I’m anticipating great things. It’s a precarious position. On one side is a full belly, tickled senses, giddy smiles, a little blissful inebriation and a wonderful story to tell. On the other is “meh” and an empty wallet. So far, my introduction to the Press Club is faultless.
The brass plate out front of the classic entrance of the gracious Herald and Weekly Times building (1920s) invokes memories of entering all those stuffy Melbourne institutions – the Atheneum, the Savage Club, and of course the Melbourne Club. Every city has them – those disgracefully mysogonistic gents clubs – the expensive ones without the lap dances – the ones full of pompous business men, hobnobbing and cigarillos, superb cheap winelists and winter roasts in Summer. I used to wine-rep, and strangely I now almost miss my clandestine entries at such venues to natter to the cellarmaster and flog him my wares.
Fortunately, the similarities to this Melbourne club and THE Melbourne Club don’t go far past the entry. Inside it’s sleek. Dark, but contemporary, and not a Chesterfield in sight. And thankfully, women abound. In fact, the place is full of them – it’s the early sitting, all the blokes must still be warming up at Melbourne lane-way bars.
I was introduced to another take on Greek cuisine by Mini (sadly closed) restaurant in 2005, which was opened by Charlie and Paul from my favourite after-work-friday-night-winebar-with-great-food (Syracuse). I’d graduated from a 3am souvlaki to Greek fine dining in one giant leap when I first visited Mini, and I liked it. Also enjoyed was the discovery that Greece makes wine that is not called Retsina. The Press Club opened about a year after Mini, by an up-and-coming Melbourne Greek-Cypriot chef who had wowed us all at Reserve – the best restaurant in the newly arrived Federation Square, which for some obscene reason, despite its quality, shut down. You might have heard of him. Boom Boom, shake the room, it’s George Calombaris (yes, that’s right, Aussie Masterchef).
I’m with my oldest friend (the friendship is old, not her), and I’ve not told my husband, but I’m shouting her. I’ve missed birthdays, Christmases and girls nights over the last 4 years that need to be made up. This puts me in a wonderful all-out position. Degustation menu? Yes please. Glass of Dom Perignon? Of course. None of this watching the budget stuff. Let’s have the lot, times two!
I both hate and love a degustation menu. On the plus side, they are guaranteed to be seasonal produce, inventive, fresh, and fulfilling, because they are nearly always 5 courses or more. (The Press Club’s is 8). They also put you outside your comfort zone, which is more often than not, a good thing. The down-side is lack of movement (one menu only), a possibility that the dish is disjointed, untested, or simply running out the food that is about to go off, or that the whole putting out of your comfort zone may turn out to be…. well, uncomfortable. Also, tasting menus often have so many dishes (e.g. 8) that the size of each item is reduced to a point where it is merely a speck on your plate. Fine if you’re not so sure about the taste, but if you really, really like it? Oh. Oops, it’s all gone. And if you forgot to pick up that little teardrop of gel with your mouthful so you could experience the entire taste sensation? Bad luck, it’s the only thing left on the plate. I wonder if the Press Club is going to be one of those places that do the tasting menu well?
The sommelier has already put us in a fine mood – a cheeky Barcelonan – a little James Bond-ish in his well-cut suit and cheesy wink. He knows his stuff, steering Kate towards a Basque white that blows our socks off. I’m like a kid in a candy store – they have 1/2-glasses here, and I start with the new release of Mount Mary Triolet.
Plate one is a pretty pot of beetroot sponge with appropriate crunch, sweet and salt. It’s better than “meh”, but not boom-boom. Second course moves our excitement from wine to food. Trout done two ways – green-tea-cured next to a tartare with avocado wasabi. Not strictly Greek, but great, and gone in two seconds. A second fish dish arrives moments later – a substantial serving of baked snapper – a chunky fillet with crispy skin, and a broad bean salad bed that makes me wonder what on earth those wet-cardboardy, grey things my mother used to serve me were. I’m converted.
Fourth arrives – chicken, our waiter tells us, then giving it a Greek name that sounds far more exotic. And the dish suits the exotic name – sure, there is chicken on the plate, but not that bland-tasting meat that usually accompanies the title, but a melange of goodies including a black-salted baby chicken egg (Kate and I decide this means an egg laid by a young hen), jelly, wilted lettuce, sweet corn, pop corn and is that sponge? It works. Very, very well. More wine – 1/2 a glass of Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay.
We proceed through a good pork dish with a lovely stickiness, but that is completely overshadowed by the lamb. Now this is what I call gourmet greek. The tiny, juicy, lean medallions are not the highlight on this plate – no – it’s the presence of the chiko roll. Sure, I could get one of these in a Sydney Road fish and chips shop for about $3, but it wouldn’t taste like this. But it’s not just about the taste, it’s about the animation of emotions and memories that I discover once presented with such an unusual item on a fine-dining restaurant plate. Along with the popcorn, it makes me realize that George and his team understand food flavours in a way I will never replicate, and many will never appreciate. And not only that, they realize that a restaurant experience needs to provide more than just food. If you want your customers to walk out remembering your food for years, then tricks to spike their memories, inspire or bewilder them are necessary.
We take a break. Our new amigo has brought a Jasper Hill Georgia’s Paddock for me, and 1996 Bannockburn Pinot out of the cellar for Kate. The Pinot is so good I almost die. Kate is selfish – she knows I adore wine while she only just loves it, but she refuses to give me more than a sip. She’s lucky my wine is also good, or there’d be a fight going down.
Desserts (yes, two) are wonderful. A classic berry and meringue mix cleanses our palates, and a masterpiece of pineapple sates our sweet craving whilst enlivening us with all that lovely acid to balance it. I’m not a big fan of pineapple. I would never order a pineapple dessert, but here the degustation menu plays it’s favourite card -welcome surprise. Pannacotta, sorbet, a cannolo (which is more like a ginger-filled brandy snap), lemongrass gel – the blend is simply perfect.
And before we know it, it’s all over. We finish with champagne, it’s worth celebrating. For only 5 minutes with the beetroot sponge before us, we thought this was going to be just ok. But it’s been wonderful. Kate is almost in tears as we leave – she really doesn’t get out enough. And tomorrow, she’s going to send me an email telling me I have woken her up, made her realise that there is still life out there she needs to experience. And I’m going to take the credit, even though I didn’t cook the meal or lay the table, but because I was clever enough to take her there. And because I know that one night at a great restaurant equals 100 nights at ordinary ones – probably more.
The Press Club does it. The degustation menu finds a wonderful balance between wow and weird. The service also finds a level between friendly and quietly efficient. The wine list is perfect – superb selection by the glass, and plenty of fine Hellenic wines for those who want the entire experience. The ambiance is fancy but not stuffy, dark but not dusty, contemporary yet welcoming. But is it “Greek”? Who knows, who cares. I would suggest it is distinctly “George”, and that’s probably better.
Dinner Mon-Sun: 6pm–10pm