Cumulus Inc., Melbourne restaurant review
Author: John Lethlean
Photography: Marcel Aucar
There is nothing quite so delicious as the dawn of a chef's new restaurant. Particularly when he or she has form. Those first few months can see all sorts of factors combine to create a heady cocktail of irresistibility. And when a great chef puts his (or her) balls on the line to open a place that will attract a lot of scrutiny, putting themselves at the focal point, there's often a kind of magic you feel every time you walk through the door from day one.
Sometimes it even lasts.
There's the buzz of familiar faces, propped at the bar, comfy at a table, and they're all here for the same reason you are, slaking the thirst of curiosity. There's the pleasure of taking in the room, its design, amenity, the way it expresses the owner's restaurant philosophy and tastes, and assessing how it works. Is this, you ask yourself, a place I'm going to spend a lot of time, enjoy some happy meals, or is it just a strange canvas for the owner's art?
Then there's the excitement of hopping into new dishes, creations the chef's been working on for months, maybe years, knowing one or two of them may well resonate so loudly as to become part of the city's foodie folklore.
Most satisfying of all, however, is the feeling that even if the dishes become more refined, they will never quite express such purity and enthusiasm as those first weeks and months when the chef knows that getting it out there with love is the key to the business's future. And in the case of Cumulus Inc., the new side project for chef Andrew McConnell, there's the knowledge that the chef/co-owner himself is there too, on the other side of the white marble counter, watching everything and doing plenty of it himself.
And that's something that almost certainly cannot last, given the expanding portfolio McConnell has shouldered recently: the ongoing success of Carlton's Three, One, Two; the building of a new Fitzroy restaurant that will supersede it late this year; and now Cumulus Inc., itself no small beer.
We take of him what we can.
There's one other more pragmatic angle to the post-launch honeymoon story: opening prices are about as good as they're ever going to get.
In short, I've had some very exciting times in new restaurants over the years. And I'm getting that same buzz from a one-time gallery space in what is rapidly becoming the new food precinct of Melbourne, the top end of Flinders Lane.
When McConnell first mooted the idea of a new restaurant for the city last year, he underplayed his hand in characteristic style. He talked about a "casual, simple place"; he talked of breakfast to dinner six days of the week; he talked of takeaway food. All of which has translated to the final product.
But the finished item has so much more style and sophistication than those preliminary musings suggested. McConnell's business partner and wife, Pascale Gomes-McNabb, has applied her architectural experience and design flair to this semi-industrial, loft-like space to brilliant effect. Light, airy, classic and quirky all at once, this is Gomes-McNabb's finest creation yet for her husband's often-brilliant food.
With a bank of 1940s metal-framed windows facing Flinders Lane, hardwood floors, white walls, industrial load-bearing pillars and tongue-in-groove timber ceilings, this place has the feel of luxurious functionality. It's a combination that enhances, rather than competes with, the simple but nevertheless excellent food coming from McConnell and his team, many of whom have come over from Three, One, Two, including partner and manager Jayden Ong.
It should be no surprise that a chef who has given us two of the city's best restaurants of the past decade (Diningroom 211 and Three, One, Two, not to mention Circa when the restaurant was at its best) should again surprise us with his 'eating house and bar'. But at Cumulus Inc., McConnell again demonstrates his ability to translate clever, quirky and very satisfying food ideas, no matter what the pitch.
My first introduction to the place was a Saturday morning breakfast just a week into the restaurant's life and, to my surprise, there was McConnell, working away with his team. A cook, first and foremost.
Sardines on house-made toast, a spicy tomato juice, proper coffee, friendly service and a newspaper: I think everybody in the place, as I did, asked for a look at the lunch/dinner menu. You could taste the potential.
Under 'Oysters', for example, which opens proceedings, six are offered. Of those, five are produced by Batemans Bay grower Steve Feletti, of Moonlight Flat Oysters. Here, at Cumulus Inc., McConnell lets the produce do all the talking by simply opening the things carefully, putting them on a bed of rock salt, adding a cheek of lemon, sliced house-made bread, butter and, if you want it, proper salt and black pepper. Pretty simple, right? So why do so many get it wrong?
From the category 'To Start', eight little trunks of slow-cooked octopus have a unique texture like opaque sashimi. They get a dressing of olive oil and dehydrated black olive sauce with a crown of aïoli, tomato, basil and green chilli. They share billing with eat-them-whole prawns, flashed in a pan with a dusting of flour, spring onion, chilli, garlic and salt.
Contrast the prawns with the subtlety of little toasts smothered in a delicious, creamy crab paste with toasted sesame seeds, another nod to McConnell's experience in Hong Kong and Shanghai.
The next section is 'Charcuterie' and, undoubtedly, many will simply order the 'kitchen selection' and be thrilled with local or Italian prosciutto, a piece of pheasant terrine (a little bland, I thought) and a bit of wagyu bresaola with rémoulade and a scattering of fresh horseradish. I, however, took the chance to hone in on two excellent dishes. The first is a plate of soft, delicate, sweet folds of thinly sliced smoked wagyu tongue, dressed judiciously with a perfect agrodolce partner of mustard fruits. It is a treat.
The other is a long, rectangular crispbread wafer smeared with warm, house-made boudin noir, an apple-laced blood pudding that is rich and indulgent, on top of which the kitchen puts a piece of smoked tomato cheek and a shredded parsley 'salad'. All the flavours and textures work together beautifully.
Next we have 'Salads and Comestibles', a series of unpredictable textural treats. Like the assembly of cracked wheat and freekeh, preserved lemon, toasted almonds, barberries, shredded parsley and labne. Or the combination of beetroot and lentils with crumbled shanklish, walnuts and matchsticks of green apple. Or cauliflower roasted with pine nuts until charry on a bed of goat's curd with fresh herbs.
In the 'Meat' section, McConnell pays tribute to his apprenticeship days at Tansy's, where 'silk purse from a sow's ear' was a legendary signature dish. McConnell's silk purse is a pig's ear with a stuffing of house-made, spicy cotechino, crumbed and fried and served sliced with a gribiche-style sauce and a perky, acidic salsa verde. Such memories.
His slow-cooked pork backstrap is masterful: small, thick slices of fragrant, pink, moist, firm meat - sweet and, like all things the chef does, perfectly seasoned - with a golden crackling shell as thin as an egg. The pork is served on a sauce of poached lemon and almond cream. It's a wow moment for pork-lovers.
The biggest dish, and unquestionably something to put at the table's centre for sharing, is the simplest: a chargrilled rib-eye of beef (the menu says 500 grams) sliced into three, served with the bone, a lemon cheek and a celeriac rémoulade dusted with freshly grated horseradish - although I gather this combination changes frequently. It's the essence of exceptional produce, handled simply and intelligently.
And it leads me to think: the ideal dining number here is three because all this food is designed to be shared. But it's so good that I can't see myself satisfied with anything less than a third of everything. The exception is probably the 'Dessert' section of the menu. Well, I've only sampled a couple of things here but their format, if you like, is not a sharing one.
You will not want someone else's spoon, for example, in a beautiful glass tumbler layered with rhubarb jelly, batons of poached rhubarb, vanilla custard, crumbly meringue and yoghurt sorbet. Or while diving into McConnell's twice-cooked chocolate soufflé or his rum baba. You may, on the other hand, be prepared to share individually baked-to-order madeleines with a soft, runny lemon curd centre. Fine; just make sure you order more.
The truth is, anyone with an interest in eating out is bound to approach Cumulus Inc. with fairly high expectations. It's what reputations are all about. Here, McConnell has marked a new phase in his career, developing good working relationships with head chef Joshua Murphy and Jayden Ong; it feels comfortable, friendly, relaxed and professional.
In short, Cumulus Inc. is everything I expected and then some. Get it while it's hot.
45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne, Vic, (03) 9650 1445.
Cards MC V AE.
Open Mon-Fri, 7am-11pm; Sat 9am-11pm.
Prices Entrées $8-$18, mains $13-$39, desserts $8-12.
Wheelchair access Yes.
Plus A fresh take on what informal eating can be from a chef who really does understand food.
Minus Getting a table isn't easy.