Hare and Grace

525 Collins Street
Melbourne  Vic  3000
Open: Mon – Fri  Lunch 11:30am – 3:30pm;  Dinner  6pm – late

Now it’s back to exploring my favourite city and home town – Melbourne, Australia… until the next exciting international jaunt that is!

I have a confession to make… I think that Raymond Capaldi is an absolute genius in the kitchen.  He also has a reputation of being something of un enfant terrible, and notoriously feisty.  However, perhaps that is the price of being an artist, because truly – his meals are beautiful, creative, and innovative and will make you stop and pay attention.

The first dish that I ever had from his pass had the key elements of mulloway and white chocolate.  At that time, he was head chef and owner of Fenix.  I don’t remember anything more about the dish – and I’m sure there were other components, but the inspired pairing of a piece of beautifully cooked fish with white chocolate was obviously a moment of dining nirvana for me – because here I am, at least 5 years later, still thinking of that dish.

You have to have a lot of respect for the man – he was one of the first to champion the molecular gastronomy movement in Australia – and is still a crusader for the purity of flavour that can be brought out in food.  Not one to necessarily convert every flavour into foams, or gels, or unnatural forms (although there is some of it in his menus) – his real focus is on using the best produce, and understanding the scientific basis behind the preparation of food, so that its natural form can be preserved and its core flavour maximised.

He was also instrumental in setting up the first culinary academy in a five star restaurant and hotel, at the Hotel Sofitel; and can count among his protegés George Calombaris, as well as a fleet of other top notch chefs who came out of the Sofitel.

Now, since Raymond left Fenix, he’s had a bit of a patchy career – with his restaurant Locarno 150 in South Melbourne not quite coming off, and then a rumour that he would set up at the Mercy Hospital, and in between all of that a stint at Eureka 89 (which I never got a chance to try).  Even the opening of Hare and Grace wasn’t all that smooth with key staff turnover even as late as this year.  Nonetheless, none of that unpredictability showed through when I had lunch there recently with good foodie friend J.

The first port of call was deciding what to order – a task made more difficult by the substantial number of additional daily specials pegged to the menu.  Enjoying the challenge, we decided to order an entrée and main each, and share so that we could get try as many dishes as possible.

Once we’d settled on our choices, we got served some beautiful bread with whipped butter – how gorgeous is the presentation!  It boded well….

1/2 Shell Scallops, Garlic Mayonnaise, Herb Breadcrumbs (Special)

A beautiful dish from the specials list was the 1/2 shell scallops.  The scallops were protected from the direct heat of the grill by their caps of aerated garlic mayonnaise.  This helped to seal in the flavour, and had the effect of gently poaching the scallops rather than searing them, while the garlic mayonnaise set into a custard and developed a thin crust. The dish was finished off with a sprinkling of fine breadcrumbs which added a nice textural crunch. The presentation was simple, yet stunning, and the taste and texture were sublime.

Confit Atlantic Salmon, Vanilla, Vodka, Lemon

This next entrée was the confit salmon.  This dish was not only presented beautifully, like an artful composition – but also tasted heavenly. The key element was the lemon cream – it lifted the whole dish and brought everything together. J suggested that it was made from Meyer lemons, because it lacked the astringent acidity more usual with other lemons.  She was impressing me with her food knowledge!  The confit salmon was presented in a log shape, and obviously cut from the best part of the fillet.  It was scattered with nasturtiums which gave a light, peppery nuance.  Also presented on the plate was a faux vanilla bean made from squid ink, and a powder of roasted eggplant.  However, it was the key components of salmon and lemon that made this dish sing – and dare I say it – qualified it as a bit of dining nirvana!

Daube of Beef Bourguignon, Shallots, Bacon Red Wine (Special)

And then there was the beef bourguignon.  Oh wow!  Do you ever have one of those moments where you have the first mouthful of your dish and you just stop talking about whatever it was you were talking about – because all of your taste receptors are firing neurotransmitters to your brain, messaging you to focus your full attention on your mouth?  Well, that’s what happened here – for both of us.  I looked at J – and she just said: “I know!”

The meat in this dish could be cut with a spoon, and was seamed with silky, gelatinous goodness. It had a rich, unctuous flavour, no doubt supported by its braising in red wine for heaven knows how long. It was complemented by thick chunks of bacon that had been fried off seperately, giving it a smoky, salty accompaniment.  And of course, there was the potato – the amazingly creamy, smooth and luscious potato.  Enough said!  Probably the dish of the day for us – but very tight competition.

Pork Belly, Beetroot, Coffee Essence

Remember what I was saying about art?  Look at this dish – the pork belly has been layered with black pudding!  A simple idea, but one that makes you stop and look and think, and then wonder – how on earth did they do that.  Not only that, but it was a delicious idea, adding a whole different rich, dark, crumbly layer to the gorgeous layers of fat and pork, all nicely capped off with the crunch of crackling.  The beetroots were earthy and sweet, and the coffee essence, presented as a crumb, brought a real textural element to the dish, with a subtle salty, perfumed crunch.  The pureed potatoes and sticky jus were the crowning features and helped to bring it all together.

Overall, a really stunning lunch, that came to just over $130 for the two of us.  Note, we didn’t drink any alcohol, just sticking with tap water (Well – it was a school day!).   I think this is a beautiful restaurant, where food is treated respectfully and elevated to an artistic level. Add to this that it all tastes brilliant – and it’s a great place to to dine.

According to recent press, the lunch trade is doing well but the restaurant would love for more evening diners to come in.  I would propose that this restaurant has something for everyone – and you shouldn’t be afraid of trying it out and seeing for yourself how great it is.   While it has a lot to offer and occupy foodie types, it’s also simple enough that it will please those who aren’t necessarily interested in all this molecular gastronomy frippery. In particular, the steaks available from the charcoal grill section will impress those with more straightforward needs.  Go, be amazed, and most of all, just enjoy the flavours of great food prepared by a well respected, artistic and innovative chef.

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