Rule number one at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal: don't forgo a predinner cocktail. Even if, like me, you discover the only booking available is at 10pm on a Friday (which possibly means you're having supper rather than dinner at Dinner), there's something so perfectly "golden age of hotel restaurants" about the whole set-up that to refuse a cocktail in such a setting could be read as an act of pitiable self-sabotage.
The bar at the Melbourne outpost of Heston Blumenthal's two Michelin-starred London restaurant is the only bar in his repertoire so far. It's intimate, glamorous and adult, with mirrored surfaces, a low-slung banquette and immensely comfortable upholstered armchair bar stools that offer a cinematic vista over the main dining room with its curved leather booths, moss-green armchairs and dramatic backdrop of city lights. It's so close-up ready that you'd only be mildly surprised to see Eva Marie Saint and Cary Grant clinking glasses down one end.
But it's not just the scene-setting that makes Dinner's bar essential. The cocktails themselves are an overture to the food and should be considered part of the meal. As with the menu, the cocktail list provides a brief origin story for every drink.
The Bloody Mary, for example, is attributed to Harry's New York Bar in Paris circa 1920, but what arrives is unlike any other Bloody Mary you may have seen. Ungarnished, a clear, pale yellow and served in a flute, this is a thoroughly Hestonised (by way of London bar guy Tony Conigliaro) Bloody Mary.
The vodka is infused with Worcestershire sauce and horseradish and mixed with clear tomato consommé and pepper distillate, then finished with celery oil, all combining to drink like the dream of a Bloody Mary. It's clean, light - thrilling even - with more complexity than such a pale, clear liquid should be capable of delivering.
There's also a quite brilliant Martini made with vermouth that has olive-leaf distillate blended through it, along with liquid tannin and gin, but it's probably best to move on from the cocktails and the bar and be graciously guided to your table.
That graciousness of the staff at Melbourne's version of Dinner is the clearest remnant of Blumenthal's Fat Duck pop-up that occupied the space until August last year. Post-Duck, the carpets have gone, revealing dark timber flooring. The tables are sans cloths, and the kitchen has been opened up (though it's still behind glass) to dazzle punters with battalions of bustling chefs and gaggles of spit-roasting pineapples. Oversized fob watches and jigsaw puzzles have been replaced by David Bromley sculptures and Romas Foord still-life food photos blown up to mural-sized proportions.
The number of seats has been bumped up from 45 to around 120, and the menu is à la carte.
It still feels like a starry hotel dining room, but it has stretched and relaxed, become more bustling. The service, on the other hand, has remained at benchmark level despite the increased number of diners. Staff are immaculately groomed and admirably efficient, but better than that, they're uniformly engaged, hospitable and charming, even as they greet new customers settling in for three courses at 10.30pm. Cynics might detect the hint of a script here and there, but that would be seriously overthinking things.
What has changed most dramatically from the pop-up days is the food, even if Dinner's most Instagrammed dish, Meat Fruit, is a close relative of the Alice in Wonderland-like trickery that defined the Duck's dégustation.
For those who came in late, Meat Fruit (circa 1500, according to the menu) is basically a chicken liver parfait in the shape of a mandarin, encased in a mandarin jelly that's made to look like dimpled mandarin skin via a series of carefully calibrated freezing and dipping techniques. It looks just like a mandarin complete with a stalk and leaves ("they're edible, but we don't suggest you do").
It's a great trick and still a surprise when you slice into it, but even greater than that - and one of the things that makes Blumenthal lead the pack when it comes to this kind of food sorcery - is that the parfait inside the edible skin is superb, richly flavoured with Port, brandy, garlic and thyme, and works incredibly well with the citrus tang of the skin.
The excellence of the parfait is a reminder that Blumenthal and his executive chef (at both London and Melbourne versions of Dinner), Ashley Palmer-Watts, are not just clever; they're also real chefs, primed with admirable levels of classic technique and knowledge.
This is on display in the Savoury Porridge, too, a dish that's related to The Fat Duck's famed snail porridge, sharing the same vibrant green that comes from garlic- and parsley-loaded butter. The Dinner version switches the snails for abalone. It's brushed with a shiitake, white soy and bonito glaze and then grilled so it's just slightly smoky and crisp at the edges. It sits on the top of the porridge with slices of pickled beetroot, some smoked, and a fennel salad dressed with a warm walnut vinaigrette.
Ocean trout is cured with coriander, salt, lemon and lime zest, and then cold-smoked with hay. It's then dusted with a toasted konbu powder that seems to amplify the flavours of the fish, and adds a very attractive, subtle, slightly grainy texture. The trout is teamed with a garlicky gentleman's relish, pickled lemons, blobs of milky pickled lemon gel and bitter leaves so that as you eat it, every mouthful seems to contain a different combination of flavours and textures. It's fun.
Chicken Cooked with Lettuces is truly lovely, brilliant of flavour and texture. The chicken (from Mount Barker in Western Australia) is brined and rolled, cooked sous-vide, then roasted, and arrives sitting on a salty, spiced celeriac sauce and an almost mayonnaise-like onion emulsion made from charred spring onion and pickled-onion juice. It's accompanied by a cos lettuce heart, blanched and dressed with a white truffle and shallot emulsion, and topped with shards of crisp chicken skin, oyster leaves and little rounds of crisp potato.
Also solid is Roast Snapper in Cider. The superbly handled fish (line-caught, from Tasmanian fisherman Mark Eather) is teamed with a vibrant, complex cider butter (sweet, acidic, salty, rich), silverbeet leaves and ribs, confit and roasted onions, sorrel and "fired mussels", opened via flame, giving them a lick of smoke.
Given the hefty amount of technique put into every plate it's impressive how simply the dishes at Dinner come across. The don't feel fussy or overworked; the flavours and ingredients blend with each other seamlessly. But such carefully camouflaged technique (and the number of chefs needed in the kitchen to achieve it) also helps explain the prices here. They rub shoulders with (and sometimes nudge past) Melbourne's highest.
It's surprising, then, that the prices on the 50-something-page wine list are really quite reasonable. Sure, it's possible to blow nearly $4,000 on a 2007 Château d'Yquem and to spend up big on Grand Cru Burgundy, Barolo, Grange and the like, but it's equally possible to keep the wine spend under $100. There's 2013 Woodcutter's Sémillon from the Barossa Valley for $50, and a viognier-marsanne blend from d'Arenberg for $32, which seems remarkable in this setting with these views. And even with the more expensive benchmark stuff on the list, the price-gouging seems admirably restrained.
But if there was ever a time to consider forking out vast d'Yquem-like sums on dessert wine it would be while devouring Dinner's star dessert, the Tipsy Cake. Like the cocktails and perhaps the Meat Fruit, the Tipsy Cake should be considered non-negotiable. When the waiter takes your order and asks if you'd like to order the Tipsy Cake (it takes an hour or so to cook, which should give you some idea right there) just say yes.
It consists of five balls of brioche dough rolled in clarified butter and caster sugar and squashed together in a little cast-iron pot. That's then put into the oven and, over the course of cooking, the balls are taken out three times to have a mixture of Sauternes, brandy, sugar, vanilla and cream ladled over them. After this they're splashed with a little more alcohol before being served, and are accompanied by roasted pineapple, which has been basted with spiced caramel during its three hours on the spit. It's not a dish that's going to receive a Health Star Rating any time soon, but rest assured that after the first mouthful of this soft, chewy, yeasty little masterpiece, you won't care.
There's life on the dessert menu beyond the Tipsy Cake, too. Sambocade is a quite superb cheesecake made from goat's milk, yoghurt and cream with a secret centre that includes apple and elderflower gel. It has a crumbed biscuit base, is rolled in edible ash so it cutely mimics ashed goat's cheese and comes served with smoked candied walnuts and pears poached in a caramel made with perry.
The entrance to Dinner has retained the dramatic Fat Duck entry tunnel (low lights, video screen at the end, wafting scents of wood and moss) that serves as a drum roll to the dining experience and, while it's kind of fun, it almost feels gimmicky in contrast to the solid and confident package that waits behind the door.
Dinner perfectly understands its five-star Crown Towers hotel location, offering luxury, comfort and hospitality in equal measure, while also giving diners the flexibility to go all out or pop in for a steak and a glass of wine. It feels old-school and new-school at the same time and it's a lot-of-fun night. Check it out. And don't forget the cocktails.