Sunday, October 28, 2012

Food is Art: National Gallery of Victoria

Eatery hopping at the National Gallery of Victoria

Disclaimer: I did not pay for my meals. I was invited by Peter Rowland Catering to try their food offerings with a friend and report back. I later worked with Peter Rowland for about a year.  

Here’s the thing about restaurants and cafes in galleries; you wouldn’t make a special effort to eat at one. Not unless you were checking out an exhibit. Or at least that’s how I felt, until someone suggested I check out Persimmon at the National Gallery of Victoria. Any excuse for some ‘research’, right? 

To get to the restaurant, we entered at the main NGV entrance (where the iconic water wall is) and then followed the hallway around to the right. Walking into the dining space, the first feature we noticed was the expansive windows with views of the surrounding Grollo Equiset Gardens, as well as an impressive water sculpture. Inside, the décor is sleek and black, but plush burnt orange chairs brighten up the square room. We also loved the way the characteristic NGV stone wall continued inside the restaurant, seemingly separated only by the windows. 

There’s an unmistakable ‘modern art’ feel to Persimmon, which is reflected in both the furnishings and the menu, the latter of which changed the week before we visited for a late lunch. It’s modern Australian and always uses seasonal produce, but then again so do most places these days. What sets Persimmon apart is its unique location and exquisite attention to detail. Although the two course menu with a glass of wine for $40 is wonderful value, we decided on a couple of mains and a side dish. 

I was tempted by some of the menu items from the ‘Something Light’ section, specifically the kingfish with toasted almonds, dried grapes, pork crackling and lavender vinegrette, not to mention the Western Australian marron with corn purée, herb paste and coconut bouillabaisse. Instead, we ordered from ‘Something More’. Before our food came out, warm olive and pumpkin seed rolls arrived and were replaced as soon as we finished them... kind of like that old 'never ending packet of Tim-Tams' ad!

Everything was beautifully presented, especially the Duck Apicius. Two tender pieces of duck meat arrived with a crisp top layer, sticky from a caramel reduction and slightly pink in the middle. Segments of fennel cut through the sweetness of the dish, while wedges of grilled nectarine were the cherry on top. Although the caramel was supposedly spicy, there was only the slightest hint of hotness. It hardly mattered; the plate was practically licked clean. 

Less beautiful to look at - but equally as tasty - was the folded lasagne. If anyone can show me a picture of a good-looking lasagne, I’ll be impressed. This one was served in a shallow black bowl on a bed of  purple artichoke hearts and with a dollop of Parmesan foam. It was buttery and extremely naughty, but if I were to waste time feeling guilty about my food intake, I wouldn’t have a second left in the day. Instead, we ordered a side of perfectly cooked brocollini flavoured with chilli, garlic and preserved lemons. 

Having read rave reviews on Persimmon’s dessert selection from my favourite dessert blog, it was a feat to tell our charming and attentive American waiter (or was he Canadian? I can never get it right) that we would not be satisfying our sweet tooths. Then I saw the words “chocolate waves, salted caramel, chocolate mousse, chocolate sorbet” on the menu, and my buddy dragged me kicking and screaming out of the restaurant. Okay, so that’s a mild exaggeration. What really happened was that I decided we should get our cake kick upstairs at The Tea Room. 

On the way to The Tea Room we made a detour past RALLY, a free contemporary Indonesian Art exhibition by Jompet Kuswidananto and Eko Nugroho. Words fail to do the pieces justice, especially because they each display an interesting combination of quirk and political nuances. But I can tell you this: I liked it. Kuswidananto creates his art using sound, video and installations. One installation is suspended in Federation Court and titled ‘The Commoners’. It features nine figures playing the drums, each only decipherable as a person from a few of items of hanging clothing. 

We made a detour past Gallery Kitchen, the go-to lunch pit stop for gallery goers. It’s conveniently located next to the gift shop, which tempts you with beautifully bound books while you sip your coffee. The space is well designed and resembles a high-class cafeteria. It’s the most casual of the eating spots in the NGV and is perfect for a laid-back lunch or a hit of caffeine to renew your energy stores. We were between lunch and dessert so we didn’t sit down for a bite, but the Roquefort, quince, pear and walnut tart with salad would have been my choice if we had. There was also a tortellini special, and I’ve heard the gourmet sandwiches and wraps are a cheap and tasty option. 

By the time we’d had a look around, The Tea Room well and truly awaited us. We were still fairly stuffed from lunch, but the glass display of housemade sweet treats was enough to convince us to order. We couldn’t decide what to sample, but luckily the friendly and rather hilarious gentleman looking after us held our hands. “Our scones are the best in the world,” he practically sung. He said it with such conviction, so we weren’t about to argue.

We matched our scones with the ‘Good Morning Tea’, described as a beaming coppery black blend with a rich, medium astringency. It came in a stunning white teapot and complemented the scones wonderfully. It was all very 'Alice in Wonderland' tea party, and the scones lived up to the hype. Warm and soft in the middle with strawberry jam and velvety cream, they were incredibly nostalgic. One waitress even offered us a refill of preserves when she saw we had gobbled our supply. 

But we didn’t stop there. We couldn’t. Not with those macarons begging to be eaten. We split a hazelnut praline and salted caramel; both varieties received two thumbs up. It was the detail that impressed us the most: each macaron had been brushed with an edible shimmer, which made them all the more enticing. 

Our last indulgence was The Tea Room’s take on a caramel slice. It was basically a layer of biscuit with soft, salted caramel in the middle; topped with a fluffy cherry marshmallow, covered in dark chocolate and brushed with a copper sparkle. It was almost too pretty to eat. Almost.

For those who don’t stuff themselves at Persimmon beforehand, The Tea Room also offers Afternoon Tea for $35, which includes a selection of cakes and pastries, savouries, sandwiches, scones and preserves, tea or coffee. You can add a glass of Pirie NV for a tenner if you're feeling a little bit posh. 

The elongated space at The Tea Room is as impressive as the sweets. The dimmed lighting has a romantic glow and timber beams cover the ceiling, leading to a mirrored back wall. Sit as close to the entrance as you can and you’ll have a fantastic view of the famous water wall, which was plastered in a street-art inspired mural by Nugroho at the time we visited. 

The mural continued down in front of the water wall onto a semi-circular platform spotted with black and white cushions. A sign at its edge encouraged people to slip off their shoes and to draw comics with the felt-tip pens and paper provided. As soon as we had sipped and slurped our fill of tea and sweets, we happily obliged.

The contemporary Indonesian art exhibit is on until the first of April, 2013. While it’s worth checking out, you don’t need a reason to visit NGV other than for a beautiful meal. With so many eateries popping up all over our city, it’s rare that a Melburnian would consider dining at a gallery instead of a new hotspot. But why should places such as Persimmon be reserved for international visitors and tourists checking out the artwork? Next time you’re in the city, pop into The Tea Room for a sugar fix and a cuppa, or take your next date to Persimmon and follow it up with a leisurely stroll through the gardens while your food goes down. I guarantee they’ll be impressed, and so will you. 

National Gallery of Victoria 
180 St Kilda Road, Melbourne

Phone: (03) 8620 2434

Open: Seven days, 11am until 4pm

    Persimmon on Urbanspoon 

The Tea Room 
Phone: (03) 8620 2431 
Open: Wednesday to Monday, 10am until 4.30pm

  The Tea Room on Urbanspoon 

Gallery Kitchen 
Phone: (03) 8620 2444
Open: Wednesday until Monday, 10am until 5pm

Gallery Kitchen on Urbanspoon

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