The dish that said it all came at the end of the meal. It landed in an elegant glass bowl, looking like a dainty pile of fresh snow - white, clean, refreshing. Apparently a simple, pale granita in charmingly rustic form, it quickly revealed a series of textures and flavours - smooth coconut sorbet, a chilly ginger granita crunch, slippery, subtly aromatic coconut and citrus tapioca pearls, fresh lychee wedges and slight floral hints from shreds of aloe vera - that deftly balanced pared-back simplicitywith touches of luxury and serious aesthetic intent. It perfectly summarised the experience of eating at Cutler & Co.
After all the cheers and accolades that swamped Cumulus Inc, Andrew McConnell's city eating house, when it opened last year, it was difficult to see how this new venture, following hot on its heels, could rise above anticlimax status. Out of the CBD, at the badlands western end of Fitzroy's Gertrude Street and housed in a large former industrial workshop, Cutler & Co seemed to be setting itself its own challenges. But McConnell and partner Pascale Gomes-McNabb have created a truly exciting restaurant in the old machine factory, a place where the food and the décor are edgy and glamorous but completely accessible. Everything comes with a welcome lack of pretension.
Gomes-McNabb has been responsible for the design of all McConnell's restaurants - diningroom 211 in Fitzroy, Carlton's Mrs Jones and Three, One, Two, as well as Cumulus Inc - and Cutler & Co is a great advertisement for the benefits of experience. Behind a ruthlessly plain mirrored-glass frontage, the rustic, peeling-paint walls of the structure have been left untouched, giving the large space a rough-hewn warmth that is balanced by clean-lined smoked-glass and mirror surfaces, the stark matte black metal of the large square bar, and the "toilet block" that juts out at the back of the restaurant.
Buttery soft pale-grey leather banquettes run along two sides of the parquetry-floored dining area. There's a raised carpeted section at the back of the room, and a glassed wine storage area to one side. Bare timber tables that tone down the formality without robbing the room of any sophistication. The lighting is dim and moody, coming from black puffy "cloud" lights designed by Gomes-McNabb, and industrialesque clear glass pods with elongated elements that look like hanging candles. It's an undeniably sexy space and it incorporates clever elements: over the bar, an angular metal canopy perforated with tree shapes casts intricate patterns on the ceiling, which reveal themselves the more you gaze around the room.
McConnell's food comes from the same direction as the décor: his dishes slowly disclose intricate layers and pleasant surprises that may not be apparent at first glance. This is where Cutler & Co's assured, personable and fairly mature service team are in their element. Enthused but not over-excited, they strike the right balance in introducing the dishes and avoiding the trap of explaining away the magic of every element. If they're asked, though, the finer points and intricacies of each dish are at their fingertips.
Cutler & Co's kitchen, designed from the ground up by McConnell, has a mallee root-fired charcoal grill that is put to good use. Its primary purpose seems to be servicing the shared 1.2kg dry-aged Angus beef rib eye (imported from Sydney's Vic's Meat), but it also proves its worth with an entrée of Yarra Valley quail.
There's something initially straightforward and barbecue-friendly about the quail, slightly smoky from being cooked over coals, but as you fossick through the pretty dish there are other discoveries to be made. Caramelised figs with a thin sugar coating (crunchy from an encounter with a blowtorch). A parsley root purée. Pomegranate seeds and barberries tossed with shredded radicchio and chervil. A pastry "cigar" filled with foie gras parfait. It is a busy dish but never seems crowded because all the ingredients seem so happy sharing a plate.
McConnell's version of salade Lyonnaise is a must. The traditional foundation of bacon and poached egg tossed with frisée lettuce is still recognisable, but it has been studded with all sorts of other morsels that make picking through it a treasure hunt. Fried pancetta and a slow-cooked egg yolk check tradition, but there are also shavings of smoked waygu tongue, a gorgeously rich house-made garlic pork sausage, confit gizzards and thin shreds of crisp potatoes. (The only downside of the dish is that it comes in one of those wide, deep-sided bowls that encourages cutlery to slip down into your food, handles and all.)
Grilled leatherjacket (or rock flathead, depending on availability) arrives looking like an abstract landscape. The fish, finished with lemon, is scattered across a plate strewn with flash-fried school prawns tossed in a salad of shredded fennel and cabbage and dressed with wonderfully smooth chardonnay vinegar, honey and pounded thyme leaves. Small dabs of a powerful condiment of shallots stewed in crustacean-infused oil complete the picture, melding superbly with the delicate fish flavour.
The single vegetarian main course is a ripper, a truffled pecorino and whipped ricotta tart encased in the shortest of pastries lined with sweet confit onion drizzled with truffled honey. It shares plate with sautéed Jerusalem artichokes and fried zucchini flowers.
Those looking for something sweeter than the charms of the snow-like granita will be well pleased with the chocolate ice-cream sandwich. The rich whiskey-tinted ice-cream, more like a frozen chocolate mousse, sits alongside a vanilla parfait sandwiched between chocolate sponge, its edges coated with sweet crumbs made from dehydrated almond and chocolate cake and honeycomb.
The Cutler & Co wine list sits comfortably alongside the spotlight-hogging food. A clever and democratic mix of Old and New World labels, it complements rather than competes with the food, favouring small and boutique wines over name and benchmark bottles. It is another instance of the restaurant showing a remarkably high level of balance and maturity behind its fresh face.
Far from being an anticlimax after the tsunami of Cumulus-love, Cutler & Co has actually upped McConnell's own ante. Dazzling with a monochrome pile of ice is just the tip of the creative iceberg. This uniquely handsome room and its talented chef have plenty more excitement in store.