I know restaurant critics are not supposed to be excited by something as prosaic as a potato chip. Foie gras and Alba truffles, real caviar and the air-dried flesh of acorn-fed Ibérico pigs - everything that is unobtainable and unaffordable - should shovel grist into our ever-grinding mills. And I do love them all. But I'm also in love, just a little bit, with a potato chip. Clearly, this is no ordinary chip. But then, Paul Wilson is no ordinary cook.
Proving once again there's no such thing as a new idea, Wilson gladly gives credit where it's due, to Heston Blumenthal, for the method behind his thrice-cooked russet potatoes at Half Moon, Brighton's born-again-pub-cum-fish-temple. The result is a dry, golden, firm and straight crisp shell revealing a core of hot, fluffy white potato of wonderful flavour. It's the sort of thing good sea salt was put on earth to partner.
In isolation, it's not a big thing, but in the case of Half Moon, reborn under the direction of Cornerstone Hotels, which owns and runs The Botanical, it's just one of a series of small things that ramp satisfaction levels up to a mighty volume. Others include its excellent bread; salty, almost truffle-like wakame butter for the table; seven different condiments; plus soda bread for the most splendid oyster selection in Melbourne.
Attention to detail is Wilson's mantra. These days, he goes by the rather lofty title of director of food at The Bot and now the Half Moon. It's odd because he's not really a titles sort of guy; he's a gentle man who values humility and likes his food to do the talking.
At the root of The Bot's identity is Wilson's big and generous modern food, which is characterised by his uncanny ability to team assertive flavours and produce a cohesive whole. The restaurant is that rare thing: aplace with serious foodie cred and critical appeal, yet a very broad audience. There's something for most degrees of culinary adventure.
And why all this talk of The Bot? Well, as a dinner companion recently suggested of Half Moon, "It's The Bot with carpet." And seafood.
A pub with a long history in Melbourne's smartest bayside suburb, the newly renovated Half Moon marks Wilson's career development beyond chef to executive (or managing) chef. But fear not. Wilson is a kitchen man, not an office dweller, and his influence at Half Moon is seafood. Great seafood.
In chef Stephen Burke, an Irishman who took North Melbourne's Court House to widespread acclaim, Wilson has a particularly skilled lieutenant. As a result, in just one year, Half Moon has leapfrogged Melbourne's rather thin ranks of quality fish places to take a seat at the head of the table. Wilson planned to do for seafood what he successfully developed at The Bot with beef and steak. The focus is on produce: fish that are caught from day boats or are sustainably farmed; oysters from diverse specialist producers that focus on terroir and newer growing techniques; and unusual offerings based on relationships with suppliers, such as rock ling 'cheeks'.
Brighton is a conservative area and also a notoriously fickle restaurant market in Melbourne. As a result, perhaps, the massive refit of Half Moon's interior - blond, bare timber tables, white marble and sensible furniture and furnishings - places it at the safer end of the spectrum. Its clean, contemporary smart beach-house look is accessible, without making any kind of serious design statement, although commissioned artworks by Melbourne's designer-to-the-restaurant-elite David Band will add some oomph to the space soon enough. Until then, you'll go home remembering more about the service - and the food.
When you order oysters at Half Moon - maybe the minerally Moonlight Flat Rusty Wires from NSW or the fruity and superb (if tiny) Kumamoto fingerlings from the grower Pristine at Coffin Bay in SA - they come opened to order on a kilo of crushed ice with lemon cheeks and a pot of red wine vinegar and shallot dressing. There's a separate plate of soda bread and another plate of yet more condiments in their own funky polished steel pots: wakame butter, two Tabasco sauces, a soy/chilli/ginger/mirin dressing, native lime 'caviar' and gazpacho sauce.
Yes, perfect oysters - carefully sourced, sublimely fresh and skilfully opened - are always going to be expensive. But rarely are they given added value with this kind of generosity. Half Moon offers at least seven different oysters, including (currently) some massive wild-caught Tasmanian Pacifics from St Helens in shells weighing in at about the half-kilo mark. They're an acquired taste.
The starters menu, in particular, has the Wilson stamp; his justifiably famous poached egg and truffled polenta, for example. It brought him acclaim at his very first gig in Australia, at the ill-fated Georges Brasserie. But any Wilson aficionado - I count myself one of the many - would recognise the DNA behind a brilliant entrée of sticky caramelised pork belly teamed with a simply perfect ruby-coloured disc of peanut-crusted yellowfin tuna. There's also a layer of a Thai-inspired julienned vegetable and herb salad between the tuna and a base of sweet, cooling watermelon that has been cut into a perfect red circle, finished with a subtle peanut and lime sauce.
It's another affirmation of Wilson's way with Asian flavours, as well as his uncanny ability to throw many different elements into the mix and come up with a stimulating, deeply satisfying result where so many other chefs might fail. On a similar palate wavelength are raw Lakes Entrance scallops served with native lime and a tiny fresh herb salad with Vietnamese accents: hot mint, fish sauce and chilli.
Far more 'restauranty' than most Wilson dishes is a three-part presentation of Mediterranean-inspired delicacies: warm octopus with chorizo and smoked kipfler potato in a mayo binding; an escabeche of Coorong mullet and artichoke with lemon, mint and green chilli; and raw tuna served with an orange-spiked peperonata finished with basil and sherry vinegar.
But definitely simpler is the dish of rock ling 'cheeks'. Grilled a la plancha (that is, on a flat Spanish-style iron grill plate) and served, after simmering in a bacon broth, with flageolet beans and tiny new asparagus spears, it's a brilliant little surprise.
There are also the huge Queensland tiger prawns, so-called 'leader' prawns, that have been split, filled each side with an Ortiz anchovy, soaked in an oil, garlic and Pedro Ximénez sherry marinade, then grilled on the plate and served with anchovy butter and fresh mint. They really are something else.
Another starter of New Zealand-farmed freshwater salmon, seared and served as a carpaccio with a panzanella salad and sea urchin vinaigrette, was the only let-down for me. It's a nice idea and had great flavours, but I'm not so sure about this (new to Australia) fish. The texture just lacked integrity, to me anyway.
Half Moon is putting a lot of faith in the idea that a selection of the market's three best fish simply prepared (that is, cooked on the grill plate and served with fresh herbs and olive oil) will be the basis of a lot of its meals. Just add a salad (say, organic cauliflower, borlotti, black olive and celery with tuna dressing) or potato for two and you've got your mains. And once you've seen a waiter at your table with a plate of three magnificent fresh whole fish (red gurnard, snapper and coral trout both times I've been), it seems a realistic proposition.
The onus is back on the quality of the produce, and when I tried the gurnard it was outstanding. But, being a fan of Wilson's big-flavour combinations, I'd opt for something that shows off his grandiose style - every time. His flounder, for example, is a favourite. A whole fish is sealed, then gently braised in the oven in jamón stock and salsa verde, fresh wakame, peas, broad beans and, at the end, baby clams. It comes out to the table looking quite the jolly green giant, but the fish is simply perfect: elastic skin, firm, Arctic-white flaky flesh and the right acidity from the sauce to make it all balance. Needless to say, you'll be needing chips.
Two words recur whenever I eat a meal cooked - or at least conceived - by Wilson: big and generous. It is simply the nature of one of Australia's best chefs, who expresses himself through his food. So much so, there is rarely a lot of latitude at the meal's end to embrace the dessert menu with quite the gusto it perhaps warrants. I apologise.
But I go to restaurants to eat, not merely to sample. And so I can also offer you feedback on the desserts. I chose a classic seasonal poached fruit offering and it was exceptional. Like his savoury food, Wilson gets away with throwing plenty of things at one dish and making it stick. In this case, Pedro Ximénez-poached pears are roasted with cinnamon, then teamed with bitter dark chocolate sorbet, praline ice-cream, toasted walnuts, more praline, golden honeycomb along with chocolate tuile. It's quite old-fashioned, but it's not the only dish on the menu waving the nostalgia flag (see elsewhere on the menu for the 70s-style prawn cocktail, or the snapper and garfish pie).
There will be people who visit Half Moon for fish and chips and steak and, as was always the case at The Bot, they will leave replete and happy. And there will be others who go for a rather fascinating insight into one man's development, from classically trained London chef to New World convert. Half Moon offers an insight to all those parts of Wilson's professional life and work, from his complex teaming of proteins, vegetables and distinct Asian flavours to create unique dishes, right down to his knack for making a not-so-particularly-humble chip.
A great Australian restaurant in the making.