The Van Haandel group's Hamer Hall restaurant is a winner
Looks-wise, Trocadero is more chic ice queen than prom queen. You’re in a fishbowl looking out on Southbank terrace and a slash of red in the sweeping black Japanese mural is the only scratch of colour amidst 50 shades of grey concrete, carpet, and tables consisting of pale marble slabs on large bolts. But forget that. Forget that it’s a 220-seater adjunct to Hamer Hall while you’re at it. This mod-European-cum-Japanese brasserie is one of the sharpest outfits playing to Melbourne right now.
Service is as friendly as it is sharp (we appreciate someone who cares more about us ordering right than ordering lots), and while chef Nick Bennett may be cooking the likes of nettle soup with egg in the hole, his riffs on Euro classics (with a few token Japanese dishes thrown in – “I just like them,” he tell us) are a cut above. Take that nettle number. The stinging weeds are blitzed through a potato and leek soup at the last minute, preserving all the fresh grassy brightness. Poured into the bowl at the table, it washes up like a radioactive moat against a fort of brioche, which wears a creamy top hat of potato foam and conceals a runny-yolked egg at its centre.
Or there’s oxtail bourguignon. In place of the bone, the sticky slow-braised meat is wrapped around kale and bacon, with a smudge of mushroom purée, petals of roasted onion and a neat quenelle of buttery
Paris mash on the side. Bennett’s got smarts and he knows how to use them and still have fun.
We love the idea of the fish pie – a de-boned garfish comes swaddled in layers of smoked salmon, a crepe, tuna, brandade (that’s salt-cod mashed with bread, milk, garlic and oil), and encased in pastry, with its sharp needly proboscis and tail poking out either end. It’s like a poorly disguised prize in pass-the-parcel. It's cute as a button, and a pickled fennel-carrot salad on the side freshens things up, but we reckon crisper pastry would reduce the dominating smoosh factor in the pie.
Aside from a few snacky plates of prosciutto, croquettes and some excellent grissini, (those long snappy bread sticks, here with a dash of goats curd and some smoked salt for dipping), this is a traditional entrée-main-dessert situation. Still, we reckon sharing is a good idea.
The confit of salmon, lightly cured and steamed till it's a shade above raw, is covered with little citrus-soaked cucumber jewels, pear (in sliced, poached and puréed guises), and shrouded by a glossy film of jasmine tea jelly. It’s the perfect union of butter-soft fish and fresh crunch – it’s just too big for one. As is an excellently potent parmesan and onion risotto. Cooked in a rich onion stock and sprinkled with candied buckwheat, it’s salty, sweet and the most exciting thing to happen to vegetarians this year. Keep the aerated black sesame sponge with poached and crisped rhubarb and creamy rice ice cream to yourself.
Big names, (the Comme-Stokehouse Van Haandel group are behind this one) and big budgets are never a guarantee of quality, but you’ll find no over-priced mediocrity at this theatre-restaurant. Trocadero is a