Comme has always been one of Melbourne's most glamorous destinations, but the dining experience has, at times, been something of an accessory to its manicured good looks. Now, with the arrival of chef Daniel Southern, the place is humming with new energy, focus and confidence. And the food is as much the drawcard as the slick surrounds. Southern's sharp modern French cooking has revealed itself an excellent match for the building's lavish bones (it's the former Mietta's site) and chic fit-out. With Southern on board, Comme is finally inhabiting the landmark venue on its own terms.
It really is a marvellous looking place, particularly the Wine Room (aka bar) with its lofty ceilings, dark-stained Japanese oak parquetry floor, central marble bar, glass wine storage area, sculptural light fittings and massive windows framing the view of a sanitised graffiti- and skip-free laneway. A recent and eminently sensible change has seen the Wine Room take on the mantle of dining area during the day. It's a savvy move because it takes advantage of the daylight and leaves the dimly lit, cosy atmospherics to the (windowless) dining room under the stairs for dinner, a perfect place to retreat when the bar fills with smartly dressed and often boisterous night-time drinkers.
Good looks aside, it's not surprising that the bar is often full. Comme's wine list is interesting and well directed, thorough without being unwieldy, and shows a special affinity for the wines of Italy and France. It's easy to drop a small fortune on quite brilliant Burgundy, but you can also drink well at the lower(ish) end of the spectrum with wines such as the elegant, lovely and biodynamic Ostertag Pinot Blanc from Alsace.
Wine knowledge and service is excellent whether you're tucked into the camel-coloured Chesterfield-style banquettes in the back room or sitting at a chunky wooden table in the bar. Manager Frédéric Blévin (formerly of the Melbourne Wine Room), another recent appointment, leads a team of relaxed and personable floor staff who achieve that ideal balance where your wine or water glass never runs dry but there is never any unnecessary hovering about or neurotic over-servicing interrupting the flow of the conversation at your table. It's tricky to get right, but Blévin and his team make it look effortless.
The smooth service ties in nicely with the new direction Southern has brought to Comme's kitchen, which includes losing its former Spanish accent. Stints at L'Oustal and, more recently, Bistro Guillaume have proved Southern's talent and feel for French cooking, something that is now being put to good use at Comme. His food is solidly grounded in classic technique but has moments of inventiveness and playfulness as any self-respecting modern French cooking should have.
A good example of Southern's style arrives with the warm mushroom salad. Swiss, button and field mushrooms, cooked in a bag to maintain flavour and colour, are teamed with a pleasingly chunky duxelles of mushrooms that have been simmered and then puréed with shallots, garlic and thyme. Accompanying are baby mizuna leaves dressed simply with olive oil, and three or four excellent deep-fried Comté fritters (or beignets, if you must) with a crunchy breadcrumb crust and wonderfully gooey interiors. Shreds of lightly grilled bacon and a syrup made from reduced mushroom stock add to the snap, slip and slide of textures, and the mix of earthy and salty flavours makes this dish a lot of fun to eat.
Southern's cooking often seems to involve a lot happening on the plate, but the main flavours shine and it's always about the ingredients rather than any over-intrusive whizzbangery in the kitchen.
Two dainty pieces of King George whiting, smoky and grill-striped, share a plate with a salad that includes spears of white and green asparagus, classic hollandaise sauce, a small pile of grapefruit cubes and a scattering of pistachios and croûtons, but it all presents beautifully, and the flavours - especially the citrus - are surprising, refreshing and very successful.
Similarly, a vegetarian dish of beautifully textured pale shallot bavarois, cannelloni filled with a robust and earthy mix of artichokes and mushrooms and a small pile of vegetables (maybe including some sweet baby zucchini flowers) cooked à la Grecque is simple and elegant. This is confident cooking, at ease with itself.
Showing a more classic French provincial approach, there is a fine chunky pâté of chicken liver, bacon and foie gras, but Southern adds a nice twist with a side of powerfully tangy pickled shallot rings and a slightly creamy parsley purée. Burgundy snails dripping with an appropriately indulgent amount of garlic and parsley butter stick firmly to the classic script.
Anybody who's eaten Southern's food before will know that he has an affinity with rabbit, and the successful partnership continues at Comme. There's loin, marinated and boned leg and confit shoulder that just pulls back from being too salty. The sweet and tender bunny comes with an étuvée of baby leeks (sliced and stewed quickly under a lid with butter and oil), rich little crumbed foie gras croquettes, toasted hazelnuts and a lovely, slightly sweet sauce made from the rabbit bones mixed with white wine and a little cream.
Pork lovers will be excited by the Western Plains suckling pig, slow-cooked overnight with thyme and bay before being boned, pressed and finished in the pan. The lid of crackling is a fine example of the species, but the excellent six-bean cassoulet underneath gives the skin a run for its money. The mix includes broad, runner, butter and borlotti beans, all slow-braised in chicken stock, flavoured with thyme and perfectly seasoned so they don't out-salt the pork.
Interest does not wane at the sweet end of the meal. Southern is not a fan of overly sugary desserts, and this philosophy is quite clear with a dessert of gorgeously short sablé biscuits that are stacked and layered with pears poached in a mix that includes red wine, port, peppercorns, bay leaves and cloves. The sandwich-like construction also contains some creamy rice pudding, and on the side are drips of a reduced merlot syrup that is as tangy as it is sweet. It's a subtle dessert, perhaps better avoided by those with a sweet tooth but perfect for anybody who enjoys a little savoury in their dessert mix.
Southern is a good match for Comme. His good-looking food is smart enough not to feel underdressed in the flash surroundings but relaxed enough to steer memories away from the building's formal fine-dining days. It's perfectly pitched for the inner-city crowd who have, in the past, flocked here to drink. And now they're coming here to eat Southern's food as well. It's a win for the kitchen and diners alike.