Wednesday, 18 July 2007

A Light on the Bay - belleZain

We stumbled upon belleZain Restaurant and Bar in Port Melbourne back on the Queen's Birthday long weekend, now a distant month ago! Feeling guilty for procrastinating indoors the entire day before, KB and myself had decided to spend Sunday with a slow drive down the length of the Mornington Peninsula. We spent a pleasant enough afternoon revisiting those bayside townships of Rye, Sorrento and Portsea although to be honest, with the jostling long weekend crowds they were more evocative in name than experience. However a walk we took around Point Nepean afforded us with some escape from the masses and good views of the Bay near the point of its escape into the Southern Ocean. I remember it being a rather bleak day, with a persistent chill in the air and a grey limpid sea that one learns to expect on a day at the beach in Victoria (slight lament from an expatriated Queenslander). We had been prepared and were appropriately wrapped for the weather but when the weak sun finally gave up for the day it was definitely time to find somewhere warm for a good hearty meal.

BelleZain wasn't initially on our cards for dinner. As we drove back down the coastal highway towards Melbourne we'd somehow missed the turn-off to the first place we'd thought to try and our second choice was inexplicably closed, on Sunday evening of the long weekend no less! In fact, we were all but resigned to heading back to a familiar 'cheap and cheerful' in the city when we spied the neon cursive of belleZain and decided to make a hasty U-turn. The restaurant was tenanted within an apartments development with an enviable location, separated from sand and sea only by Beach Road and with a clear outlook towards Station Pier. One can almost imagine whiling a warm summer's afternoon away on its large patio with beer in hand. Almost...because on that night I had fumbled with stiff fingers at a taut zipper in a hurried attempt to get us in through the clear PVC awning that protected the entrance of the restaurant from the biting evening chill! Inside was a modern chic bistro typical of many such establishments located in Port Melbourne. Basically, a dimly lit palette of chocolate, beige and burgundy interspersed with stained timber slatting and white linened tables. A continuous benchseat with a backing of large cushions ran the length of the floor-to-ceiling glass frontage, demarcated only by the separated table settings.

Lovely bayside views looking towards Station Pier from belleZain's doorstep. Not a bad place to grab last drinks and a decent meal before boarding that ferry for Tasmania!

The menu revealed that belleZain was available for breakfast, lunch, dinner and probably anytime in between. There was a selection of bistro type offerings which showed an attempt at lifting them above the usual standard fare and a section dedicated to semi-gourmet pizzas ($15-$19), suggesting that the place wouldn't be a bad choice for a daytime family stopover. Once the sun has set however, the feel was definitely 'adult' with an alluring bar dominating one end of the room and a large Specials Board at the other offering a more sophisticated selection of Mains and a choice of $14 cocktails. Both our Mains came from the Specials Board, from which I selected the Chargrilled Ribeye Steak with Vegetable Ratatouille and Red Onion Relish ($29) and KB the Spicyed (sic) Pressed Pork Shoulder and Potato Puree and Sauce aigre-doux ($29). We also ordered the Whitebait with Fresh Green Herbs and Preserved Lemon ($8) and the Deep Fried Goats Cheese and Sage Arancini ($9) to start, and a Pear, Rocket and Parmesan Salad ($7) to accompany our meal. Nice thick slices of bread with the requisite saucer of olive oil and swirl of balsamic arrived after orders were taken. Despite the intriguing list of cocktails and a wine list however, I settled for a local beer ($6). The chill had finally started to dissipate from our toes.

Truthfully, we weren't expecting much from the food as the one or two other bar-type restaurants we'd been to in the area, namely at nearby Station Pier, had been pretentiously overpriced while delivering totally unremarkable fare. So we were pleasantly surprised with the quality of the dishes at belleZain. The goat's cheese arancini were nice and crispy on the outside and crumbly and soft in the middle, with each golden ball topped with a fried sage leaf. Even better were the whitebait which were crunchily more-ish and served abit differently tossed with a light scattering of dry-roasted chilli flakes and fresh Italian flat-leaf parsley. However the so-called preserved lemon was more like a scatter of not particularly thinly julienned raw lemon rind, and had to be picked aside as they were too hard and bitter to be eaten. On to the Mains, my medium-rare ribeye was chargrilled on the bone and laid over a bed of diced roasted vegetables and was delicious, although a minor misjudgement meant that some of the meat clinging to the bone was a tad on the blue side. But the combination of hard-to-see dim lighting and a very tasty garnish of sweated onion relish made me forget about that and continue to pick at it anyway. KB's dish consisted of a tight, meaty roll of cleverly marinated pork (we guessed at hints of five-spice) that was pan roasted to perfection, with filigrees of golden crispiness encasing the medium-cooked and very succulent meat within. The sauce aigre-doux (sour-sweet) was a faintly sweet balsamic-like vinaigrette which together with the drizzle of pan juices and creamy mashed potato, perfectly rounded out this surprisingly remarkable dish. Our generous bowl of salad was also well constructed, with a nicely subtle dressing binding together the dependable combination of rocket leaves, sweet pear slices and savoury Parmesan shavings. After the fine meal we were contented to linger a little longer for a coffee, so it was an added bonus to find that the restaurant hadn't just invested on a decent chef but also had a good barista on board. KB's flat-white ($3.50) had a strong creamy hit of caffeine and was served at the perfect temperature, hot enough to warrant a little caution at the lips without being scalding. This was remarkable only because so many places, including dedicated coffee dens, frequently can only come up with lukewarm and weak white coffees. As for me I'd splurged on the Affogato ($9), which arrived on a platter balancing a ramekin of vanilla ice cream, a shot of strong espresso and a shotglass of Amaretto (liqueur of choice). I must say I enjoyed these, using the style of a scoop of this followed by a sip of that or the other.

Service at belleZain was casual and efficient, despite there being only a limited number of wait-staff (two) servicing an evening that progressively got quite busy. But here is its main downside...the restaurant has the potential of being quite an intimate evening treat with its handsome look and decent food, so it's really a shame that it tries to cramp too many tables into its layout and so separate table settings are way too close to each other. Such is the proximity of neighbouring tables that one really does feel that personal space has been invaded, not exactly a relaxing way to dine. Just to press the point, to one side of us a group of elderly regulars that had arrived later struck up a conversation among themselves, and then with us, on the merits of our menu choices. "We should get some of the whitebait too, it's always delicious here...Isn't it?" Just as well we could agree wholeheartedly!

Food: 4 spots - Honest attempt at creativity and quality not typical of bar-restaurants.
Service: 3.5 spots.
Value: 3.5 spots - Cheaper meals can be found in pubs around the area but not bad value for more formal dining and a chic place for drinks with a view in Port Melbourne.
Returnability(R) Factor: 3.5 spots - Could well do.
Spot Score: 15/20

belleZain Restaurant and Bar
1 Beach Road, Port Melbourne, VIC.

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