Scott Pickett's darkly handsome new fine-diner in Northcote is so glamorous that stepping into it from the gentrifying bohemia of High Street gives you the vertiginous feeling of landing in another place entirely. You might even check behind you to see whether all the craft-laden homewares stores and live-music venues are still there.
ESP is hushed and earth-toned, with sculptural timber panelling incorporating backlit shelves lined with glasses, a mix of carpeted, timber and polished-concrete floors and circular timber tables bound with thick steel bands. There are elegant Philippe Starck "Passion" chairs (surprisingly comfortable given that they come from the grand master of edgily uncomfortable furniture) and a striking light-fitting hovering above the main dining area - three UFO-like interlocking hoops by Melbourne designer Christopher Boots called Oracle. "Expensive", it all whispers in your ear.
And then there's the enormous open kitchen that takes up a good proportion of the shopfront real estate. The gleaming black tiles, copper saucepans and a hulking stainless steel canopy are surrounded by an audience of diners on nicely upholstered stools. As one wag remarked, Scott Pickett now has a restaurant in his kitchen.
ESP feels somewhere between a gamble and a thrown gauntlet. There's the slightly pretentious, talking-about-yourself-in-the-third-person feel of the name (short for Estelle by Scott Pickett), the seven-course dégustation-only menu, and then there's the simple fact of opening a restaurant so very different from everything else in its neighbourhood. Pickett isn't messing around here.
The restaurant is like the ultimate firework explosion in a busy 12-month display that has seen Pickett release a self-titled book, play host on a reality TV show and refit and relaunch his successful Estelle Bar & Kitchen, right next door, as the user-friendly Estelle Bistro. When you factor in his co-ownership of Collingwood hotspot Saint Crispin and its upstairs bar, Thomas Olive, you might wonder whether even someone with Pickett's reputation for energy and passion might start to flag under the onslaught.
He doesn't. And by the look of some of the dishes emerging from ESP's enormous kitchen, he's been energised by the challenge.
One of the best of these dishes comes at the end of the meal. It's a dessert called "Violet, Milk and Chocolate", and it's so gorgeous in its dark and understated way that it seems almost like it was designed with the room's décor in mind.
There's a pearlescent, softly glimmering cap of milk tuile resting on a soft white quenelle of buttermilk sorbet. There's a mousse made from Daintree milk chocolate surrounded by small dark purple dollops of violet caramel, violet petals and a tumble of frozen chocolate and mint "pebbles", spooned onto the dish at the table from a copper pot wafting liquid-nitrogen vapour.
It's a classic Pickett moment, one of those where you remember that beyond all the other stuff on his CV and the Aussie bloke-bluster, there's a talented chef who knows how to cook really well. This dessert nails it: just the right amount of flair, the right number of elements, a great variety of textures and flavours that surprise - a pop of bitterness, a simultaneous flare of mint and violet - and sometimes threaten to fight but then settle together as if that was the way it was always meant to be.
That quality is also there at the beginning of the meal when a trio of meticulously constructed snacks looking like little sculptures lands on the table.
There's a tiny pillow of crisp potato filled with taramasalata, topped with squid ink-dark sea pearls and finished with shaved bottarga, a combination that seems somehow both obvious and revelatory. Then there's a take on a parmesan biscuit, flavoured with lemon myrtle and an oddly beautiful fried Jerusalem artichoke cracker, topped with herby bavarois and fried saltbush leaves.
They're satisfying little mouthfuls that, like the dessert, all seem carefully considered in the context of everything else at ESP. They blend with the textured crockery, the dark monogrammed napkins, the elegant timber-handled cutlery, the house-made butter in its stone dish.
The wine list, too, is part of the harmony. Sommelier James Dossan is a calmly enthusiastic presence on the floor, and has assembled a list that's easy to navigate, mixing benchmark names from near and far (Mount Mary, Denis Pommier) with smaller and boutique names, such as Philippa Farr and Pachamama. He appears to have a preference for old-school, Old World winemaking, but though there's more than a few ways to blow bucks on, say, Champagne (2002 Billecart-Salmon Cuvée "Nicolas-Francois") or Burgundy (2010 Domaine de Courcel Pommard "Clos Des Epeneaux" 1er Cru), there's also plenty of reasonably priced, good-drinking wine on the eight-page list. The affordable drinking's a nice touch, one that taps into the democratic, something-for-everybody spirit that made the original Estelle such a hit with the locals.
Locals looking for a quick bite to eat are not top of the agenda at ESP, though. It leaves that end of the spectrum to its sibling bistro, where oysters and charcuterie rule. Instead, ESP aspires to be a member of the Attica school, positioning itself as a place of pilgrimage punters are willing to cross town for, lay down $130 and be fed with no choice of what they're eating beyond dietary restrictions.
There are good reasons to do so, though at times Pickett's enthusiasm for ingredients and technique can end with too many of them on the one plate.
This happens with a mud crab dish that includes a quite lovely vadouvan sauce, a golden raisin purée, and a curried cauliflower purée as part of the mix. All good on their own, the flavours tend to drown themselves out in all the noise.
There's no such problem with an exquisite dish of onions and black truffles that includes a gorgeous truffle custard, a sharp-as-a-tack roast onion consommé, charred edged little onion cups and lovely little hot pickled Japanese artichokes that add zesty, crisp, sweet and sour notes to the proceedings. Glimmering at the bottom of a dark, textured bowl, it's a brilliant-tasting dish that also matches the room perfectly.
Also good is a dish of kingfish (pictured), simply cured in sea salt, lime juice and sugar, blowtorched, then covered by a dramatic glistening black sheet of jelly made from kingfish heads and squid ink. Sitting with it on the plate are salt-baked turnips, puffed rice, a vibrant yellow lemon-peel purée and splashes of squid-ink sauce. Busy-busy-busy it may be, but here, at least, all the players have a part to play.
There's successful busyness on show again with roasted topside and rump pieces of White Rocks veal joining superb poached and pan-roasted sweetbreads, a white eggplant purée, creamed silverbeet, hand-rolled macaroni and mustard leaf. There's a lot going on, but though it might sound like a recipe for a car crash, with Pickett at the wheel the dish and all its passengers safely stay on course.
The transition from savoury to sweet courses happens in stages. First is a sweet-savoury course, a pretty thing with refreshing sorrel granita sitting alongside a macadamia-nut mousse, a rosella and hibiscus gel and shavings of caramelised white chocolate. It's followed by a potential future ESP signature, a small serve - in a large glass - of freshly squeezed juice. This night, it's a superb combination of blood orange and fresh horseradish that's refreshing and cleansing with a super-attractive lick of background heat at the end. Not only that, it performs its task of preparing the palate (for the chocolate and violet dessert) faultlessly. It's a simple but deft touch.
Over the course of his career, both working for others (including The Square in London and The Point in Melbourne) and opening his own restaurants, Pickett has shown remarkable levels of energy, commitment and passion for his profession. He's also proved himself to be a talented restaurateur with a great eye for detail and a good sense of the zeitgeist. With ESP, though, he's favoured passion over zeitgeist. Rather than scour the market for gaps, he's put together the restaurant that he has always wanted to open. It's a pretty brave move, to hang the expense in a crowded market, but the attention to detail, depth of experience and the obvious love of the game are all in his favour. He's done it before and it seems like he's done it again.