THIS RESTAURANT HAS NOW CLOSED.
Chicken mint. Tansy. Wood sorrel. Begonia, borage, valerian and fennel flowers. Japanese pepper. Pink garlic. Yarrow tips. Camomile leaves. Pimprenelle. Lovage. A rollcall of the herbs, spices and leaves on the menu at Embrasse sounds like a herbalist's arsenal or the ingredients for a potentially sinister fairytale potion. But the list of rare and heirloom plants used by owner/chef Nicolas Poelaert in his Carlton restaurant points more to his philosophies and influences than to a penchant for dabbling in the dark arts.
Embrasse, like its owner, is undeniably French but there are few old-school Gallic restaurant clichés here apart from the Edith Piaf-studded soundtrack looped in the dining room. "Modern French" is probably the most convenient label for what's going on here but that still doesn't quite nail it. Certainly the simple, almost deferential way the ingredients are treated, the equal billing of vegetables and meat and the sparing use of cream and butter point to a modern cooking philosophy. But Poelaert's influences are as much to do with rustic tradition and family recipes as they are about his time working with lauded exponents of modern French cooking such as Michel Bras and Shannon Bennett.
Poelaert's parents, who live near Calais, are keen and constant gardeners who have always grown their own vegetables. Whenever the family went on holiday, they looked for wild leaves and flowers to eat. His mother, Poelaert says, was also a very good cook.
It must be in the genes. Having settled in Melbourne with his Australian wife Tara after cooking stints in Scotland, England, Australia and France, he now has his own veggie patch (in Warrandyte) and herb garden (in Donvale), where he grows the more obscure herbs, flowers and salad leaves on Embrasse's menu, the ones that are tricky to source commercially. He has a couple of suppliers who can provide the right kind of (mostly organic) vegetables but the ingredients being pulled and plucked daily from his own garden are perhaps the major influence driving the whimsical, pretty, sometimes odd and often delightful food at Embrasse.
A more obvious and literal influence on the restaurant, or its dining room at least, is its predecessor in the Drummond Street shopfront location, Andrew McConnell's Three, One, Two. Though there have been some attempts to give the space its own slightly softer personality - brown gauze curtains in the front window, deep green drapery at the front door, food-themed paintings, chrome chandeliers and some brown paint daubed here and there - the terrazzo-floored room still has a slightly chilly designer edge that doesn't quite match the direction of the kitchen. It's not an uncomfortable room but it feels a little awkward, as if it's still finding its feet in hand-me-down shoes.
The front-of-house team, led by Tara, is more in tune with the kitchen. Service is homely and charming rather than slick, and more attention is given to making people comfortable than robotically listing the multiple, often tiny ingredients featured in almost every dish. The information is mostly there if you need it but the gentle persuasion for you to enjoy rather than dissect the dishes demonstrates reassuring confidence in the chef's ability to place each petal, stem and purée in its right place.
From the moment the amuse-bouche arrives on curly handled metal spoons, you get the feeling that the confidence is not misplaced. One spoon holds a cube of delicate smoked eel, a dab of fromage blanc, a shred of red capsicum and toasted brioche crumbs. The other contains a little pool of sweet carrot jelly, pumpkin purée and gingerbread purée, a little camomile leaf and a single, tiny piece of lemon pulp (carefully plucked from the fruit with tweezers). The combination of raw and worked ingredients is clean and vibrant while the presentation is artful without being twee.
The calf sweetbreads are floured and pan-fried in salted butter, just the way Poelaert's mother used to cook them. Transported to a Melbourne restaurant, though, they now share a plate with a beautifully smooth purée of white beans accompanied by hot peas and tangy dried barberries. There's also some grated fresh horseradish for added heat and tiny lovage leaves refreshing and tasting a little like celery.
An octopus tentacle, steamed and cleaned to a pure, snowy white, is wrapped in a thin, transparent sheet of daikon. It's sprinkled with little wild rocket flowers that have a surprisingly robust peppery flavour. Dried wild olives add some black to the white and some intense salty flavours to the restrained and delicately oceanic octopus. In the looks department, this dish is a minimalist knockout.
Poelaert's roast farmed pigeon shows he is also fond of colours, in this case pinks and oranges. The vibrant deep pink breast, glistening, moist and flavoured with wood sorrel, is surrounded by small cubes of pumpkin and pumpkin purée spiced and sweetened with cinnamon, licorice and palm sugar. A scattering of almost bitter orange and juniper powder, made from dried orange zest and baked juniper berries mixed and pounded with salt, adds some theatre to the plate, if not a lot in terms of flavour.
A meli melo (which roughly translated means "mishmash") of vegetables comes closest to being Embrasse's signature dish. Inspired by a Michel Bras signature, it's a mixture of sliced vegetables blanched in salted water and then cooked with a little butter, which gives the vegetables their seductive sheen. Acccompanied by a number of purées (pumpkin, fennel, cauliflower, watercress), some pastes (ginger, chervil), dehydrated olive crumbs, flowers (fennel, coriander, valerian) and a number of different stems and leaves, it's a pretty, busy dish that is a pleasure to eat. It appears complex with its multiple, colourful elements, but in highlighting individual vegetable flavours it's ultimately all about simplicity.
John Dory fillet, partly steamed and then finished in the pan with carrot butter and teamed with green mustard and yarrow stems, also impresses, while a straight-up butter lettuce salad, dressed with Poelaert's mother's recipe of brown vinegar, sunflower oil and freshly dried herbs, is the ultimate argument for keeping it simple.
Desserts are less complex: a not-too-sweet cube of apple and yoghurt sponge cake sitting alongside a lemon verbena panna cotta, say, or a chocolate parfait (made with a little Nutella, one of the chef's guilty pleasures) studded with honeycomb and accompanied by an intense pear purée. They are a little underwhelming.
The Embrasse wine list is ordered according to weight rather than varietal, in categories such as "fresh and lively" or "opulence and strength", and favours French labels, though Australia, New Zealand and Italy also get a good run. Poelaert's restrained flavours lend themselves to rosé and there are several beauties on the list including the lovely, lively 2007 Gros' Noré from Bandol.
Poelaert says that his cooking is all about "the simplicity and the purity of the ingredients", and the plates strewn with home-grown leaves and flowers certainly back that claim. But there is complexity here too, with traditional and family dishes reinterpreted using both modern and classical techniques. There isn't another French restaurant like this in Melbourne. It values tradition but not cliché, and balances the present and the past in surprising and satisfying ways. Sorcery or not, there is some small magic at work here.