Mark, Marque, Pei: Melbourne's inherited a bistro with some potent DNA
Pei Modern. Mark Best. Everyone’s talking about them, but who is this man, and what’s all the hoohaa? Simply put he’s the chef who, over 13 years, has built his flagship Sydney restaurant, Marque, into one of Australia’s finest. It's where elegance outdoes opulence, and Best's dishes – bonito and foie gras in a crisp potato taco; an oyster, wearing its own liquor as a foamed and grilled hat – tell stories, divide tables, and trigger repressed memories. But amidst these opposing waves of "OMG!" and "WTF?" Best stands sure, and it's this that has earned him his dues.
In short, Mark Best opening a restaurant in Melbourne is all kinds of a big deal.
But before you get your feathers ruffled that the Marque signature dish of almond gazpacho with sweet sea-bursts of crab is here simply paired with a few fresh grapes and parsley – no Avruga caviar, no popcorn powders or sweet satin corn custard – know this: Mark Best is Marque. “It takes so much to do what we do,” Best tells us. “And the reason that we continue to succeed after 13 years is because the food, the service, our concepts all evolve as we do. It’s not something you can franchise.”
And the beauty of Pei Modern, where the lighting is warm rather than theatrically dim and functional bareback tables lend themselves to the spillages and crumbs of informal dining, is that it wouldn’t be crazy to rock up for a mid-week nose-bag.
Sure, you might go the seven course tasting menu (buck-banging at $90) that runs through relaxed Marque numbers like Dutch cream potatoes, rumbled with bone marrow and put to bed under a velvety duvet of potato foam, and dusted with roasted coffee and flecks of intense salt-cured tuna. Or pork jowl, whose fatty sweetness is countered by two mouth inverting purees of bitter radicchio, and sour lemon – three extremes, united by one fork.
But then again, perhaps you’ll simply hang at the super smooth marble bar with a few Brunswick Bitters and some crumbed batons of tripe. Sheilded with golden crunch it’s the best way we know how to down offal. Add on some rosy pinches of ham; oily sardines on crisp toasts, and maybe get ex-Attica somm Ainslie Lubbock to put something natural-leaning in your wine glass and you’re sitting pretty.
“This is the food I’d eat at home” says Best, a sentiment echoed by Cutler and Co.’s Andrew McConnell regarding Cumulus. And so, it’s a menu that cuts to the crux of Best’s cooking philosophy – great produce, well balanced, simply done.
Maybe you’ll have seared ox heart with an entire roasted capsicum. Tender-lean yet meaty and smoky, it’s like puffing on a barbecue-flavoured hookah. And that bitter-sweet Sauternes topped custard that through sheer smashability does laps around the complex caramelized tomato stuffed with a mince of dried fruits.
Yes, the view of the Sofitel bus bay sucks. But redemption is on your plate, and while Best maintains the good sense to allow chef Matt Germanchis scope to make it organically Melbourne, it has the potential for greatness of its own.