When Philippa Sibley published PS Desserts late last year, she made it clear that the recipe book marked an abdication of sorts: a stepping down from the role of dessert queen - for which she had become widely known - and a way of removing the word "pastry" from her job description. Putting all her dessert-making secrets into the public realm, as she has with her book, was one way of doing this. The other has been by thoroughly and successfully proving her all-round chef credentials at Albert St Food & Wine.
There's still sweet stuff on the menu - this is, after all, a diner that runs from breakfast through to nightcap - but there's a relaxed breeziness to the desserts here that follows (rather than tries to lead) the rest of the produce-focused menu. Thinly sliced strawberries at the height of their season are teamed with a superb pale purple balsamic ice-cream studded with tiny white twigs of meringue, while a classic amaretti semifreddo, perfectly, creamily textured, is simply accompanied by oven-roasted peaches - though, admittedly, blinged up with some gold leaf.
While there's unquestionable balance and finesse on show with Sibley's Albert St desserts, those after the more elaborate layer-upon-layer-upon-layer of virtuosic technique and trickery of Sibley's past may not find what they're seeking. But there's been more on the line for this Albert Street newcomer than whether or not its executive chef can attract a crowd without her MasterChef-endorsed version of the Snickers bar as marque attraction.
Albert St Food & Wine, with its smoothly expensive designer looks, bottle shop, produce store, subtle modern European menu and Euro-friendly wine list, is entirely different from anything else in this neck of the woods. It marks a distinctly upmarket arrival on a street better known for its slightly chaotic mix of Middle Eastern food stores, bridal shops and grungy bohemia. Some doubted the neighbourhood was ready for a business like this, but the difficulty in securing a table, particularly later in the week, and the happy band of locals lining the bar most nights seems to show that Albert Street is the right place at the right time.
A big part of Albert St Food & Wine's success comes from the impression it gives of having emerged fully formed. Housed in an impressive former bank building that's been given a simple but thorough makeover - timber floors, white-painted walls that soar to double storey height over the dining area, a large central bar with an imposing brass-meshed bulkhead hovering above it, olive-green banquettes - it feels both fresh and familiar. It's a light, spacious and logically planned room that's very easy to like.
The service style is similarly confident and likeable, mixing never-let-a-glass-go-dry efficiency with genuine enthusiasm for what's being brought to the table. The wine list also has a user-friendly vibe, a nice blend of familiar and artisan names that straddles the Old and New Worlds with most of the glass prices in the $6 to $12 range.
The feeling of being in safe hands isn't surprising, though, given the experience of husband-and-wife co-owners Stuart Brookshaw and Ruth Giffney (along with a group of silent partners). Both have lengthy hospitality CVs that include the likes of Longrain, Otto and Stokehouse domestically and the Conran group overseas. Probably most importantly in getting the balance right, though, is that they're locals, so they've brought an insider's understanding to the space.
The biggest pay-off for that kind of understanding was the signing of Philippa Sibley as chef. Residual fame and associated following aside, Sibley brings a restrained but flavour-packed style of cooking that's very much in sync with the business as a whole.
A quick glance at the menu reveals nothing to scare the horses - sections given over to pizza, pasta, "from the grill", "charcuterie & cheese" and, of course, desserts. No overtly fancy cooking terms or wilfully obscure ingredients, perfect for an eating house that's consciously setting itself up as a regular for locals. But look a little closer and the menu reveals the sort of subtle twists and turns, attractive quirks and reimaginings that are Sibley hallmarks. It's an approach tailor-made for the artisan-loving inner-northern-Melbourne demographic.
It begins with what's affectionately known to the staff as "Pip's whip", a fine Belgian butter that arrives tinted from the blanched basil that's been blitzed with olive oil and emulsified through it. The result is a beautifully soft, green, slightly fragrant spread that starts with the premise of good bread and butter and then trips down a slightly different path. It's not a major flavour statement, but it does signal that expectations may be played with a little.
The kingfish Niçoise toes a similar line, the rough-hewn slices of pale fish strewn with lemon segments sharing a plate with a riot of pastel colours in the form of heirloom tomatoes, green and yellow beans, fennel, fennel fronds, slivers of lacy, toasted bread and half a soft-boiled egg. The vegetables, left slightly crisp, are dressed with a green-chilli-infused olive tapenade that brings a slight, welcome background heat to the proceedings.
In dishes such as the pissaladière from the pizza oven the approach is more traditional: confit onions, black olives and anchovies sit on a rather good pizza base that's spongy and chewy rather than crisp and brittle. The addition of classic salsa verde adds a bit of salty tang, and there's a very nice sweetness in the onions courtesy of some honey and Sherry vinegar.
The menu changes fairly regularly, but salt fish in some form or another is a regular feature. One day it might be fritters or croquettes, another it might be served in a bowl with toasted bread and an accompanying green goddess sauce. Sibley's baccalà is house-salted blue eye mixed with a béchamel richly infused with thyme, garlic and potato. On its own it's good, but add the goddess - made from grilled artichokes, green olives, roasted garlic, parsley, basil and olive oil - and it starts a table-silencing race to the bottom of the bowl.
Sibley does a fine version of steak tartare that's made from hand-cut tails of fillet and customised with the likes of Cognac and caperberry leaves. And her seasonal fresh broad bean falafels - dark fried exteriors hiding sweet, vibrant green innards - should also be added to the do-not-miss list.
The lifting and transforming of fairly straightforward dishes into something more memorable with a simple, carefully realised twist is one of Sibley's strengths. It's what makes eating here so enjoyable. Roast snapper with excellent roast kipfler potatoes becomes memorable thanks to the accompanying vibrant tangy herb salad - a mix of parsley, chives, chervil and fennel fronds dressed with salty tarragon vinegar - that highlights the fish and chips elements of the dish.
Lamb rump, roasted to a pale shade of pink against soft white polenta, is lifted with the addition of marjoram, black olives and tomatoes, while a truly lovely asparagus risotto flavoured with Fontina and lemon is lifted to even loftier heights with the textural addition of soft white haricot beans.
Summer cassoulet arrives in a deep white bowl, a crust of golden toasted brioche crumbs crowning the light, fresh, tomato-based take on trad cassoulet underneath. Dig into the crumbs and you'll find a confit chicken leg, boudin blanc made from chicken breast, an excellent showing from the pulse family (fresh green and yellow beans, fresh borlotti beans, white haricot beans) and some sweet little Vichy carrots. Again, it comes across as simple - and it is - but it's a carefully considered sort of simplicity that makes this dish more than a sum of its parts.
Albert St Food & Wine, too, presents as more than the sum of its parts - though admittedly the parts on their own are impressive. Sure, it's a fine theatre for Philippa Sibley's beautifully articulated lessons in restraint, imagination and ingredient fanaticism, but it's also a good example of a business that's been meticulously planned with careful consideration of where and what it is. In this neighbourhood, it already feels like a game-changer.