When Brent Savage and Nick Hildebrandt open something new, people rock up. Simple as that. Never mind if it's early December, the pinnacle of party season. Or that we're faced with an ongoing staff shortage and a supposed cost-of-living crisis. On opening night at King Clarence, the sixth addition to the restaurateurs' esteemed stable, none of this seems to matter.
Fresh off a fully booked lunch service, the 100-seater is somehow still fizzing with energy at dinnertime. Grilled rock lobsters, prised live from the tank and sauced in gochugaru and plum vinegar, are making their way onto every third table. Bottles of German riesling, grower Champagne and grenache from the Rhône are being uncorked left, right and centre. Some of the floor team may be more unseasoned than others, but they're clearly committed and, for day one, hiccups are few and far between.
You could argue there's a certain framework that defines a Bentley Group restaurant, and much of it is in place here, from the prime CBD location to longtime co-conspirator Pascale Gomes-McNabb's sleek-lined, sharp-edged interior design. Let's call it "Nordic izakaya chic". As always, the wine list – overseen by the sure-footed Polly Mackeral – is as astute as ever. And, underpinning all this, there's the lustre you'd expect from two operators who've shaped the finer end of Australian dining for nearly two decades.
Where King Clarence charts a different course from its progenitors is in the kitchen, headed up by Khanh Nguyen, whose focus is the flavours of Korea, China and Japan. He's a gifted chef, and if career-making innings at Sunda and Aru in Melbourne proved anything, it's that he loves to juxtapose. Just look at the fish finger bao, his unapologetic two-bite homage to the McDonald's Filet-O-Fish, American cheese and all, gussied up with pickled chilli, mustard greens and a spoonful of salmon roe. If it sounds gimmicky, know that it tastes like a newfound guilty pleasure.
This interplay between the East and West, the elevated and the everyday, characterises much of the menu's more adventurous side. Saucy, char-grilled chicken liver skewers are served over Vegemite toast, an iron-rich combination of abyssal depth that works far better than it has any right to. A feistily spiced play on mapo tofu, meanwhile, swaps minced pork for a tumble of chopped prawns, baby corn, smoked marrow and bouncy nubs of the Korean rice cakes known as garae-tteok.
Between all these bold, experimental ideas, there are also moments of quieter refinement. Malt vinegar tempers the smoky purr of tamari and house-made paperbark oil in a dressing that complements soft slices of torched bonito to a turn. Dry-aged duck, always a hit in Savage's hands, is a high-water mark once more, the flavour of the confit leg and roasted breast fully developed and sharpened by Davidson's plum.
Sure, this could all be summed up as pan-Asian pitched to a moneyed city crowd. That it manages to be both easy to like and more interesting than others in its class, however, is a credit to the chef-and-somm duo behind it. No one else could make it look so effortless.