Thursday, March 15, 2012

Lunch at Paul Mathis' Henry and the Fox

Henry and the Fox

Disclaimer: I did not pay for my meal, Henry and the Fox hosted me for lunch while I was working with Agenda. The opinions reported below are based solely on my thoughts at the time of my visit.

Address: 525 Little Collins Street, Melbourne, 3000 

Phone: (03) 9614 3277

Hours: Monday to Friday, 7.30am until late (kitchen closes at 10pm)

For those of you who don’t know, I write for Agenda. Last week I was lucky enough to be assigned to visit one of restaurateur Paul Mathis’ new haunts, Henry and the Fox. Mathis himself wasn’t there, assumedly busy opening The Sharing House and Akachochin in South Wharf, but 2011 Age Young Chef of the Year, Michael Fox, was in the house, albeit mostly in the kitchen. 

I rarely blog about places I visit for Agenda, but I found Fox’s passion for produce and the dishes he served utterly inspiring. I just had to share my experience. So for those who are interested in the evolving Paul Mathis empire, the Henry and the Fox fit-out and its inspiration, click here. 

This post is specifically about the food at Henry and the Fox. What it looks like, tastes like and its provenance. As mentioned in the Agenda article linked above, there is a two-course lunch menu for $35 ($45 with dessert) available in March and a BBQ on Friday nights. The menu is broken down into small, medium, and large dishes. I sampled a collection from each.

Small Dishes

It all began with a single fried zucchini flower, served with lemon. Usually the word ‘fried’ elicits images of grease and oil. Not the case at Henry and the Fox, where Fox’s dishes are mostly free from fats and he makes it his mission to use ‘good’ oils, such as sunflower oil. The crisp outer layer of the flower was sprinkled with flakes of sea salt. Inside it was bursting with creamy ricotta, peas and ribbons of mint.

Next came the jamon and manchego croquette. The crumbed exterior was golden and crunchy, containing small strips of jamon in the oozy cheese filling. Manchego is an aged, Spanish sheep’s cheese. The tasty morsel screamed “drink a beer with me!” but at the same time it could pass as a gourmet kids’ snack. There was something awfully nostalgic about it.

Medium Dishes

Keeping with the cheese theme, soft thumbtacks of goats cheese arrived next, beautifully arranged in a shallow bowl alongside soft baby beets. Pickled shallots provided a tangy lift while the distinctly earthy shiso leaves were subtle compared to the sweet smear of beetroot and raspberry beneath the other ingredients. The combination of textures and tastes was beautiful, a perfect example of a well constructed dish.

Fox’s penchant for seafood is evident in the menu. He sources his bounty from Ocean Made Seafood Wholesalers in Collingwood and is used to receiving last minute calls touting the daily catch.

“We’re surrounded by the ocean,” Fox told me, “so why not use beautiful seafood produce?”

One of my favourite dishes was the seared scallop (it should be noted that the scallops are imported from overseas, as Fox can’t find scallops to match his exacting standards in Australia at the moment. While he uses local ingredients where he can, he won’t let locality compromise taste). The scallop was barely cooked through but for the crunch of the seared crust, complemented by a mild celeriac remoulade, blobs of caper and raisin purée (decidedly caper flavoured at first, followed by a raisin aftertaste) and shards of toasted pumpernickel. Baby coriander shoots were so mild they were reserved mostly for decoration. After all, it only takes one look at the restaurant to see that Henry and the Fox loves the colour green. On the topic of design, the scallop was served on a stunning glass square plate.

Fox admits he is surprised that more people haven’t sent the confît ocean trout back for being “too raw”. But there’s something inherently satisfying about being able to pull away flakes of fish with the lightest touch of a fork before it practically dissolves in the mouth. Enhancing the trout was a number of firm accompaniments: salted batons of cucumber, tiny heads of cauliflower and slivers of radish. The puddle of sauce you see in the picture was a light and ever so mild horseradish cream, adorned with tiny shoots of purple baby basil.

Moving to more earth-bound pleasures, the rabbit terrine presented as a hearty square speckled with herbs and capers and wrapped in prosciutto. It was decidedly salty, almost too salty, but it was saved by the buttery toasted brioche, tart lengths of rhubarb and frisée lettuce with which it was balanced.

Large Dishes

Back to the ocean: a firm pillow of snapper blanketed in a leek ash was next. The ash tasted unequivocally of leek and not a thing like charcoal. How do they do it? When it was served, the waitress was carrying a bulbous glass vessel of tomato consommé that she poured around the fish. It was soaked up by al dente balls of fregola, a pasta similar to Israeli cousous. Amongst the fregola were five varieties of tomato, all sweet, intermingled with delicate green shoots.

The above dish is the only one that contains pasta. Fox assured me that his food doesn’t use much flour, and that gluten-free and wheat-free options are readily available.

At lunch, meals are light so the corporate crowd won’t “slump in front of their computers” when they return to their desks. At dinner, the social crowd gives Fox and his team a chance to get a bit creative. There is logic behind Fox’s choice of dishes. For example:

“Chicken is regarded as boring and I thought, ‘why not make it not boring?’”

He succeeded: a flawless piece of chicken breast poached for 35 minutes at 65°C was plated with cooked and puffed quinoa. Globules of burnt fig puree were dotted around a grilled fig segment, green pistachios and sweet baby sorrel leaves. Boring? I think not.

The final savoury dish was another favourite. A cube of crispy pork belly was served with dill, plump orange segments, snow pea shoots and fennel presented in various guises. Specks of yellow fennel pollen were sprinkled on and around the crisp top layer of crackling–you know—the type of brittle crackling that becomes chewy and almost juicy in the mouth as it sticks to your molars. There were spirals of shaved fennel and a wedge of pungent confît fennel with a smoky flavour. A daub of fennel purée bound the components of the dish together. To those who have an aversion to aniseed and licorice, this dish isn’t for you. But for those who don’t mind fennel, it was the ideal accompaniment with pork belly, its sharpness cutting through the fattiness.


Sorry, did I forget to mention Henry and the Fox do dessert too?

There was a devilishly chocolatey special when I visited. The rounded glass had a layer of dark chocolate sauce topped with a chunk of chocolate cake and a quenelle of warm chocolate mousse. Amongst all that chocolate were tart roasted blood plums, finished with a pink plum sorbet. Just pray it’s there when you pop in.

I am a chocolate-loving kind of gal, so it says a lot when I prefer the non-chocolate dessert. You’ve heard it here first: it happened at Henry and the Fox. The dessert in question is a regular on the menu. My taster was served in a glass jar alongside its chocolate counterpart. Another layered temptation, the bottom was a rich passionfruit cheesecake mousse. Up a level were crunchy “sweet crumbs”, then passionfruit jelly and passionfruit granita. An icy yoghurt sorbet was the cherry on top, decorated with purple baby basil leaves.

So there you have it: a peek at the menu from Henry and the Fox. It’s not often that I dive straight into a dish and forget to take a photo, but at this restaurant I had to reassemble the ingredients on more than one occasion. It’s clear that Michael Fox is talented, but to attribute everything to just that would be simplistic. It’s also about how he treats his team and his relationship with Paul Mathis.

In the kitchen, it is only Fox and three other chefs, which according to Fox means that, “everyone is accountable but containable.” The young—and rather good-looking—team all learn from each other. Everyone contributes and ideas are never frowned upon. While cooking, carving and creating, Fox is inevitably training his guys for their future kitchen careers. He accepts that it’s part of the industry, even though he admits it’s like “a mother saying goodbye to her son”. Yes, Fox is the mother in that analogy.

Then there is his relationship with Mathis, which Fox says is based on “mutual respect”. He admires Mathis’ “quirkiness” and eye for detail, while Mathis gives Fox creative freedom in the kitchen. Everybody wins.

And Fox’s take on the food?

“The menu reads simply, with no big descriptive words, so people are surprised at the quality of it (the food) when it comes out and looks like it does… but we work within a spectrum of consistently solid dishes.”

Take one Young Chef of the Year, a generous scoop of passion and creativity, and combine with the one and only Paul Mathis and you’ve got a foolproof recipe for contemporary dining.

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