Could it be true? Is curly parsley a candidate for redemption? Dave Verheul thinks so, backing his claim with one of the best dishes at Lesa.
The parsley is the supporting act to arrow squid, which is sliced into sheets, warmed in buttery, garlicky clam stock, then laid in folds in a shallow bowl, like a pristine white cloth. The curly parsley is also braised in clam stock, its scratchy texture banished. Broad beans, lemon and some koji join the braised parsley, with a garlic and pistachio paste alongside. It's a gorgeous-looking dish, like everything that precedes and follows it, but it's the fine grasp of flavour and texture, the perfectly judged temperature and the parsley rehabilitation that really impress.
Lesa has been a while in coming, so you could say it needed to deliver. Verheul and business partner Christian McCabe first mooted the idea of a restaurant in the space upstairs from their wine bar Embla three years ago and the feverish anticipation almost turned rancid as months, then years, ticked by.
That extended gestation was not in service of a radical departure – things just took a long time. Lesa exhibits a similar palate and philosophy to Embla; in architect Allistar Cox's subtly lit fit-out textured with timber and exposed brick, in a wine list laden with compelling bio wines, in food that's often flavoured by flame, and in plates that frequently involve things raw, fermented and pickled.
It's more evolution than revolution, but when it's a benchmark wine bar and one of Melbourne's most interesting chefs doing the evolving, it's worth close attention. Lesa brings structure to the equation. The menu is set-course (two, four or six), bookings recommended.
The furniture – antique tables, leather-upholstered chairs, low-slung timber banquette – signals clearly that this is a restaurant, not a bar. The green-tiled open kitchen is larger and sleeker than Embla's compact, rustic steampunk version.
Verheul has used the extra space and time for further experiments in fermentation and minimalist presentation. New Zealand flounder, raw and finely diced, is capped with hazelnut miso paste and sits in a bright acidic dressing made from pear-leaf oil and the juice of fermented green-almond shells.
Raw veal is mixed with a rich, almost meaty, smoked, dried and fermented tomato paste in a tartare, while a brilliant, pale chicken porridge, thickened with almond milk and sourdough breadcrumbs, is finished with shavings of black fermented chestnuts that look like shaved truffles, but have a fascinatingly sour, nutty flavour. If the caviar supplement is offered, say yes. The fishy salty blast elevates an already heady, indulgent dish.
Balls of green apple, poached in sugar syrup flavoured with elderflower vinegar and rosemary, are served with artichokes that have been preserved and lightly fermented under sugar, which makes them fragrant and slightly caramelly. These come with a generous chunk of chamomile ice-cream dipped in a nicely acidic mix of finely chopped fennel fronds, dill and chervil.
It's food well suited to a wine list that leans natural, but isn't doctrinaire. The wine edit at Lesa is as much about the young and funky as it is at Embla, but it also lists back vintages of Burgundy and rare wines from private cellars that McCabe has accumulated. The glassed-in wine cellar, a feature at one end of the dining room, is like a statement, a commitment to a less prescriptive wine regime, where minerally biodynamic Cobaw Ridge "Il Pinko" rosé sits comfortably alongside beautifully structured white Burgundy from Jean-Marc Pillot and bright, finessed terrano from Italian producer Benjamin Zidarich.
Pretty much anything on the list would go with the potato flatbread that comes with a dark, intense slick of shiitake oil and a macadamia cream, given floral acidity with cherry-blossom vinegar. Order it.
Lesa does clever, intricate food, subtle in its tricks and presentation and committed to ethical ingredients and vegetable-forward dishes.
The well-planned restraint is echoed in the service style, which is low-key attentive, and informative when needed. The waiters are personable, without trying to join the conversation.
Lesa means "to gather" in Old Norse. It works, and not just because the room, the food and a fashionable reputation make gathering here a safe bet. Lesa, by taking its time, has also gathered experience and confidence. It has arrived fully formed, and it feels like we'll be gathering here for some time.