Service! bellows the Chef, Nel.
Chef: Nelly Robinson
Always one to be looking for a place to try, I heard on the grapevine that Nel. might be worth a visit. So I made the booking and let Mookie know that we would be dining out. We set off we drove an area of the city undergoing a slow transformation, Nel. being and example of this transformation. We almost drive straight past without realising when I suddenly notice the discrete neon sign. I look to Mookie and say “I think it must be in the basement”. We park and head over and it turns out Nel. is indeed in the basement, but don’t let that put you off this little hidden gem.
We wander down the stairs, the decor is nice and their is only one other couple seated currently. The head waiter meets us and after checking our booking leads us to our table. Oh no, we are seated right beside the other couple! The seating could probably be a little more arranged so that given the staggered arrivals the patron placement allows a a little more privacy. I notice the the kitchen is visible to the diners, the chef watches us as we are seated, or perhaps he is watching the wait staff, or perhaps both.
The sommelier visits with the wine list. Mookie chooses a cocktail and I choose the wine match which raises an eyebrow in that three of the courses are actually matched with two wines, a novelty I’ve not seen before. The sommelier explains that the match is for entering the course and then exiting the course. It’s a novel concept and appeals to my desire to experience a much as possible good, bad and anything in between. This was one of the good ones and the sommelier’s decision to pair an old world and new world wine to those dishes was a great opportunity for comparison.
Mookie’s cocktail arrives – called “Tall” it is a mix of gin, lime, pomegranate grenadine and ginger beer. “Nice but nothing to write home about, ginger taste is a bit too strong”. I had noticed that the wine match didn’t commence until the dishes so took the opportunity to order a glass of Australian chardonnay. Unfortunately, as I feel it’s often the cause, it was too young, too sweet and so lacking in complexity for my tastes. The starters arrive: basil, apple, tomato (Nel. adopts the now common minimalist style of nominating only the core ingredients) beside liver sandwich – which I quite enjoy reminiscing my childhood days when sometimes liverwurst or marmite were the only two options to spread on old bread for school lunch.
These are quickly followed by ham and peas. Which is a ham croquet with a pureed pea dipping sauce. Its pleasant but I think the drooping snow pea sprout could probably be re-thought.I believe that perhaps a larger initial plate and including a smaller croquet with the pea puree as a green squiggle across the top would have presented the dish with more sophistication thus bringing it inline with the truly stunning prettiness of some of the dishes to come.
A few more patrons arrive but its certainly not a busy night. This means we do get a lot of attention from the floor manager but some of the other staff seem to be chatting in the background. I notice the chef (Nel himself) put the next course to the counter which is all that stands between the diners and the kitchen – he can’t see or get the attention of the waiters chatting with a colleague in the bar area. “Service!” he calls, startling one staffer into action. The fish arrives. I can understand the Chef’s frustration as it already rapidly cooling on the plate. Speaking of pretty dishes this one is a definite but I find the flavour combination confusing in its selection. The mix of textures however is very enjoyable. The two wines are interesting in their own right, though my confusion on the food flavours extends, by default, through to the wine match.
Next out potato, leek, egg yolk, parmesan – now this flavour combination I both understand and enjoy and the wine match with crisp minerality with but a hint of melon in Chablis to start and then precise acid limey-ness of the Yarra Chardonnay to finish play to my preferences. The next dish – scallop, pepper, ragu, dill is yet another stunningly pretty dish, the scallop is perfectly cooked and the foam (of which I am not usually a fan) is actually a very nice touch. “SERVICE” bellows the chef, shocking both wait staff into action but also startling a few of the diners from their conversations. I grin at Mookie, “reminds me of my days in the kitchen”. Nel., is very definitely the captain of his ship.
The lamb, farro, garlic and smoked yoghurt are sublime. The chef truly shines with this dish and I find myself, though already feeling sated, wishing that there was more. The vegetables (carrot and onion) are perfect with the lamb and the smoked yoghurt is a revelation. The nuttiness of the farro and the richness of the jus make this dish simply and utterly yum. I must mention that this the chef paying homage to the more traditional flavours of the UK. The comparison of old world and new world Pinot Noir is very pleasing but I must admit I would probably have matched a Cabernet blend with lamb, still it was educational and fun trying both Pinot Noirs.
We move into dessert and drop back to a single glass of cider matched to what is one of the best desserts that I have tried this year – carrot, buttermilk, mandarin and mint. I don’t really enjoy the cider-match though I am all for switching out wine in favour of other selections of liquids. Each item on its own is pleasant but I think I would have much preferred the Ice Reisling that comes with the next dessert to be served with this one. Its interesting aside to note that the same serving dish for the dessert was used to serve what I consider to be the best soup I have ever imbibed at Azurmendi in Bilbao Spain (you can read all about it here). The final dessert arrives again exceptionally pretty. Its a chocolate, pear, orange, pumpkin concoction that Mookie loves. I actually think the Pear & Apple cider would be better with this dish.
The petite fours are lovely and the sweetness is a nice counterpoint to the double espresso that feels mandatory after all the wines. Contented and feeling very full we make our way home.