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Brooks few rivals

Gerald Diffey, the sartorialist behind Gerald’s Bar in Carlton, has stitched up a stellar crew including chef Nicolas Poelaert to create Brooks, a stylish new CBD restaurant.

When Gerald's Bar won GT's Bar of the Year award in 2010, we tapped it because it was "idiosyncratic, unique… and everything a grown-up could want in a watering hole". It's pleasing to report that it has kept up the good work. Equally pleasing is that owner Gerald Diffey and his posse have recently broadened their horizons, riding into town and taking up residence in the laneway site that in previous lives has been Momo, Fifteen and The Kitchen Cat.

It's quite a leap, this move from little bar in the inner suburbs to sizeable restaurant in the CBD, but there's reason to break out the tickertape because all the intrinsic stuff that makes Gerald's Gerald's has survived the move into the big smoke.

This isn't to say that Brooks is simply Gerald's Bar Goes Large in the City, though there are signs of shared DNA - a soundtrack powered by vinyl, a penchant for bric-a-brac, the presence of Mario Di Ienno as business partner. But it's more a cousin than a sibling relationship with a notably different emphasis at play.

It's not just the fact that Diffey has spruced himself up in a series of tailor-made suits to front the joint, but also the presence in the kitchen of Nicolas Poelaert, the Michel Bras-trained, forage-happy Frenchman who closed his Carlton restaurant Embrasse last year. Having Poelaert on board sends a clear message that Brooks is a place with serious, upmarket food ambitions.

Those ambitions are visible front of house, too, in the stellar crew: Paul Guiney (ex-MoVida) oversees the dining room, Matt Brooke (ex-Circa) takes sommelier honours and Shae Silvestro (ex-Der Raum) keeps things sharp behind the bar. Little wonder, then, that the three-room basement space is blessed with the comforting feeling of being in thoroughly safe, calm and experienced hands.

Many people will use Brooks primarily as a bar, given the Gerald's factor and that the bar area, the first space you see after descending the stairs, is the cosiest and most atmospheric part of the place. Marble-topped and timber-based with curves that make it comfortable for punters to angle themselves towards each other, it's reassuringly cluttered with quality liquor and has the sort of clubbish retro glamour (helped along by nattily attired staff) that all classic restaurant bars have.

It's an easy place to linger, made easier still by chef Poelaert's list of small dishes that easily translate to bar food, albeit of a fairly refined and stylised bent.

Past the oysters (three kinds) and caviar (Australian, Israeli) you arrive at what has already become a Brooks signature, the chicken parfait with rye bread and blackberry jam. There's no smearing on bread here, though. The dish presents as six little morsels made from rye-bread dough, cut into squares and baked at high temperature so it puffs up into pillow shapes which are piped full of the silky house-made parfait before the hole is concealed with a dollop of (again, house-made) jam. They're an excellent snack: cute, mess-free, full of earthy flavour and satisfyingly crunchy.

Brooks also does a couple of versions of a burger, called a "cheeky bun". Being a Poelaert burger, there's no humble mince involved. The meat version is made from gorgeously full-flavoured beef cheek that's been braised for 12 hours, while the vego variety centres on a patty made from beetroot, white beans, black beans, shallots and tarragon. Both arrive on a slightly sweet house-made bun (a little like brioche, though there's no butter involved) and are accompanied by melted Gruyère, feisty tomato sauce given a kick with brandy and mustard, lettuce, tomato and onion rings. Both buns are certainly designer members of the hamburger genus, but, flavour-wise, the riff is classic.

For those who cannot bear to leave the bar just yet, there's also good, heftily proportioned charcuterie hailing from the folks at Warialda in Victoria who raise Belted Galloway cattle. It's all hanging in a glass cabinet and the mix includes a particularly good, full-flavoured saucisson, pressed tongue, bresaola, pastrami and Polish sausage, simply served on a board with cornichons.

The charcuterie is also a good place to start a meal in the two-roomed, timber-floored dining area, a pleasantly airy space (admirable, given the below-ground location) with a slight Scandinavian accent.

In the first room the open kitchen is the main visual feature with its wide, theatrical pass framed by a kind of proscenium arch.

The rest of the room, and the elevated dining area next to it, is all whitewashed walls and ceiling, tan banquettes and linen-draped tables. Clusters of glass balls hang from the ceiling here and there, some of them light fittings, others terrarium-like, sporting carefully arranged vintage glass tableaux. The walls are hung, uncluttered gallery-style, with art and there are big bunches of flowers and vegetation scattered about.

It feels like a serious dining space, but not a stuffy one, thanks to the easy charm of the mustard-yellow napkins and the floor staff. Poelaert's main menu aims to strike a similar balance, though some dishes come across as a little too earnest and over-thought, and the room and the food sometimes appear to be stepping on each other's toes.

A langoustine, for example, suffers with the weight of capsicum custard, pickled lemon, Japanese basil oil, herbs and seaweed, the small portion appearing almost embarrassed at the song and dance going on around it, particularly when the quality of the New Zealand shellfish is good enough to carry less embellishment.

A lovely beef rump cap fares better under an onslaught of sculptural burnt potato shards and (quite delicious) burnt carrot purée, hay sauce and melted mimolette. The beef goes through a reasonably complicated process - first pan-fried, then popped in a bag with some hay to give it an earthy smoky flavour and then roasted before being put on the plate - but it's worth the effort when the textures and full grass-fed hurrah of flavour come bursting through.

Elsewhere, Poelaert's love of the intricate and complex works a treat. His meli of vegetables - a salute to Michel Bras and a signature at Embrasse - is an absolute joy in this incarnation at Brooks. There's still the muchness of ingredients - heirloom tomatoes and baby carrots, chive flowers and olive crumbs, multiple shades and flavours of leaves, sometimes more than 40 different elements - and the plate is bright and pretty with pastel purées and emulsions. The former smearing and splat on the plate has disappeared - the purées and emulsions are left as lolly-like dollops - so the mixing and matching you do with this dish feels like all your own work. It's light, vibrant and exciting to eat.

Another highlight is the two-act marron dish, which begins with a superb terracotta-coloured bisque poured around an island of vegetables (zucchini, squash, carrot, baby leek) topped with a boiled and shelled marron claw, and ends with the tail teamed with a gentle cauliflower custard, pickled grapes and bay leaf oil that give the dish a subtle but wonderful sweet and sour appeal.

There's foie gras, too, a generous lump of gorgeously textured Rougie stuff from France that's roasted, then pan-seared and served with pickled cherry and peach purée, with fresh green almonds adding some relevant texture and tang to proceedings. With its slightly retro nature, it's a dish that feels right at home at Brooks.

Matt Brooke's wine list, too, feels right at home with its easygoing balance of price, variety and provenance. Labels are pulled equally from the Old and New Worlds, and several wines from eastern Europe get a run (a Slovenian pinot gris, a malvazija from Croatia), apparently a must for every self-respecting wine list around town of late. The generous two-page list of wines by the glass suits both Brooks's bar persona and the menu's multiple and complex ingredient combinations. And there's something marvellously Gerald's about a list that allows you to drink well and interestingly without having to hock a kidney to tickle your liver.

Poelaert keeps up the complexity with the sweet stuff, whether it's a mix of berries, cheesecake and lemon curd topped with beetroot meringue shards and sugar glass, or the dessert that was his signature at Embrasse, "Forest Floor". A mix of chocolate gâteaux, crumbs and ganache, sorrel and mint granita, a mushroom made from hazelnut parfait and meringue, and branches and leaves made from tuilles, this is a dessert that hits the theme-park buttons but does so in an entertaining and appealing way. Sometimes, though, you can't help thinking how nice it would be to have a bowl of that vibrant sorbet on its own.

Diffey and Di Ienno recently opened a greengrocer (St Clements) and a butcher (Skinner & Hackett) in the same shopping strip as Gerald's, but Brooks is by far the most ambitious of the projects and the one that in some ways moves furthest from the Gerald's template. Scratch the surface, though, past the linen and suits, and you'll find the same idiosyncratic mix of cheek, hospitality and solid experience that has made Gerald's Bar such a success. It's a place with future classic stamped all over it.


BROOKS

Basement, 115-117 Collins St, Melbourne, (03) 9001 8755, brooksofmelbourne.com.au.
Licensed.
Open Mon-Fri 11.30am-1am, Sat 4pm-1am.
Cards AE MC V EFT.
Prices Entrées $14-$28; main courses $18-$39; desserts $18.
Wheelchair access No.
Vegetarian Three entrées, three mains.
Noise Lively.
Plus Gerald's Bar comes to town.
Minus A few dishes could use ingredient editing.

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BROOKS

Basement, 115-117 Collins St, Melbourne, (03) 9001 8755, brooksofmelbourne.com.au.
Licensed.
Open Mon-Fri 11.30am-1am, Sat 4pm-1am.
Cards AE MC V EFT.
Prices Entrées $14-$28; main courses $18-$39; desserts $18.
Wheelchair access No.
Vegetarian Three entrées, three mains.
Noise Lively.
Plus Gerald's Bar comes to town.
Minus A few dishes could use ingredient editing.

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