Some may remember Level 55 of the Rialto Tower in Melbourne to be a dodgy coffee shop and viewing platform that drew plenty of tourists into its bosom where the unsuspecting traveller was also enthralled as the City of Melbourne screened a cheesy tourist video in the Rialto cinema which for me when I saw it amused me to no end before taking the express lift to the top of the building. The one time that I visited the top of Rialto to enjoy the "view" and have a coffee as a tourist, I thought that so much more could be done with the space. Obviously Shannon Bennett and I shared that thought.
The express lift to the top of the building remains intact and once you disembark, you are greeted by a phalanx of smiling faces ready to take you to either your table or up the ominous two steps to the Lui Bar. I shared a quick hug with Jess and some pleasantries before she showed us to our table, escorting us through the wine cellar, where you run the gauntlet of beautiful bottles of the demon drink until you transition from the darkness into the light of the main floor of the restaurant.
Many have romanticised the view from the restaurant. A vue de Melbourne which for some is their world with aspects to the west (Docklands, Yarras Edge, Etihad Stadium, Patrick Wharves) and to the North (Carlton Gardens and beyond) however the best views are had from the Lui Bar, with its Port Melbourne to Southbank perspectives.
Near the toilets, which virtually connect the restaurant and the bar, there is an outside observation deck suited for smokers, photographers, drinkers and base jumpers. In May 2012 there was some excitement as four fellows scaled the tall plexiglass that borders the edge of the observation deck with death and base-jumped from the platform. They lived to tell the tale however I did forget to inquire with Sebastian at the Lui Bar if they bothered to pay their tab.
The tables are large and the seats are comfortable. Should you be a party of two you will have the pleasure of sitting at a table that could easily accommodate four. It makes it for a comfortable experience but not an intimate one. The clusters of seven light globes (with one exception of one cluster of six) dangle from the ceiling and between your eyes taking notice of the kangaroo-hide table tops, the massive open kitchen and the view outside you are nearly overwhelmed when service appears and consults with you about the various epicurean journeys, options, prices and drinking options available. For me it was easy, a ten course degustation menu with cheeses, matching wines, sparking water and a glass of 2002 Dom Pérignon Épernay Champagne to start, which ultimately cost $600 p/p without tip.
Given that the way you are seated you lose yourself in the view at times, I find it fundamentally distracting as you forget that you should be focusing on the fine food, beverage and most importantly conversation with others. The late summer sunset will provide those that are budding photographers plenty of opportunity for shots especially from the observation deck, but it also means that you will be subjected to different degrees of glare until the sun actually sets. Some diners were wearing sunglasses, which I thought was unnecessary but I still understand their motivation.
After attending (and writing about) both Attica and Jacques Reymond, the other three-hat restaurant winners in greater Melbourne in December 2012, I was anxious to identify the subtle differences. Like with Attica, after you announce your dining and drinking intentions, you are quickly brought four amuse bouches. I was excited to see that one of the appetizers was salt-cured wallaby from Flinders Island. I first had wallaby at Attica, and it quickly became one of my favourite foods. Jacques Reymond then had his hand in interpreting how it should be served in a main dish and although I was happy to see it on Shannon Bennett's menu, I was hoping it would come out as a main instead of an appetizer. Not to discount the taste afforded to you with the bite-sized goodness that you get at Vue de Monde however it did set my expectations much higher in anticipation of the red-matching courses if wallaby was being excluded. All of the amuse bouches were awesome: the smoked eel with white chocolate and caviar was a standout however I liked the peas, pistachio and strawberry morsel just as much as the oyster that sat in my periphery for a couple of minutes before ending up down my throat.
One of my favourite foods made a surprise appearance as the first course. Spanner crab with kohlrabi (cabbage), avocado and beach herbs matched with 2011 Frankland Estate ‘Isolation Ridge’ Riesling from the Frankland River, Western Australia. A perfect way to start with a very appropriate wine match. I never had spanner crab with cabbage before and I really enjoyed it.
Toasted marron with tarragon butter followed and it was meant to be eaten as finger food. The hint of salt and the fresh seafood flavour complemented the 2008 Domaine Meo-Camuzet ‘Clos st Philibert’, Haut-Cotes de Nuit from Burgundy, France well. The sommelier was quickly turning into my new best friend.
The next dish was one that involved a prop. Not the type that Joe Hockey uses in parliament, but a device that uses the heat vacuum extraction technique to remove the flavours of the produce into a broth that is then poured over the onions in your dish to make a Melbourne onion soup. When matched with the 2011 Tamellini Soave Classico, Soave from Veneto DOC, Italy, it was an unexpected flavour explosion. Fresh bread and butter (presented and exhumed from a large bucket) are provided so that you can enjoy every last drop of soup. Some Shannon Bennett dishes seem so simple when they are articulated to you that you fail to comprehend why they are served in a three hat restaurant, but when you see the process involved and taste the elegance, you quickly understand there is a method behind the madness. The art of subterfuge reigns supreme in this restaurant.
The next dish was a case in point. A single sweet baby corn adorned with Gascony butter arrived next. My first thought was... seriously. Was it from Dame Elisabeth Murdoch's personal garden? Was it grown in a vacuum in space? I was confused but then appeared a chef holding a black truffle from France to which he quickly took his slicer to and covered the exposed corn in its husk with the black gold. Matched with 2006 Brokenwood ‘Maxwell’ Semillon from the Hunter Valley, New South Wales I thought was a really bold move considering the smell but it only complemented the truffle and of course the corn further. It was probably the best single piece of baby corn that I ever ate and I honestly never thought I would be writing (or talking) about corn in such a way.
The adventure further into white wine territory continued with a 2000 Yarra Yering ‘Dry White Wine No.1’ from our backyard in Victoria matched with a duck yolk, pork, green beans and mint. With produce hailing from Shannon's gardens in either Heidelberg (there is a Cafe Vue in that sleepy suburb) or the Dandenong ranges, I could easily tell how fresh the mint was and how wonderful it paired with not only the duck yolk and pork. The dry older wine was a nice touch and once again, the sommelier continued to impress.
In another first, some of the best barramundi flesh would appear on the next dish along with a large king prawn. Matched with 2007 Pascal Marchand ‘Avalon’, Bourgogne Rouge from Burgundy, France, this made for one of the most surprising dishes of the night just because how much I thoroughly enjoyed the fish. It dissolved in my mouth as it was so tender and delicate and both the prawn, which I took my time cutting up into three gram morsels to extend the taste sensations were again complemented with the wine. When it was all consumed, I was sullen however afterwards, as part of the script, the chef appeared with the dissected fish that was imported from the Northern Territory, showed it to us and then cut the cheeks off and served them in a leaf of lettuce. I was not only pleased to be able to contiue the experience but also get my hands, or should I say mouth, on the delicate fish cheeks since the chefs usually hoard them for their personal enjoyment, and deservingly so.
Moving into the realm of red wine matched courses, my friends at Flinders Island Meats (who supply the wallaby) have provided lamb from the same island and is prepared with olive, Australian anchovies and mustard and aptly matched with a 2005 Yarraloch ‘Morpheus’ Merlot, from the Yarra Valley. I have not only great respect for this supplier but the meat that they farm is top-notch. Another highlight of this experience as the lamb, highlighted most notability by the anchovies, was tender and perfectly cooked. The mustard I found strangely brought out the characteristics of the wine.
The second and last of the red courses was a David Blackmore Wagyu with beetroot, saltbush and BBQ sauce. This was the dish I was hoping would be wallaby, which would have been a bit more exciting and fit in appropriately with the bush ambiance that Vue de Monde exudes. Not discounting the Wagyu or its big and bold wine match, 2005 Henschke ‘Henry’s Seven’ Shiraz, Grenache, Mouvèdre, Eden Valley, South Australia, I just thought that ending the mains on this note was a bit boring.
The cheese cart was then wheeled out and never one to say no, we choose nine different varieties of cheese which were served with an assortment of breads and jams. The beetroot bread went extremely well with the stinky roquefort cheese and the presentation was very visually appealing. Two wines, 2010 S.C. Pannell Grenache, McLaren Vale from South Australia and a 2005 Château Broustet, Sauternes-Barsac AOC were matched with the varying degrees of cheese intensity.
After another palate cleanser, a delicate and rich strawberries and cream dish made its appearance and was matched with a NV Alvear, 'Vino de Licor', Moscatel, Morikes de Montilla, Spain. It was a very appropriate transition to go from the meaty mains to something much lighter and fruity and once again the wine match was intriguing and left me dry quickly so I greedily asked for a refill.
Sometimes Vue de Monde gets carried away with its desserts (once they brought out four different ones before the petit fours!) and I was pleased that there was only one final dish left for this experience since I had resulted to holding my stomach in earnest. They certainly saved the best for last. A Tonka bean soufflé with smoked cocoa ice cream would not be able to be enjoyed in America because the Tonka bean has been banned as it has been known to cause hallucinations. The soufflé was perfect and the match of NV Chambers ‘Grand’ Muscat, Rutherglen, Victoria I thought was a nice touch. Being able to end a wine degustation back in Victoria is always in my opinion good to say the least.
The toilet is worth reflecting on. It is located in a centralised area that you share with the bar. There is a curious urinal that reminded me of something out of Star Trek, where a triumvirate of blokes stand in a circle and relieve themselves on a wall of metal but all have the pleasure of looking at one another and sharing a word or two. In my case, an affable bloke told me about the good old days of when Shannon Bennett ran the first incarnation of Vue de Monde in Carlton. All this whilst I vacated my bladder. Try to avoid the urinal closest to the entry though as your manhood will be on display considering the line of sight in most cases to anyone who dares enter this room of relief. There is also a large curious pipe that will drizzle out deionised water so you do not need soap to wash your hands. Getting it to activate by dancing in the proper place in the watchful eye of the sensor though is another thing though. It is probably the most bizarre restroom that I have seen in a restaurant since I encountered the urinal disguised as lips.
The fortunate thing for dining and drinking afficianados in Melbourne there are plenty of choices at the top end of the scale. The service at Vue de Monde has always impressed me as the staff seem to be highly choreographed and usually have a great sense of timing. Sometimes I have had to ask service to slow things down as at times dishes would come out too quickly. On this occasion at times I felt things were being rushed along and on certain courses I still had the remnants of wine left over from the previous course when the sommelier brought out the next glass. Sure, taking one last gulp before continuing proceedings is not a big deal, but it in turn rushes the conversation. The petty things aside, you are mad if you can not enjoy an experience at Vue de Monde. I experienced the best dining and drinking experience of my life at the old Little Collins Street location in December 2007 and this experience came close to exceeding that evening. Shannon Bennett, like the bottle of Brokenwood that I enjoyed with the black truffles and corn just seems to get better with age. This is my first "Top 2013" experience and I am sure it will not be the last one at Vue de Monde this year.
Link to review
Level 55, Rialto/525 Collins St, Melbourne VIC 3000
(03) 9691 3888
My Rating: 18.25/20
Value For Money: 4.25/5
e-mail: epicureanofsouthbank (at) gmail (dot) com
At the time of this post, 82% of the reviewers on Urbanspoon also like Vue de Monde.