Wednesday, 23 May 2007

Where are the kangaroos in Austria? - Le Gourmet

On a recent Saturday evening, me and my partner KB were invited to join friends for dinner at Le Gourmet restaurant in East Melbourne. Le Gourmet appears to be some sort of Melbourne institution as far as French inspired fine dining goes having had a presence in the city’s restaurant scene for more than a quarter of a century! So it seems apt that I am christening Spot4Nosh with this review. A restaurant that’s owned and run by the same husband and wife team (Erich and Barbara Mohr) for that length of time certainly impresses me on more than one count, particularly when they still appear to be generating accolades for their efforts. Le Gourmet is housed within one of the many large Victorian homes that line the streets of that suburb. Inside, introduction into its dining space produces a suitable sense of occasion as we wait at the bookings desk located in a short hallway before being guided through glass-paneled white colonial doors into a room radiating heritage style ambience...nice.

Le Gourmet French restaurant directly opposite Melbourne's beautiful Fitzroy Gardens.

The menu was extensive, offering quite a variety of choices themed around what I guess is French cuisine with Austrian (the chef’s heritage) and Australian influences. Yes there are kangaroos here, in the form of Loin of Kangaroo on Cafe de Paris Butter with Onion Tarte-Tatin and Beans! What stood out were the detailed descriptions of each dish in its naming, just so you know exactly what you’ll be enjoying right down to the last squeeze of lemon or flourish of herbs. Basically, the menu was fun to read which is a tick in my book. The wine list was even more impressive, offering a wide selection by the glass, bottle and for social sippers like ourselves, most appreciatively half-bottles. We decided on a local Riesling. A basket of bread, together with quenelles of a paté-like hors d’oeuvre subtly infused with herbs and duck essence with which to spread, arrived as we were perusing what’s on offer. The bread rolls were warm and crusty and very welcomed as we were hungry. Our companions both ordered the Blue Swimmer Crab Bisque with a touch of Calvados ($14.90) to start, which looked rich and perfectly tempting when it arrived. The bisque appears to be currently a popular recommendation by past patrons. KB and I decided to share an entrée of Spice-encrusted quail, boned and served with Mango Relish on a Broccoli Salad ($18.90). Our shared whole quail arrived perfectly halved onto separate plates which were a nice touch one wouldn’t expect from many other similarly classed establishments. For me, it was quite an unusual way to have quail as each half was encased in a rather thick spiced crust not unlike crumbed schnitzel…maybe a subtle waltz towards Vienna by the chef. All the same, the encased meat was moist and tender and the whole, combined with a sweet mango relish on the side was pretty tasty. The broccoli salad however was neither here nor there, being simply a sprig of steamed broccolini.

For mains, our table decided on Seared Scallops Fettuccini tossed with Basil, Lemon and Mascarpone ($32.90), the Roulade of King George Whiting filled with Crab Mousse on Creamed Spinach ($32.90), and the day’s special of roasted aged beef ($34.90). The beef consisted of generous slices of presumably fillet steak surrounding a rib-eye medallion which rested on a creamy potato mash. My preference for medium-rare meat was done just right and the beef was delightfully juicy and tender. Light roasting juices garnished with slivers of porcini-like mushroom, whole chestnuts and buttery Brussels sprouts completed this simply done but flavoursome dish. A separate boat of gravy was also thoughtfully presented. The scallop fettuccini was also judged to be very nice although the scattering of smallish scallops came minus their orange purses of coral, which would’ve been a major disappointment if I’d ordered that dish...from any restaurant not least one with European sensibilities. Regrettably, the roulade of whiting was a let-down. KB deemed the fish overcooked and the delicately flavoured flesh of whiting was unfortunately masked by the crab mousse which worse, left an unpleasant egg white-gy aftertaste. The creamed spinach appeared to have been piped too early and presented on the plate as a dull unappetizing dark-green paste that also didn’t complement the fish. Crispy croutons of diced potato were tasty because they were fried but also seemed out of place and cheapened the presentation of the dish. In fact someone did quip fish’n’chips on first impression, not a reaction one would be after for any dish at a posh restaurant. Sorry, but we are fussy with our seafood and in particular with fish.

Everything on the desserts list sounded great, and I’m not even usually one that hangs out for the last course. But none of us could go past the Salzburger Nockerl, a hot Austrian Soufflé with Hazelnuts and Chocolate Chips served with Ice Cream ($15.90), surely the house special and tribute to a distant culinary homeland. In less time than the obligatory 20-minutes, two impressive caramel coloured mounds bulging from oval flan dishes arrived looking for all the world like freshly baked loafs of bread! Definitely a recommended dessert…the soufflé was light and creamily soft in the middle and rich with the taste of hazelnuts and chocolate flecks as the description promised. A dark chocolate sauce and ice cream with fruit dices were served on separate ramekins to contribute to the bliss as we wished. We finished on a high.

Service throughout was efficient if a little confused. Wait-staff were a mix of the experienced and the less so…the waitress who took our order appeared to have aimed to memorise the menu descriptions to the last page (a huge challenge!) but crashed and burned once the curtain raised and the spotlight was on. We didn’t care but she seemed quite flustered. More noticeable was that there seemed to be more wait-staff than was really needed. Every time someone came to our table it was a different person! To the extend that they confused themselves, one coming to offer bread to start as we were already licking off the last crumbs from an earlier delivery; another bringing a stack of fresh plates only to find us already re-plated. A bit Keystone Cop-ish, not that we minded a bit as every new face was a smiling one and we quite enjoyed the show. But more refined diners may expect better tuning on the floor. And I really do need to mention something about the trip up to the restrooms, which involves exiting the charming dining area back into the hallway and climbing a flight of carpeted stairs to the floor above. I was quite aghast with the state of the carpets from about halfway up as they were truly grey and grimy and worse of all had the permeating smell of a cheap greasy noodle joint. Unfortunately, an unexpected and shocking jolt out of the fine dining ambience created through the night. To sum up Le Gourmet, we had a wonderful evening as we don’t get to do silver-ish service all that often, but had slightly higher aspirations for the food. Pity about King George but hurrah for that soufflé from Salzburg...and I'm not referring to Mozart!

Food: 3.5 spots - Had high expectations that were not quite met.
Service: 4 spots - Doubly efficient.
Value: 3.5 spots - Higher prices mean higher expectations.
Returnability(R) Factor: 3 spots - Too many other places yet to try to be truly convinced.
Spot Score: 14/20

Le Gourmet
366 Albert Street, East Melbourne, VIC.

No comments: