and some cooks too. And the food, definitely. Those who have read about The Press Club will think I was just ignorant, but my surprise was based on the volume of positive commentary I've heard around me without one person actually talking in detail about the food. I had chosen not to look at the menus (available online) so as to avoid expectation, but the website certainly makes it clear that the cuisine is Hellenic.
The meal started with far, far too much bread. It was delicious stuff. Not particularly Greek, but I'm not complaining. Delightful ciabatta, honey and pistachio rye(?), unusually successful sundried tomato bread. We devoured it injudiciously. [Note to management, do NOT reduce the amount of bread, despite my moaning.] Dietary restrictions had been identified and were well accommodated. A gluten-free companion was given suitable bread without hesitation and was warned about a coating on a dessert which contained a very small amount of wheat flour. A pescatarian was happily vegified and the antipesco (me) was made happy too.
We realised that all was not traditional when the first dishes arrived. Scallops adorned with popcorn. Hmmm. Very modernist cooking. Not a taverna on Lesbos. Good. A salad with watermelon and smoked feta. Light me up and send me to heaven. Smoked feta! Excellent dolmades (though I think homemade can outdo them). Salmon adorned with (amongst other things) tomato yolks. Huh? Chef Calombaris brought his chemicals to The Press Club. Liquids encased in a fragile skin has been one of the titillating hits of modernist cooking, made possible by sodium alginate and calcium chloride. My companions failed universally to transport their yolks to their mouths in one piece. Tsk. They were warned! But despite this they agreed, I believe unanimously, that these 'yolks' were perhaps the most stunning element of the dinner. Pity they were on the fish, so I was excluded. Boohoo. Of course, there are different types of 'stunning', and the roast lamb was worthy of some pleasured murmurs. We really didn't need the enormous bowl of lemon potatoes. We were getting full. But not so full as to turn down the fat square of spanakopita.
Loosening our belts and bras, it was time for dessert. A clove(?) semifreddo with clove(?) foam (modernist touches again, not offensive). Loukoumades. Impressive baklava. And, alas, a mastic pannacotta which to most of us tasted far too vegetal. I like mastic, and was surprised at the flavour of the pannacotta, with 'green' being the primary impression. Very little of the warm gingery mintiness of mastic. This was the only dish that we had reservations about.
(This description is by no means comprehensive, and as I was there to eat, not review, some innaccuracies about ingredients may exist here.)
Service was relaxed but exceedingly professional. Our white wine reeked of burnt rubber. After some hesitation we raised the matter. Was this a taint? (Volcanic soil wines are often a tad odd…) A second bottle was opened. More tyres. A third, without complaint. A beautiful wine, excellent service. All done without a hint of accusation or reluctance. The dessert wines were another experience, though this time entirely positive — we tasted each before choosing our preference. It's a long time since I've felt that service was so good. I hope this is the usual experience for all diners at The Press Club.
The Press Club offers a number of dining formats. Ours was a type of 'Kerasma' shared menu, but à la carte and degustation options exist too. Prices aren't low (mains are just under the A$40 mark), but I suspect the enjoyment value will outweigh any reservations for many diners!
The Press Club, 72 Flinders Street, Melbourne VIC 3000. 03 9677 9677
George Calombaris's book, The Press Club, will be released at the beginning of March. I've seen bits of it and it is well worth looking at when it's released.