Estelle Bar and Kitchen
Address: 243 High Street Northcote, VIC
Phone: (03) 9489 4609
Open: Wednesday, 6pm until late
Thursday to Sunday, midday until late
Thursday to Sunday, midday until late
It’s not often that I’m lost for words. For me, being reduced to silence is indeed a rare sight. I hardly ever drum my keyboard, attempting to coax a first sentence from my fingertips. Yet after dining at Estelle Bar and Kitchen recently, I’m anxious that this review will not do it justice. Just to be safe, let’s start at the beginning.
In early January I was celebrating a special occasion. I asked the wonderful world of Twitter where I should go to enjoy a romantic and affordable to dinner. Dani Valent, best known as a food writer for The Age, suggested Fitzrovia (where I proceeded to have brunch that week), Bar Idda, The Aylesbury and The Estelle. After a quick peak at the menus online, The Estelle came out on top. I proceeded to visit with my best friend instead of my boy friend. Nice.
Owned by Scott Pickett (formerly executive chef at The Point) and Ryan Flaherty (his résumé includes a two year stint at Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck and the better part of a year at Ferran Adria’s el Bulli), The Estelle introduces an entirely new dimension to the Northcote dining scene.
The restaurant itself is small, although the word ‘intimate’ is more appropriate. Grey leather chairs match the bar stools and polished timber boards line the floor. If the thick wooden tables remind you of something from a bowling alley, it’s because they are. The walls — tiled in pastel pink, grey, black and white —have been lifted straight from the ‘50s. UFO-shaped lights hang from the ceiling, emitting a warm glow over the vases scattered around the bench tops. The slate feature wall frames the kitchen, behind which crates of herbs and veggies border the courtyard. The rhubarb plant was thriving when we visited.
What is most impressive is the casual vibe emitted by the restaurant, despite the incredibly high quality of the food. The dishes are as creative as Vue de Monde and Attica but come without the theatrical factor. The menu is divided into seven sections: freshly shucked oysters, charcuterie, cheese, vegetable, fish, meat and sweet stuff. Under each of the mains and desserts there are three different options, so you might as well go for the Chef’s Tasting Menu… especially because he has such appealing taste. Three courses will set you back $50pp (or $70 with wine), five courses $70pp (or $100 with wine), and seven courses $90pp ($130 with wine).
Two incredibly friendly, relaxed waiters served us. She was spunky with tasteful tattoos and easily convinced us to have seven courses, not five. She also told us about the more adventurous drinks option, which was not limited to wine. He had bright blue eyes and was clearly passionate about the food placed in front of us. We let him know that we had a gig to catch at 8.15pm in the city (we were there for the 6pm sitting) and he promised us he would make sure we left in time. Both of them were jovial and served up a sense of humour alongside our dinner.
Before the main event, we were treated to The Estelle’s take on prawn crackers—their words, not mine. A martini glass contained two deep-fried sardine fossils jutting out from a fluffy sour cream mousse. Apparently they are just another one of Ryan’s creations, perfected while working in Arzak Restaurant (or is that Arzak laboratory?) in Spain.
Two fat chickpea chips accompanied the sardine fossils. They were golden and crunchy on the outside and almost creamy on the inside. Sprinkled with olive salt and complemented with a glass of bubbly, we were already off to a good start.
Just as we were polishing off our chips, two palate cleansers arrived in the form of chilled melon cubes. Blanketed in an edible starch wrapper and topped with baby basil, the combination of textures was unique.
The first ‘official’ course was the beetroot and ‘ashed’ goats cheese, served with a light and refreshing 2011 Bannockburn Sauvignon Blanc. The ball of chèvre was coated in a fake ash made from black olives and black sesame, as I recall. The heirloom beets gave the velvety goats cheese some body. Interestingly, the earthy yellow beetroot was sweeter than the more familiar red beetroot. Along with the drops of orange purée, thinly sliced radish and young green shoots, this intricate yet simple salad paid homage to fresh, local ingredients.
The smoked eel was the first time (of many) I declared, “this one’s my favourite.” The tender baton of eel was indeed smoky, offset by the sweet smear of carrot reduction on the plate. A brioche crumble added some crunch, but it was difficult to detect the chamomile in the chamomile infused cream. Celery slices poached in apple juice had a distinct fruity flavour, which was enhanced by the apple sake with lime and orange blossom upon which we sipped.
Sticking to the sea, the blue eye bakala was a gastronomic take on a traditional Portuguese dish. Served on a beautiful plate with a small dip in the middle for the food, our waiter suggested we sample each component of the dish in turn, before combining the elements. “Oh look,” delighted my friend, “I love foam!” We were playfully corrected: the foam was in fact lemon air. The fish was firm, the fennel was mild, and the air was light and zesty. It resembled a designer rock pool that had been whipped up in a storm. It was paired with 2009 Marques de Alella Pansa Blanca, Penedes, Spain, which revealed a hint of lemon itself.
The salmon, green pea and shiso came with a 2010 French rosé, Rimauresq ‘Cru Classé’ from Provence. Aside from matching the salmon in colour, the gentle floral notes didn’t compete with the complex flavours of the dish. The confît salmon dissolved in the mouth and had a soft, flaky texture. A smudge of minted pea purée, a twig of asparagus and a slow-poached quail egg made an artistic palate of the plate. Finished with a couple of carefully placed, yellow shiso flower petals, it was almost too pretty to eat. We managed anyway.
The pork loin, cheek and ear dish was another favourite. The various pieces of pork were arranged in a row on top of a green pea purée. A char-grilled stick of spring onion united the three parts. The loin was a rich, pink medallion; top quality meat. To its left, the glazed cheek had a sticky, almost caramelised shell that housed the tender meat within. The ear rested on a creamy dip; forgive me for not recalling exactly what it was… by this stage I was a little tipsy! A wedge of onion cut through the oiliness of the fried ear. A Versailles cocktail — an appropriately rich concoction of Dubonnet, Cognac, Cointreau and orange peel —was partnered with the pork.
We then jumped from rich main to rich dessert. The cherry, almond and Earl Grey dish was nothing short of fireworks in the mouth. Dark red halved cherries floated in an almond infused custard. Shards of Earl Grey meringue sat jaggedly upright. Icy, freeze-dried cherries added texture. Blobs of chocolate were plopped both beneath and on top of other ingredients. It was the kind of dessert that made you feel naughty, if not smug. Antica Formula, sweet red vermouth, was an impeccable match for this heavenly dessert.
Next came the cleansing strawberry, vanilla and basil dessert. Presented on a slate board in a matching bowl, it was my friend’s uncontested favourite. The surface was capped with sweet sour cream, liberally scattered with an icy basil granita and sprinkled with a pinch of olive salt. Small basil leaves sprouted from the dessert, which revealed quartered strawberries beneath the top layer. Dessert is incomplete without dessert wine, and we had a delicate 1998 Château d’Arche Grand Cru, Sauternes, France.
By now, it was 7.50pm, and we had finished our seven dishes. Our waiter cleared our plates and asked cheekily if we had time for an extra dessert. If I have learned one thing in life, it’s that there is ALWAYS time for an extra dessert. Sour cream, pumpkin and salted caramel: an interesting mix, but it worked. The body of the dish was an airy vanilla and olive oil sponge, topped with a scoop of crème fresh ice cream. Pumpkin seeds provided crunch and a mix of spices added sweet, sour and bitter notes. Worms of salted caramel wriggled around the other ingredients and nearly resulted in plate licking. The dessert was preceded by a glass of 2010 Punt Road Botrytis Semillon, Riverina, NSW — a honeyed dessert wine with a trace of citrus.
As we were enjoying our final dish, Scott Pickett emerged from behind the scenes. While giving us a background of the business, his eyes shone with passion for the industry. He was most humble and flattered by our compliments. It was as if it were the first time he had ever heard such feedback.
By the end of the meal, it is fair to say I was pleasantly inebriated. Actually, I’m being dishonest; I was feeling tipsy by the time I reached my third glass. But it wasn’t just the whites, rosé, sake and cocktails. No, I was drunk on creative dishes, cordial service and enviable company. As soon as we finished our extended degustation, we were promptly brought the bill. Knowing we were late for our gig, our waiter joked, “why are you still here?” as we walked out the door. Well mister, we were still there because we didn’t want to leave.
* Special thanks to Scott Pickett, for reminding me of the names of the beverages we drank… What?! I’d like to see you recall all the names after nine glasses without any notes.