Fenix, Melbourne restaurant review

Author: John Lethlean
Photography: Sharyn Cairns

As the lazy old Yarra meanders its way south to Port Phillip Bay, it cuts a demarcation between the energetic inner suburban pressure of the city and genteel, moneyed Melbourne - Kew and Hawthorn - as it passes beneath the Victoria Street Bridge, rattling with trams and commuters high above.

It's one of those surprising pockets of tranquillity you can still find along the rapidly developing banks of the inner-city Yarra. Here, on the broad terrace of Fenix, you can sit on a balmy night and gaze out to the bush-like opposite bank of the river, listen to bellbirds and pretty much ignore urban reality.

It's strange then to see a conservative, middle-aged woman exhaling green tea gas - really the residual liquid nitrogen vapours from a green tea and lime mousse that has been set in the liquid - from her nose.

But there you have it. Fenix is a jumble of paradoxes. A business that mixes very straight corporate and private functions upstairs with some of the most out-there restaurant food in Australia downstairs; a restaurant whose recent elegant makeover - engendering a kind of informal, clubby chic - in no way suggests the avant-garde spirit of molecular gastronomy that looms large within the kitchen.

A place, if you like, where the inner city and the leafy suburbs meet and mingle. And occasionally - as with our friend exhaling gases from her tea and lime meringue 'cooked' at the table in liquid nitrogen - collide, with entertaining results.

Ray Capaldi came to Australia from Scotland in the mid 90s to cook classic food, but the fire of the new has been burning in his belly ever since he first heard of the new ways of thinking about food and cooking advanced by the likes of Ferran Adrià and later Heston Blumenthal and Andoni Luis Aduriz of Mugaritz in Spain. And the Scot has spent the past five years since he and his partners opened Fenix, gradually introducing more and more ideas inspired by the avant-garde of Europe: different cooking techniques relying on new-wave equipment (think Pacojet and Thermomix machines, and an 'anti-griddle' fuelled by liquid nitrogen to 'cook' at minus 365 degrees celsius), textural plays, unlikely bed fellows, deconstruction and re-assembly. Some of it has bewildered his customers; some of it has thrilled. And as a result, this restaurant has proven itself a slippery creature to grasp for much of that time: part café, part fine-diner; part traditional and part adventure on the fringe of conventional gastronomy.

The new-look Fenix, which opened in September, is the end play. No more café, brunch or coffee trade; no more informal lunch menus for local mums and office workers, with a dinner menu that hedged plenty of bets. Putting aside the lucrative functions aspect of the business, Fenix now operates as an à la carte, high-end dining room, with its terrace, a huge private dining area, a 'wine table' and chef's table in the kitchen. The stylish, if conservative, makeover is Capaldi's big tilt at being a focused chef/restaurateur, not just a successful hospitality businessman.

And the food is brave, inspired, challenging and occasionally brilliant. It will certainly provoke thought and often awe at the work and consideration that has gone into a dish. But it will not be for everyone. Wandering into Fenix and ordering the degustation, a seven-course (plus extras) tour of Capaldi's inspirations, is tantamount to a declaration of intent about food and modern dining. No passive, uninterested diner could work through this menu without the sheer braveness of the food and its presentation striking like a mallet.

Not that it's too serious a place: linen has gone from the tables which are now dressed with beautiful glassware and crockery. The dining room now focuses as never before on the bush vista. Attention to detail is everywhere, although the accent is on comfort rather than reverence. Wait staff, however, need to beware any temptation to treat the food and general gastronomic experience as a holy moment, and have a little fun with it all. Co-managers and co-sommeliers Alastair Dobbs and Paul Romanella set a great example here, with an enthusiasm and knowledge that must, nonetheless, be occasionally challenged by some of their boss's concoctions.

How, for example, would you steer a thirsty diner placed before an undeniably challenging dessert of sharply flavoured passionfruit sorbet sitting in an earthy bright beetroot and passionfruit consommé with jujubes of sweet beetroot jelly, all dressed - in an assertive nod to Thailand - with baby beetroot shoots, pure white coconut powder and fried shallots?

But we get ahead of ourselves.

Following that brief, playful moment of dining theatre with the green tea and lime mousse comes Capaldi's play on the Twix chocolate bar, which he calls Chwix. Like most Capaldi dishes, it takes explaining, although the verdict - excellent - is simple enough.

The savoury component consists of a uniform dark line of salty/sweet peanut paste and lactose caramel; beside it is a hazelnut biscuit base layered with chicken liver parfait, the entire rectangle dusted with dark cocoa that, the waiter explains (the waiters do a lot of explaining), includes a similar chemical to the parfait, in turn the reason why the flavours do, indeed, work together very well. There's a scrappy line of orange-flavoured emulsion the chef calls a 'mayvin' - a mayonnaise with acid, like a vinaigrette. Then, filling a dimple on the face of a beautiful plate are three different melons with baby mint - a disc of watermelon and cubes of rockmelon and honeydew; all three have been intensified by being sealed for several days in a bag under vacuum (sous vide) with melon juices. It cleanses after the rich, intense flavours of its precursor.

Each subsequent dish embraces similar thinking and many components and represents considerable work in the kitchen.

There's the pork dish that mimics laksa: confit belly cooked for 24 hours is the hero but elsewhere on the plate are spots of laksa mayo supporting super-crunchy fried peanuts, fish 'coral' (or floss) that you will have seen in a Thai restaurant, domes of nuoc nam chilli jelly, a salad of coconut milk 'noodle' set with agar agar tossed with Asian herbs, enoki mushrooms, green pickled papaya, shallots and a smoky brown powder our waiter says has something to do with miso and sesame. Fortunately, the assembly is none too studied; putting it all together produces many of the same flavours as a laksa. And a pork salad. Yet it is like nothing else you will have eaten, anywhere.

There is tuna sashimi with wasabi guacamole, sous vide cucumber in cucumber juice, tiny lime segments and an assortment of herbs and flowers and, of all things, a little white chocolate beneath it.

There is the fascinating combination of cured, smoked and pan-fried mulloway from the à la carte menu, served with a support cast that includes a Sichuan-peppered scallop crowned with 'cider air' - an ethereal white froth made using soy lecithin.

There is the 'egg poached at 68 degrees' (also from the à la carte menu) that tries awfully hard but doesn't quite succeed for me: it comes with three 'textures of potato' (a buttery purée, a sabayon garnished with tempura celery leaves and crisp wafers made from baked, then fried potato juice). There are also jelly cubes of maple syrup and sherry vinegar. It pays homage, I'm told, to a dish with similar components by the Frenchman Alain Passard. But I simply found the purée too heavy to appreciate the egg's slow-cooked subtlety.

Then there is course number four - 'lamb' - a truncated description that gives the kitchen licence to change a dish around virtually at whim. Tonight it is relatively straight: a piece of neck is seared in a pan and then thrown into a vacuum bag with a variety of braising components and simmered very, very slowly, for 36 hours. The dark meat is sublime in both its texture, flavour and smell. It's served with confit carrot, pomme purée, half a pear grilled with 'gingernut' crumbs, sweetbreads cooked in molasses butter and a few other minor players, including more celery leaves and a molasses 'mayvin'. You could almost call it meat and three veg.

But I'm intrigued by what follows as a matter of course; Capaldi's 'tzatziki', sent out to cleanse and purify after the big meat course, does just that. On one side of the bowl are cucumber slices topped with herbs and edible flowers; on the other is frozen yoghurt shaved by a Pacojet to a most unusual consistency. There's a sprinkling of fresh horseradish and knobs of basil 'powder', a strangely textured 'paste' achieved by working basil oil and maltodextrin together in a mortar and pestle. It's served with a small carafe of cucumber soup.

A deceptively simple course of milk sorbet, puffed and glazed corn and honeycomb garnish is followed by another wildly imaginative interpretation of the chocolate dessert consisting of ganache, a bitter chocolate tuile, a dry, coarse powder - chocolate 'soil' - again made in a Pacojet, as is the chocolate sorbet. There's sauce and even a sweet hazelnut and vanilla 'vinaigrette'. The corn, by the way, is boiled, dried, deep-fried, glazed with a honey syrup and then baked. A flash version of that breakfast cereal Honey Puffs. The milk sorbet includes yoghurt and some milk powder, which adds some depth to both its flavour and texture.

This is not all we ate. I could also mention cocoa nibs, salt and vinegar ganache sticks and mango flapjacks cooked on the anti-griddle - Capaldi's version of petits fours. But it should provide a picture of a dining experience that shares inspiration with what we've seen from chefs such as Ryan Squires at Urbane in Brisbane, Brent Savage at Bentley Restaurant & Bar in Sydney and fellow Melburnian Robin Wickens at Interlude.

Like them, Capaldi is interested in giving us something to think about. Thank goodness for those who think outside the square and who show the skill and determination to see their visions through. For the progressives among us, Fenix is now a serious, relaxing, intriguing interpretation of the new gastronomy. Long may we blow a little green tea gas from our nose every now and then.


680 Victoria St, Richmond, Vic, (03) 9427 8500. Licensed. Lunch, Tue-Sun, noon-3pm; dinner, Tue-Sat, 6pm-10.30pm.
Prices Entrées $19-$22; mains $36-$38; desserts $16; seven-course degustation $145 ($185 with wines).
Vegetarian No.
Noise Calm.
Wheelchair access Yes.
Plus Adventurous, risk-taking, new-wave molecular gastronomy rooted in good cooking and free thinking.
Minus Not cheap, particularly if you go the degustation route.

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