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Monday, 11 April 2016

Lûmé

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Warning! If you are going to eat at Lûmé anytime soon, I'd advise you to STOP READING NOW! The dishes described below are likely to show up in your dinner, at least until the menu changes significantly, and I don't want to be your spoiler. (Having said that, don't read any reviews online either, because most of them spoil the surprise too. Just sayin'.) 

Like a welcoming suburban home


I'm not really sure how to start describing my feelings about Lûmé (226 Coventry Street, South Melbourne). I went along expecting fine dining: a fancy degustation of a high culinary standard. I wasn't even sure I'd blog about it. I knew there'd been hype (much of it self-generated, I later discovered). But I tend not to read up lots about a place before I go there; I find that can make it less of an organic experience, and I like to make up my own mind. So I was not prepared for the experimental factor in the food here - actually, I had very few expectations at all, going in. 

Now, in retrospect, I feel a bit duped, but also impressed. It's strange having mixed feelings about one singular food experience. Strange, but kinda cool. It's like seeing a thought-provoking movie that's mostly really good, but has a few scenes that you're not sure were made badly, or you just didn't understand. It's certainly an experience. 

Looking from the atrium towards the front and wine cellar


The excursion to Lûmé came about with the advent of a new dinner club with friends (yet to be named; we're working on that - suggestions welcome). As is required for the $165-per-head tasting menu, we booked ahead online, specifying no seafood for one of our party. Arriving at the restaurant as dusk was drawing to a close, it was delightfully welcoming to be met at the door and ushered through to the atrium at the back, staff members standing to and smiling as we went past. 

Atrium seating and chunky peach-coloured wall


Opened in June 2015 on a quiet strip of Coventry Street, the restaurant is housed in two adjoined single-storey terraces (previously home to a burlesque venue), very Australian in form, with their insides transformed over ten months by Studio Y into an 'earthy' and 'refined' hospitality space. The decor alone is somewhat polarising: one friend found it a bit garish and old-fashioned with its predominantly salmon tones, whereas I found it unusual, but warm and comfortable, even a bit Mediterranean. The front part comprises the kitchen and restaurant proper of 40 a la carte covers, plus additional seating in the bar area. Out the back is an indoor-outdoor atrium with wall of vertical garden pot plants and a retractable roof, mainly for guests game enough to take on the three-hour tasting menu. 

Lighting in the atrium felt rather outdoorsy


The design has been variously described as 'country chic', evoking the 'Australian sunset', '80s', 'Scandinavian', and my personal favourite: 'Howard Arkley-esque 1950s dystopian suburban'. There are elements of peach, tan, exposed brick, light wood, copper, grey stone, marble. Overhead lights are bare and warm-toned, and beautiful Portuguese copper cutlery is regularly refreshed at every course. 



Interestingly, the website notes the restaurant will be closed for the month of June this year, reopening for dinner on 7 July 2016. I wonder if this is due to a redesign (already?), or a holiday. Perhaps a rebrand is on the cards due to the change in ownership.

Lûmé was the brainchild of Shaun Quade and John-Paul Fiechtner, both reputable chefs and first-time restaurant owner-operators, with Sally Humble the sommelier with a quirky approach. This ambitious young crew even made it known that they wanted the restaurant to be among the best in the world - naturally, causing tongues to wag.

Quade and Fiechtner both grew up in Toowoomba but never crossed paths prior to their culinary ones. Their aim in opening Lûmé was to provide a fine dining experience (a relatively scarce thing in Melbourne) that inspired, questioned convention, played around with the palate. The two chefs developed their dishes to titillate, surprise and delight, initially serving a tasting menu of anywhere between 14 to 20 dishes based on seasonal fare (food requirements being happily catered for, with notice), plus a la carte options.

Fiechtner and Humble have since jumped ship, leaving the restaurant to Quade's very capable steering, and at the time of our visit, we counted 13 dishes over the course of the evening. However, this is absolutely not a complaint: the tasting menu was still well worth the $165 (expensive to some, but really very reasonable in the fine dining/degustation arena), with obvious care and craft in the food, and absolutely no need for a Macca's top-up afterwards, as one friend had half expected there might be. In fact, 13 courses were still too much for me, despite my previous experience of degustations. I just never remember how full one actually gets. 

The restaurant's website itself describes the food as 'contemporary', 'ambitious', 'highly sensory' and 'thought-provoking' (I can think of a few other words, which I'll give you later), and they 'recommend you approach the experience with an open mind'. Luckily I am quite open-minded when it comes to food, so I needed no persuading - but I had no idea of the level of deception involved in the food until over halfway through our dinner. Let me start at the beginning. 


Course 1: 'Breakfast' - Eel on burnt barley crumpet 
These were miniature crumpets served with a miniature jar of eel honey, miniature honey dipper, and miniature quenelle of eel butter-cream. I'm not usually a fan of eel, but I will try anything, and this time its strange meatiness worked well with the sweet honey and chewy crumpet. The DIY factor was a kind of fun way to start the meal, too. 
As far as I know, there were no deceptive elements to this dish, but then, eel for breakfast is pretty effing strange (or any time, for that matter). 




Course 2: Emu tart with warm fig leaf milk and mountain pepper
This doesn't seem to have garnered great reviews elsewhere, but I quite liked it. The emu was shredded (much like oh-so-popular pulled pork) and there was a coconutty topping, which gave it great crunch and nuttiness. Obviously. But it was nice with the meat flavour and the richness of the accompanying fig paste.



Course 3: Sea corn taco and grilled camel hump
Here, we hit a little roadblock. My non-seafood-eating friend was accidentally served the seafood variation of this (and I received his non-seafood version), after which profuse apologies were made, extra care taken, and drinks given as compensation. So the minor mistake was very well dealt with, and it was fortunate that my friend experienced no adverse reaction. (I'd like to note here that all other elements of the service that evening were absolutely flawless.)
As a result of the confusion, I'm still not 100% sure what this dish actually was. I *think* it was a mini taco shell with a corn-flavoured mixture inside, piped to look like a piece of baby corn, with a crab cream centre. The others (who received the seafood version; mine was all vegetable) also had some white meat smattered over the top, which we were told was crab, but later discovered was actually camel hump. Yes, CAMEL HUMP. As in, the fatty part of the camel. Essentially, it had been dehydrated, refried and flavoured to look and taste like crab. As you do. (Incidentally -- did you know 100kg of camel hump comes from three and a half double-humped camels? THAT'S SEVEN HUMPS, PEOPLE.)



Course 4: Sea urchin liquamen with the last fruits of summer
This was described to us as 'fruits of the sea', comprising citrus, fennel, dashi and sea urchin. I'm still not sure how I feel about sea urchin, but I ate it all. Weird texture but hey, people say it's a delicacy. (That's if it actually WAS sea urchin... hmmmmm. No, I'm pretty sure it was.) I guess the fruit part was mainly the tomatoes. Tomatoes are fruit! It totally counts. And it was all rather pretty.



Course 5: Abalone with barbeque flavours, glace muntries and powdered liver
OK, I have no idea what a 'muntry' is, but I was keen to try the abalone part of this dish - again, mainly for its revered status as a delicacy. I found the flavour a little odd, but in retrospect, that could have been the liver element. Apparently the abalone, sourced from near Adelaide, were so fresh, they had been 'still dancing in their shells at 11:30 that morning'. I did love the variety of textures in this one. Shiitake and burnt miso were also given in the verbal description; now, I'm not so sure?!



Course 6: Pearl on the ocean floor
This was the first dish that seriously impressed me. The others up to this point all had novelty or intrigue, but this one looked beautiful, and in combination, all its elements made for a textural, temperature party in your mouth. The foam was flavoured by Spanish sea water, apparently, and textured almost like a soft meringue. The greens were various types of seaweed, all very fresh and crunchy. Hiding underneath was an oyster (I think? or maybe a fake one?!), and the 'pearl' was a dessert-like ball of pine nut and caramelised white miso ice cream. There was obviously a lot of technique involved and it was a sensory delight to eat.



Course 7: Raw asparagus, taro and calamari entrails warmed with saltbush butter 
This *seemed* like a pasta dish with calamari atop squid ink, but clearly had more going on. Whatever it was, I really didn't like it - far too chewy and salty for my liking - and after a few bites, I gave the rest of mine to one of the boys. (I suppose there had to be at least one out of the 13...)



Course 8: Saltgrass lamb perfumed with cherry wood, rhubarb, hibiscus and rose
This dish not only looked beautiful, like a rose, but tasted lovely as well. We later found out that in addition to the lamb within the 'rose', there was also lamb tongue and - in a creamy sauce at the base that one friend referred to as 'kewpie' - lambs' brains. To some, those elements may have been unpleasant, but I think they actually added to the impact and richness of the dish. The rhubarb, hibiscus and rose were the perfect sweet, light antidotes to all the meatiness. Again, I couldn't eat much (I was getting full and saving room for the rest), so ate a bit and then gifted the rest.



Course 9: Dry aged duck smoked over bottlebrush, finished with elderflower honey
The cool bit about this dish was the news that for the last six weeks of their lives, the Great Ocean Road ducks were fed strawberries only. This was apparently to give the meat a bit of sweetness and colouring. There was no obvious strawberry flavour, but the duck was delicious and beautifully cooked and it was a sizeable chunk (I managed about half). The honey ball (the second ball of the evening - starting to smell a trend here...) was a surprisingly perfect match for the meat. Also, it was fun to break open: like a poached egg, it oozed beautifully.




Course 10: Cauliflower cheese with nukazuke pear and shavings of smoked pastry
It was at this point (yes, we were a bit slow) that we started to smell a rat. Not an actual rat (although I wouldn't have put it past them!), but we finally got the idea that perhaps everything up to this point may not have been as it seemed. This dish was presented as a miniature soft cheese with pastry pieces and sliced pear. But the cheese looked kind of odd, and the gentleman serving it had a strange look on his face as he described it to us, so I thought maybe it was one of those undercover, unpasteurised cheeses that are actually illegal but some places still manage to get their hands on and serve discreetly because they can be bloody amazing, if they don't kill you with their unpasteurised-ness. So I asked, was it unpasteurised? and the man gave me some kind of coy response that I don't remember now, because all the dishes and wine were starting to merge in my belly and brain and frankly I was tired. So we began eating, and the cheese WAS odd. It oozed more than cheese normally does, and seemed more liquid-pastey on the inside than solid-creamy, if that makes sense. Like Clag glue, almost. (Eeeeeveryone remembers Clag, right?!) And we were all nearly finished when the man came back and asked, had we figured it out? ... Figured WHAT out? ...It's cauliflower. >> Cue exclamations of surprise and 'I KNEW its', and then we made them tell us everything else we'd eaten so far that was not how it seemed. Around now, my brain started going, cooool! and my heart was going, whaaaaa?! you TRICKSED me! - and neither has stopped since. This is what it's like to be me. 



Course 11: Shaved ice from pistachio skins with ice cold mango and raspberry vinegar
Then the sweet stuff began. This one was whacky, but cool. (Literally.) The name above tells you jack about what it actually was: stone fruit sorbet, with shaved fresh macadamia, finger lime, and raspberry rose vinegar which froze over the top like Ice Magic. It was all very zingy, fresh and sweet: light, refreshing and coooold.



Course 12: Blackberries, blueberries and sour goat's milk 
By now, we were all pretty cluey about what *could* be deceptive about such a seemingly simple dish. There were some fresh berries in there, but others were actually delicious jellies made to look like berries: some flavoured like licorice, others like olive. The white stuff was freeze-dried and too solid to break with my spoon, so I didn't eat any; the others said it tasted like off milk anyway (which was the point, but I don't think it's attractive).



Course 13: Cacao pod from Maralumi with notes of tobacco, green banana and currants
This was the final dish of the night and absolutely the show-stopper. A serving table was brought over and from there, the meal was dished up directly onto a round mat in the middle of our table.



First, some 'adult Wizz Fizz' was scattered over the mat:



Then, some 'vanilla pods' were laid over the Wizz Fizz with chopsticks. They seemed rather sticky though, so I had to help dislodge them with my spoon. (First clue!)



Next were two large quenelles of ice-cream, and finally a large 'cacao pod' was placed in the centre. Then...



SMASH! Our server had thwacked the cacao pod hard with an implement and disappeared from the table. When I looked down, I realised the cacao pod was actually a dark chocolate shell, now broken open, that had been holding various petit fours. Definitely hadn't seen that one coming. Upon further explanation, it turned out the 'Wizz Fizz' was sugar and chewing tobacco (really!), the 'vanilla pods' were actually dehydrated rhubarb, the ice-cream was raw cacao flavoured, and within the cacao pod were 'cinnamon quills' that were actually rolled layers of dried banana, little cubes of apple soaked in strawberry, an orange-flavoured cream custard, and blackcurrant and armagnac jellies.



After a while, it didn't look so pretty anymore:



All this was served to a soundtrack of moody and cruisy '90s tunes (including the likes of Radiohead, Beck, Chris Isaak, Nick Cave, Eskimo Joe) with diligence, calm and obvious enjoyment by the staff - one admitting to us that she never gets sick of patrons' reactions. I did find the verbal descriptions of each dish a little wordy (everything seemed to be 'beautiful' or 'stunning' - I'll make up my own mind on that, thank you very much!), but perhaps there was some intentional vagueness so that each surprise might have more effect.

By the end, we were all beat with the effort of ingesting so much food and information. With the tasting menu and our drinks, the bill came to just under $900 for four people, which is pretty good, considering the artistry and amount of food involved. I had actually thought it would be nice to have a menu at hand to reference throughout the meal. But, obviously to maintain the surprise element, they were withheld until the end when we were given individual menus to take home, specific to the date of our visit and any food requirements. The envelope was sealed with a wax stamp of the restaurant's logo.




So. I've given you a lot of words today. 'Lûmé' itself isn't even a word (just you try and Google Translate it - go on!). The restaurant's website even admits the word's origin is hazy and that it contains circumflexes for no known reasons, but it 'evokes a sense of light, elegance and beauty' and was therefore fitting as the restaurant's name.

The dining experience at Lûmé has been called 'brave and bold' (Timeout), and 'somewhere between classic and playful' (Daily Addict). 'Dining here takes a leap of faith, but the reward is an adventure' (Good Food), and 'whether you find this irritating or exciting is entirely up to you' (Gourmet Traveller). All true. My words for Lûmé?


  • cunning
  • trickery
  • deception
  • art
  • technical 
  • evocative
  • boundaries
  • challenging
  • tongue-in-cheek 
  • whimsical
  • captivating 
  • worthwhile. 





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