The team at Lûmé hasn't been shy about oversharing in the lead-up to the opening of their restaurant. The "watch this space" messages were regular in the months (and months) before it opened: the slow-drip releases about their ambition to be the best in the world, the slo-mo, rock-scored YouTube clips featuring back lanes and Asian fishmongers, a series of preview dinners held offsite, a posturing anti-food photography stance and a couple of shots across the bows of the Melbourne dining scene.
When the likeable low-key personalities of owner-chefs Shaun Quade (formerly of the Royal Mail, Quay, Biota Dining and Urbane) and JP Fiechtner (who counts Hong Kong's Bo Innovation and Paris's Le Chateaubriand among his ports of call) were given some air, the tone came across more as food-geek enthusiasm than arrogant swagger. But by the time the doors to Lûmé eventually opened, all the talk made it feel like they were promising a miracle. What could possibly go wrong?
The good news is that Lûmé delivers on many of its many promises. More than delivers at times. And given that it's a new restaurant run by first-time owner-operators, the air is thick with potential.
It's exciting watching this young team giving it their all. They may not come up with the goods every time, but the misses are not due to a shortfall in skill, talent or ideas. It's more that those skills, talents and ideas can get a little out of control.
The hit-and-miss rollercoaster ride is most obvious in the three hour-plus dégustation menu. Though 15 or more courses ask much of the diner, there are some truly inspired moments along the way.
A gorgeous and beautifully realised dish comprising an oyster smoked over vine clippings, teamed with sea succulents, a ribbon of raw turnip and another "oyster" fashioned from celeriac, fish stock and squid ink is exciting, refreshing and appealingly textural.
An oddly appealing oat congee (steel-cut oats cooked in fish stock) has in its depths a squid-ink parfait of calamari entrails, brined and then marinated in yoghurt whey and vanilla, adding layers of flavour and complexity.
Then there's a quince and duck-liver dish where slices of quince, dehydrated and then cooked in butter and sage, arrive looking like the duck liver, and the liver comes in the form of a pool of parfait that could pass, at first glance, as quince. It's a solid dish; the sleight-of-hand visual trick doesn't overpower how well the flavours and textures play with each other.
Quade and Fiechtner obviously like trickery, the kind of culinary form-not-following-function gag that Heston Blumenthal is so fond of at The Fat Duck.
The tricks come throughout the meal and among them are some real surprises. A smoked croissant is served with what looks like a small washed-rind cheese, which turns out to be a disc of rich creamy cauliflower cheese. A dish called "sea corn and dairy cow" sees crab turned into a custard and placed in a baby corn-shaped mould, salted cow udder shredded and blowtorched to look like crab meat, and fried corn silk and a polenta chip on behalf of the corn element.
And then there's one of the desserts, a quite spectacular combination of flavours, colours and ingredients. A cacao pod made of chocolate is smashed open at the table to reveal a small crowd of multicoloured goodies: tobacco Wizz Fizz, currant jelly, an orange-flavoured crema Catalana, Granny Smith apples compressed in strawberry syrup and absinthe. They are there to reflect the flavour profile of the Papua New Guinean chocolate as it moves from its raw form to its current state.
It's pretty obvious that many ideas have been bouncing around in the heads of these two chefs, and that their agenda involves pushing a few boundaries and buttons. En masse and in lengthy dégustation form, though, it can feel as if the idea of light and shade has perhaps not been fully considered.
Sometimes there's a straining for effect that can take some of the fun out of eating, as in the "native bird" dish that you're encouraged to eat with your hands. It consists of cured, seasoned and hung emu meat that's not particularly attractive to look at and presents as a bit of a substandard and curiously bland jerky. It's an idea of a dish that would have benefited from a few return trips to the drawing board.
But Lûmé is driven by a philosophy of experimenting, mixing things up, questioning the way things are, particularly when it comes to the structure of fine dining.
It's certainly the road that sommelier Sally Humble has taken with the wine. The list's introduction says that "rather than a 'traditional' wine list organised purely by varieties, we have constructed the selection in an intentionally 'disorganised' manner, to keep you searching".
Whether you find this irritating or exciting is entirely up to you, but there's plenty of great stuff on the list from all over the world, though with a definite emphasis on Australian producers.
Organising the wines by countries and regions rather than varieties, and then spotlighting Australian terroir by featuring key local producers (there are multiple listing from the likes of Wendouree, Bannockburn, Cullen and Yarra Yering), is a clever way of shaking up the way you might normally negotiate a lengthy list such as this. It almost forces you out of your comfort zone, but within the safe parameters of Humble's keen palate.
Taking the matching option with the dégustation menu also generates some very interesting pairings. The combination of a 1999 Nakano BC "Chokyu", a deep-coloured sake with an almost bouillon-type nose, and a superb chicken dish that's been cooked sous-vide in chamomile and teamed with a creamy salt-cured egg yolk and a pennyroyal-flavoured oil is slightly strange, almost a little awkward but kind of wonderful, too.
It's a description that matches the room. Lûmé is housed in a former burlesque lounge that was once a couple of adjoining single-storey terrace houses, on a quiet stretch of Coventry Street. Money has been splashed on it, but the budget has obviously had its limits.
There are three rooms, the best at the front where the open kitchen and the marble and oak bar are located. The large back room lacks a little in atmosphere, though it does have a retractable roof, which could make it prime position when the nights turn balmy.
The flatteringly lit front room has a timber and salmon-pink colour scheme, some half-mast curtains that serve as a room divider down one end and a rough plastered wall bearing some mock-caveman art. With banquettes, ceramic light fittings and some lovely cutlery from Portugal, the room feels like a crash of genres (the '80s and Scandinavia are certainly in the mix), some of which get on better than others.
Some of the seats, including those at the tables in the middle of the room in front of the open kitchen, can leave you feeling a little exposed. Those at the bar are where the room works the best.
Some might say the same about the bar menu. Quade and Fiechtner's more casual à la carte side channels Parisian bistronomy and shows the solid culinary skills that form the core of Lûmé's appeal. There's still plenty of imagination at work, but in a more relaxed and low-key fashion.
There are excellent oysters (served out of their shell) from Tasmania's Duck Bay and big-flavoured charcuterie that's sliced French-style rather than the more common (for Melbourne) thinner Italian shavings. There's an inspired dish of house-made ricotta teamed with smoked honey and shaved bottarga, and flank steak paired with a tumble of glistening mushrooms topped with shards of coconut. A lovely disc of roasted pumpkin is capped by pumpkin seeds and a bright yellow sauce made with vadouvan, the French masala-like spice mix. Superb chocolate-mousse "eggs", the rich mousse sealed in tempered chocolate, are cleverly teamed with a pale-yellow lemon marmalade.
Add fried duck nuggets and duck-fat brioche topped with shaved Manjimup truffles to the roster and you could imagine Lûmé's bar (or Front Room, as it's currently known) slipping easily onto the regular agenda.
The dégustation menu at Lûmé is polarising. Fifteen or more courses are a big ask, both because of the time it takes to consume them and in the way the complex, sometimes challenging nature of every course calls attention to itself. You have to concentrate. Still, the $140 price tag is marginally less frightening than those on some of the other multi-course menus around town and there's real commitment and inspiration at play here. Throw in a young and enthusiastic staff good at selling the wonders of each course (thankfully in a not-too-wordy fashion), a very interesting wine list and a quirky room and there are plenty of selling points.
Fiechtner and Quade may not yet have achieved all they promised, but there's nothing at Lûmé to suggest that they can't or won't. Truly, watch this space.