300 Smith Street, Collingwood
I know I made a rather dramatic declaration a month ago to the tune of “YOU GUYS, I’M BACK, I’M BACK ON THE BLOG”. I would like to amend that statement to “YOU GUYS, I’M BACK FOR REAL THIS TIME, I’M BACK ON THE BLOG. HONEST”.I don’t know if I’ve had too much champagne over the Christmas period or if it’s the scotch I’m working my way through at the moment, but I’ve been thinking a lot about priorities recently. Without wanting to get too philosophical, life is a balancing act, and for a long while my balance has been in favour of study, work and internships. This has meant that things like this blog, the gym and catching up with friends have somewhat fallen by the wayside.This summer for me will be all about catching up on those things – spending time with the people I love and doing creative and active things I love, including blogging and cooking. It’s fitting then, that I kick off this summer and farewell the year with one of the best meals I had in 2013: Saint Crispin with Mr N.
In the reflective spirit of New Years Eve, there are two observations I’d like to make about food culture in Melbourne. They’ve both been prevalent this year and I have some reservations about each of them.
Firstly: the obsession with ‘of-the-moment’ restaurants/cafes/ingredients. Those crazed, insta-hyped events where you are no one unless you posted a photo of yourself and your friend, sunnies and interesting facial hair included, eating or drinking at the latest hotspot. Miss it by a day and suddenly you’re the guy with a 9-5 job where your boss doesn’t understand your need for Messina gelato on a Tuesday afternoon, or a Zumbo pastry on a Monday morning.
Long time readers will know that I am turned off by hype, mania and fads – I do not care for them. As this is a post about the Best New Restaurant of the Year (per the Age Good Food Guide), I am fully aware of the hypocrisy of this statement. But still – my blog, my rules.
Secondly: the obsession with a return to ‘the simple things in life’, ‘my roots’, ‘peasant food’, ‘man food’, ‘honest food’, and ‘sharing food’, all of which are words chefs, writers and bloggers (myself included) use to describe food that has recently become very popular in restaurants. What they all mean is the proliferation of menus that offer less meat and fish, predominantly deep fried food (see also: ‘man food’, ‘Americana’), smaller portions, simpler food for the same price (see also: ‘peasant food’, ‘honest food’, Masterchef, Donna Hay at home), and over-priced alcohol. In two words, austerity food. I fully understand and agree that not every meal needs to be high class / high cost, but I feel like I’m getting less and less bang for my buck these days.
The only good thing to have come out of austerity food is the increasing use of traditionally ill-favoured but delicious cuts of meat, such as shoulder and jowl. Pork jowl is one I feel a particular affinity towards, having had a bit of a jowl moment of my own about a month ago. Within a two week period I had jowl at the Taste of Melbourne, saw Joe Grbac present a winter dish from the Saint Crispin menu of jowl and carrots, attended a pig butchering demonstration at Peter Bouchier butchers at David Jones, and ate pork jowl at Bomba. It’s a bit of a thing, apparently.
In addition to having a cracking jowl dish on their winter menu, Saint Crispin manages to avoid all the pet peeves I’ve outlined above. In no way can the food here be considered simple or peasant-like. It is beautiful food, make no doubts about it. Sure, there was a bit of deserved hype after winning at the Age Good Food Guide Awards, but 7 days was all I needed to book a mid-week dinner for two. And there’s another positive – you can book – Hallelujah!
Scott and Joe seem to strike a good balance here between sophisticated food created by French-trained chefs and a laid back ambiance with friendly staff. The servings are very generous and the prices are some of the most reasonable in town (although I will comment that the wine list is lacking some good contenders in the $40 – $60 region, with most being quite expensive). Some people write that this is chef’s food, which may very well be true – all I can say is that it’s bloody good and I enjoyed it immensely.
Head buzzing and tummy back-flipping with anticipation on the night of our dinner, Mr N and I briskly walked the short distance from the tram stop to the doors of the restaurant, past bakeries, cafes and second hand clothing stores all closed for business. Smith street is mainly dark at this end in the evenings, save for a golden glow created by Saint Crispin and Gorski & Jones. It’s a warm welcome.
Downstairs, the restaurant is Chapel-like: a long room, high ceilings, exposed brick archways and dim lighting. In the window by the door, a figure stands in prayer. Saint Crispin, if you were wondering about the origin of the restaurant’s name, is the patron saint of shoemakers, and the building the restaurant resides in was initially a cobbler’s workshop.
We began our evening with a drink at their new upstairs bar, Thomas Olive, at Parisian esque place with a smart wine list and menu of small bites from the restaurant downstairs. James Tait manages the bar expertly and is always on hand with a good recommendation.
A fruity bottle of red and a plate of ‘snap, crackle and pop’ that was almost embarrassingly big for two people got us off to a good start (delicious, though I note now this could be considered as falling under that most dreaded of categorisations: man food).
After enjoying a glass, we moved downstairs to our table and hungrily read the menu, each of us almost instantly picking out several dishes we wanted to try. The unspoken ‘taste-for-a-taste’ agreement reached between us, we made our choices with a little advice from the friendly waitress.
To pass the time, I really enjoyed watching Joe Grbac and the rest of the team work quietly, calmly in the open kitchen. Mr N and I had seen Joe a few days earlier at the Taste of Melbourne looking more than a little uncomfortable doing a cooking demo with Dani Valent in front of a crowd, and it was nice to see him looking more at home in the kitchen.
Our amuse bouche was a handsome foursome of chickpea panisse and some hibiscus and eucalyptus marshmallows. Panisse is very similar to fried polenta, except it’s made with chickpea flour dough instead of corn. Being a chickpea fanatic (morning, noon and night, if I could), the panisse was my favourite of the two. The marshmallows, a rather unusual flavour combination, toed the line between sweet and savoury.
Mr N chose very well with the Atlantic salmon entree with shaved calamari, oysters, squid ink and saffron. Beautiful, beautiful presentation on a black plate with plump droplets of saffron cream and a brilliantly hued piece of confit salmon. It’s actually a bit ridiculous how soft the salmon was – it melted in your mouth into gorgeous filaments of pink, fatty flesh.
Mr N, despite this being a romantic dinner for two, seemed to fall more and more in love with this salmon at every bite. Having been near-silent the entire time, upon finishing and scraping every last bit of yellow sauce off the plate, he merely said, ‘that was almost a spiritual experience right there’. I can see why.
I picked the Wagyu bresaola with shallot rings, purple pickled cauliflower, a confit yolk and hay ash, an incredibly sexy dish. Cheekily, there is also a small mound of tartare hidden under the bresaola. If I’m being picky, it was a touch too strong on the onion, but I think I’m very sensitive to onion so perhaps this was just a matter of personal taste. Overall, an exceptionally well put together dish.
I wanted to scrawl ‘Thanks Joe’ into the left-over ash, but only had room for the word ‘yum’ in the end.
Before our mains arrived, a complimentary pair of dishes came from the kitchen, which was a real treat: two salads of green vegetables, goat’s curd and pickled shimeji mushrooms. Reminiscent of Nick Pollard’s meli melo vegetable ‘gardens’ at Embrasse and now at Brooks.
Thing is, I passed over this dish when reading the menu, discounting it as vegetarian (read: disinteresting). Working my way through the plate, I was ashamed of my earlier thoughts – this was absolutely delightful! Deeply refreshing and interesting in both flavour and texture. Everything besides the pickled shimeji was raw, including a sweet cos lettuce puree and shaved asparagus, radish, fennel and beetroot. A smear of goats cheese bound everything together. It was a revelation.
Also look at this gorgeous little trail of fresh peas! Adorable!
As a main, Mr N couldn’t go past another prettily orange plate of Greenvale pork, curried raisins and heirloom carrots. The plate included both pressed cheek and roast loin, matched very well with the sweet raisins and carrots.
I could not pass by the Flinders Island lamb, gnocchi, wild garlic and broad beans, with some artichoke heads thrown in for good measure. I tried to pick all the different cuts: I’m fairly sure there were pieces from the rack, rump, rib and perhaps shoulder. Regardless, all were beautifully fatty and pink and delicious: I was in heaven.
To accompany our mains, a salty plate of asparagus with torn brioche, egg yolk and parmesan.
Crippled with indecision, we shared two desserts. My favourite was, predictably, a chocolate mousse with earl grey ice-cream, milk smear and ginger crumb. The ginger crumb didn’t do it for me, but my god – that earl grey ice cream!
The second dessert was a luxuriously creamy and refreshing blood orange parfait scattered with cake crumbs, mandarin segments and flowers. Both were beautifully balanced desserts and a fantastic end to the meal.
To finish, a pair of banana and chocolate nougats in a mock hardback book.
So yep. Pretty darn impressive. Salmon blew Mr N away, wagyu tartare absolutely killed it, lamb was flawless, even the desserts (usually noticeably weaker when savoury dishes are brilliant) were fantastic.
Bow down bitches.