Melbourne has always been challenged in the spellbinding vistas department so it's no surprise that diners who like a room with a view have long held a flame for the 35th floor of the Sofitel. But, aside from the thrilling experience of watching daylight fade and the city - suddenly (impossibly) glamorous - begin to sparkle in every direction, there haven't been many reasons in recent years for food fans to brave the ear-popping lift ride.
The 2005 closure of Le Restaurant, with its tinkling grand piano and meticulous old-school service, seemed to spook the hotel's management, with the only real food and view option at the Sofitel after that being the decidedly average (and expensive) Café La. Last year saw Café La mercifully euthanised to make way for the hotel's new dining flagship, No 35, and suddenly there's a swag of good reasons to go and get a load of the view again.
It's interesting that a return to food form at the hotel coincides with the return of chef Stuart McVeigh, who came to Australia from England in 2003 to work at the Sofitel. After Le Restaurant closed, he worked at Fenix and Botanical, and his menu at No 35 seems informed by both places (and his stints at The Square and Pied à Terre in London), with a blend of complicated, sometimes experimental technique and a more rustic, big-flavoured approach where the ingredient is king. And so lamb rump is teamed with Soubise purée, or rabbit, broken down to a sum of its parts, shares a plate with artichoke, asparagus and vanilla foam.
In some ways, it's unmistakably five-star hotel food, particularly in terms of presentation and a penchant for keeping the flavours mild (though not bland), but there's obvious enthusiasm and passion present that's miles away from the often horrifying "international cuisine" dished up by many hotel restaurants. McVeigh's food isn't just for weary travellers seeking comfort, familiarity and sustenance but for diners who want to chew on more than just the scenery.
No 35 has, of course, had a refit to complement the rebranding and its masters have wisely chosen to keep the décor neutral and secondary to what the floor-to-ceiling windows offer. The dining room is L-shaped, with a mix of timber, marble and carpeted floors, anonymous but comfortable upholstered chairs, linen-covered tables, a hefty marble-topped waiters' station and a few bright spots given over to vibrantly coloured hanging twig sculptures by Mance Design and some busy abstract art on the walls. There's a raised communal table near the room's centre which adds a welcome element of relaxed and casual to the mix. If you come in daylight, No 35 still feels a little like a well-positioned hotel breakfast room (which it also is), but at night, with the lights dimmed to showcase the city splayed out all around, it becomes an event in itself.
The service and the wine list are the points where No 35 most obviously belongs to the international hotel breed. The uniformed floor staff are unfailingly polite and mostly efficient but are a little starched in a traditional "sir and madame" kind of way that grates with the more relaxed approach the room is attempting to project.
The wine list also plays it conservative with the mainly New World collection sticking to the tried and true (Katnook Estate, Cloudy Bay, Penfolds), with an occasional foray into something a little more boutique (Vanya Cullen's brilliant biodynamic 2006 Kevin John Chardonnay). It's a smart, cleverly focused list but also incredibly expensive, with some of the mark-ups verging on the gobsmacking. It's the most obvious reminder that this is, after all, a restaurant in a hotel that's part of an international chain.
The expense of the wine list is probably thrown into even greater relief by the fact that the food, for this venue and setting, is reasonably priced and generously portioned. McVeigh immediately projects his generosity and his style with the intricate appetisers that get the ball rolling. A sparkling green, slightly vinegary cucumber gazpacho with "yoghurt mozzarella" (slow-cooked yoghurt thickened with kuzu and formed into tiny, slightly lemony balls of soft white cheese), fresh horseradish, crunchy rye breadcrumbs, baby basil and purple basil leaves and flecks of candied lemon. Or perhaps a superb, slightly creamy cauliflower soup poured over some salty sweet Japanese-style eel. They're the kind of appetisers that should have a truth-in-naming award bestowed upon them.
A hand-rolled macaroni dish isn't just lovely to look at, with vibrant baby greens of broad beans, peas, zucchini and snow pea tendrils mixing it up with a bright yellow soft-poached egg and a pale green foam, but manages to meld crunch (vegetables), luxurious smoothness (a pea mousse) and slightly chewy (the lemon-scented pasta) qualities in a thoroughly inclusive way.
Also good in the small-course list (or No 1 as the menu insists) is a warm quail salad that arrives tumbled diagonally across a square plate, a mix of boned juicy bird, baby vegetables, a quietly powerful "gel" made from thickened caramelised onion stock, and some duck liver parfait.
Macleay Valley rabbit arrives as a large raviolo, filled with braised leg and shoulder meat mixed with chicken mousse, garlic and tarragon, and a boned-out saddle that is rolled in Alsace bacon. Baby artichokes and white asparagus also share the plate, the whole lot topped with a surprisingly successful vanilla foam, the vanilla being more of a hint or a scent than a flavour.
A main course sibling of the vegetarian macaroni is the herb gnocchi, steamed then slightly browned in the pan before being tossed with golden oyster mushrooms and baby vegetables of the radish/carrot/pea ilk, and topped with nettles and chives. It's a glistening, slippery winner of a dish.
Another winner, and possibly the most robust dish on the menu, is the John Dory, its skin slightly caramelised, teamed with a superb sardine purée, all tomato and garlic and lemon zest, a rich squid-ink risotto and shreds of calamari dusted with tiny flecks of toasted garlic.
Suckling pig, with meat from the belly, head and legs salted, brushed, steamed and pressed into various forms, is also good with its accompanying confit cabbage (cooked in duck fat) and a jam-like onion and sultana purée, though the sweet end of the meal can take the experimental side a little too far. Sometimes, as with a deconstructed raspberry trifle, complete with aerated white chocolate and dried berry meringue, things are slightly crazy though certainly functional, but the warm carrot cake with curry ice-cream should have been knocked on the head before it left the drawing board.
It's great to see the Sofitel dining room with its mojo back, feeling confident enough to employ a chef with the skill to take some of the attention away from the view. McVeigh's food finally gives the glittering vista the respect it deserves.