Wood-fired warmth gently caressing your face: it's a great opening gambit. Nothing says welcome quite like it, particularly on a frigid Melbourne night with the heat coming from glowing embers in an open kitchen about to cook your dinner. How all this heat-in-face will play during summer remains to be seen, but given how meticulously conceived everything else is at Matilda, chances are the matter has already been considered.
Confidence in owner-chef Scott Pickett's first southside restaurant is not misplaced. There's the track record (ESP, Estelle, Saint Crispin, Pickett's Deli), but there's also the roast Macedon duck, dry-aged for 14 days, hot-smoked on cherry wood, then glazed with leatherwood honey and finished in the woodfired oven so its skin crackles and shines. The crown is brought to the table to be admired, then whisked away for carving. It returns as slices of pink juicy breast with a glazed drumstick, skewers of grilled duck heart, charred orange slices and a burnt-orange purée. On the side are lit little parcels of duck leg, pickled cabbage and choy sum that you eat with your fingers. The play of flavour and texture is superb, and it's generous. What's also remarkable is how precisely the duck is cooked, coming from a spanking-new kitchen using the sometimes tricky medium of wood and smoke.
Pickett has done his homework. He bought the kitchen equipment – smokers, oven, grills, rôtisserie – months before it would be installed in the restaurant under the new boutique hotel United Places. He and his team fired it up off-site to discern its strengths and foibles. The intel has been put to good use on a menu where smoke and char are almost always present but never overplayed.
The bone marrow in the crust on the Rusty Wire oysters is gently smoked, as is the bonito cream that fills the tiny, brilliant tartlets overflowing with fat orange salmon eggs. Sweet Fraser Island crab mixed with crème fraîche, finger lime and sea blite and served in a crab shell is accompanied by butter flavoured with prawn powder an cute round flatbreads, finished on the grill so they arrive slightly smoky. Then there's the Matilda tarte Tatin, a superb, glossy, sticky, chewy, charred version of the species made with Pink Lady apples and teamed with ice-cream made with smoked cream and milk and infused with vanilla bean. Don't miss it.
Matilda does this kind of sheer enjoyment well; dishes are unfussy, driven by quality ingredients, and served in generous proportions. There's an undercurrent of casual luxury about the place, both with the ingredients on the plate – name-brand beef, oysters, fish roe, kangaroo (the tartare with fermented peppers is another must) – and a gorgeously designed room that positions the restaurant as a clubhouse for South Yarra locals and those who love them. Projects of Imagination take the design honours here and they've gone for moody light, muscular timber, leather and brick.
There's an Australian 1970s palette in both the dining room and in Oscar's, the downstairs bar, with beautiful Aussie-timber joinery, illuminated display cases of artfully placed produce and brown leather upholstery sitting under a scalloped ceiling of ochre-coloured perforated ply. It's glamorous and comfortable, possessing the kind of buzz that was once the hook for its Domain Road neighbour, The Botanical, in its Chris Lucas-Paul Wilson heyday.
The drinks list suits its crowd and genre, focused on the classic end of the winemaking spectrum without excluding great wines from small makers like William Downie pinot noir or S.C. Pannell's "Amuse" white blend. Otherwise it's quality labels from known Old and New World quantities, with plenty of local-friendly sub-$100 prices that can make a second bottle seem both reasonable and feasible on a weeknight
Matilda is the name of Scott Pickett's daughter, Oscar the name of his son. You'd imagine there might be pressure to succeed, if just to avoid ruinous therapy bills later down the track. But there's no sign of tension or overreach here. This is Pickett's most fully realised and relaxed restaurant, comfortable in its skin, confident in its output, great fun to eat in. South Yarra is lucky to have it.