The element of surprise is a valuable part of any restaurant's repertoire, particularly in an era of connected, swotted-up diners hungry for the untried and untasted. Figure in ever-increasing hordes of food bloggers jostling to be first through the door and you'd think that "surprise" and "restaurant" would have become mutually exclusive. Yet the Estelle manages it. By cobbling together two passionate, disparate talents and a quirky inherited room (and name) in a neighbourhood where price and quantity mostly trump quality, the Estelle (or Estelle Bar & Kitchen in its more formal moments) offers an experience both engaging and unexpected.
The shopfront on Northcote's gentrifying High Street taps into the neighbourhood's penchant for the retro and recycled with walls tiled in geometric, bathroom-like pink, black, white and grey, tables and the bartop fashioned from salvaged bowling alley timber, spindly metal-legged chairs and bar stools and a rustic wooden floor. Despite the modern lighting (elongated designer bulbs hanging from cords) you'd not be surprised to learn that the place served pasta and all-day breakfast. But when the food begins to land, any thoughts of Bircher muesli are mercifully blown to smithereens.
It starts with the appetisers that precede all the dégustation-only menus of three to nine courses. First to arrive are "fossils" made from mashed sardines and tapioca fried to a brittle white crispness, like a fishier, better-textured prawn cracker, embedded in whipped sour cream that keeps good rich time with the dry saltiness of the crackers. Next come decent chickpea chips, meticulously shaped into symmetrical rods and dusted with a black olive salt, a good idea but lacking some of the needed and expected crunch. And then comes the lightly pickled and compressed rockmelon and honeydew melon in juicy, tangy cubes, topped with a tiny dab of yoghurt and baby basil leaves and theatrically encased in cylinders of transparent potato starch that, refreshingly, are upfront about being purely for show.
Such food in such a setting is bound to have you swivelling around to check out who the hell's cooking in the semi-open kitchen at the back of the room. And, as the Estelle is something of a hands-on, DIY passion project for its two owner-chefs, you'll usually see both Scott Pickett and Ryan Flaherty either at the stoves or heading towards your table bearing your next course.
There's certainly something of the French bistronomy philosophy at work here, the type you might find in Paris at places like Le Chateaubriand or Frenchie where freedom is the buzzword and breaking away from the perceived regimentation of the traditional Michelin-dictated French food scene is the name of the game.
Though they don't have to rebel against a century or so of prescriptive guidebook domination, both chefs at Estelle have come from more formal or upmarket restaurants - Pickett from The Square and a lengthy and ratings-lifting stint at The Point, Flaherty from the likes of El Bulli, The Fat Duck and Arzak - and seem to be enthusiastically enjoying the absence of linen and designer flourishes here at their own joint. There's an energy to the place that comes from two chefs relishing doing their own thing in their own way, and with their quite different backgrounds and approaches, what ends up on the plate is both interesting and satisfying.
Not everything works - there's the occasional lead-balloon moment with over-enthusiastic plating and, in some dishes, the impression of boys with too many molecular toys - but mostly there's a great sense of an unpretentious attitude and of skill being flexed in the kitchen. In a suburb like Northcote, which still prides itself on its bohemian roots despite being increasingly well-heeled, it's a well targeted approach for a small, dég-only restaurant that needs to be able to pay its bills.
Both Flaherty and Pickett live locally, which could be why Estelle seems so well suited to its surrounds. There's an ever-increasing number of vegetarian dishes on the menu, and the opportunity for customers to go the full vegan sits nicely with the local zeitgeist. Pickett says he cooks a seven-course vegan dégustation every week for some regular customers.
Take the heirloom beetroot dish. Steamed, pickled and candied beets ranging from a deep black-purple through to a pale rose-pink look beautiful against the dark ceramic plate they share with translucent slices of peppery radish, a slightly sticky, vibrantly coloured orange gel, pea sprouts and, at the centre, goat's cheese covered in an "edible ash" made from crushed and dried black sesame lavosh. It's a strong dish with a confident spectrum of textures and a secure mixing of sweet, tangy and earthy flavours into an intelligible whole.
Then there's "celeriac, carrot and turmeric", in which crossed lengths of deep-purple heirloom carrots perch theatrically atop a deeply flavoured purée made from fried, then roasted, then blitzed celeriac, a scattering of crunchy turmeric-flavoured baguette crumbs, watercress shoots, and currants, soft and bloated after being soaked in thick, sweet Pedro Ximénez.
The Best of the Veg award, though, must surely go to a dish simply entitled "cauliflower", which sees roasted cauliflower blitzed, mixed with methylcellulose, rolled into a sausage and boiled for a couple of minutes. The sausage is lovely, full flavoured, smooth textured and sitting on a bed of cauliflower couscous and toasted crumbs flavoured with curry oil. It's a ripper of a dish, not to mention a classic of the mock-meat genre.
For those who want a little less mock and a little more meat, though, there's no shortage of the good stuff.
Two batons of glistening smoked eel from Skipton in western Victoria are teamed with sweet, intense, vibrant spatters of slow-cooked carrot reduction, a lovely pale gel made from set milk infused with camomile and dusted with black salt, some toasted brioche crumbs and, a lovely touch, celery that's been compressed with apple juice so it's peppery and sweet at the same time.
Scallops, large juicy things, are from Rottnest Island. They're beauties, subtly but insistently flavoured and well capable of making their presence felt in the company of black miso butter, seaweed and salty salmon roe.
For maximum meatiness, there's a Sher wagyu rump cap that's accompanied by excellent pickled and smoked wagyu tongue, celeriac rémoulade, confit king brown mushrooms and black fermented garlic vinaigrette. It's a good dish, powerfully flavoured and well cooked, but the presentation, especially the black mushroom purée splattered disconcertingly across the white plate, detracts a little from the experience.
There are no such worries with a dark, beautifully glistening dish of venison saddle, cooked sous vide then rolled on a smoking hot grill for chariness and surface texture, teamed with an Estelle version of sauce grand-veneur that includes dark, dark chocolate (99 per cent cocoa solids). The sauce, powerful and beautifully rounded, is accompanied by Jerusalem artichoke purée, fig and beetroot chutney, and, to offset all the rich sweetness, shaved raw broccoli stems and broccoli crumbs made from the florettes. It's an immensely successful dish, complex but not complicated.
The same can be said for the Estelle's front of house, where the default setting is relaxed friendliness teamed with the sort of flying-under-the-radar efficiency that's non-negotiable when it comes to managing and timing dégustation dining. The drinks list is also well suited to the style, exhibiting flexibility - a generous selection of wines by the glass, everything on the wine list available by 250ml carafe, two options for matching each course (classic or adventurous) - and a varied reach that includes a good range of sake, beer and cider alongside the list of 50:50 Old and New World wine labels.
This well considered approach also runs to desserts, which shy away from being too heftily sweet. Savoury notes of toasted pumpkin seeds underlie frozen sour cream, torn pieces of olive oil and vanilla sponge, salted caramel sauce and a sprinkling of tiny, intense mint leaves. The "chocolate garden", Ryan Flaherty's homage to Albert Adrià, mixes coffee gel, Griottines cherries, smoked-chocolate ice-cream and chocolate crostoli with cocoa and green licorice herb. These dishes are satisfying and interesting to eat without being too reliant on sugar.
There's another thing that's surprising about the Estelle and that's the price. It's not the sort of bargain that leaves you gasping before you even start a meal, but on completion, after spending some very pleasurable time being well looked after and consuming some seriously interesting food, you're left with the impression of great generosity. Not to mention hospitality. And so the only thing that's really not surprising here is the desire to return and do it all over again.