Pascale Bar & Grill gets points just for being what it is: a glamorous upscale hotel restaurant and bar with aspirations of being a legitimate player on the city's dining scene.
Melbourne's high-end hotel dining rooms mostly play it safe with risk-free menus, steep prices and a deathless addiction to buffets ensuring that the demographic skews distinctly to in-house guest. Not so at QT Melbourne's flagship diner, where the hotel group's signature decorative razzle-dazzle combines with well-sourced local produce, contemporary technique and an accessible (if at times bonkers) food style to make it as much a draw for those without a room key as those spending the night.
Neon sculptures at entrance.
The bonkers end of Pascale's spectrum arrives in a variety of forms but a dessert called Rustic Chocolate Stove best represents the freewheeling approach. Stove? As it turns out, it's exactly that, an old-timey looking miniature stove complete with splashback and burners all made from Callebaut couverture. A velvet praline cake covered in lacquered chocolate makes up the bulk of the stove, and the three tiny saucepans on it are filled with different sauces (caramel, raspberry and chocolate ganache) but otherwise it's a scale model all-chocolate cooking appliance.
Why there's a stove made out of chocolate on the menu is hard to say. But by the time it lands, you'll have already gleaned that measured, coherent culinary messages are not what Pascale is about.
The entrance is something of a giveaway, a flight of electric-blue carpeted stairs rising from a hotel lobby that's jittery with constantly looping video art. You pass sculptures made from neon and towering stacks of trashy paperbacks and a stuffed peacock, arriving at the top with the grill and open kitchen backdrop, and glassed-in "pastry cube" to the right and the bar, complete with free-standing wine cellar and, often, a head-bobbing DJ to the left.
Pascale feature wall.
Even without the beats Pascale has a nightclub vibe, an exuberantly gaudy-glam sheen. It's a refreshing approach in a town where tastefully low-key is considered the default setting. You can have fun here, it says. Let your hair down.
It's imperative, given that this is an upscale hotel dining experience, that you head for pre-dinner drinks in the lounge where young women in chic cocktail dresses circle the large central bar bearing trays of drinks. The lighting is suitably dim, the music a small step back from intrusive and the multitude of seating options - bar stools, raised communal tables, small round tables, low-slung leather banquettes, high-backed armchairs huddled together over tiny tables in darkened corners - give the place an attractively clandestine air.
The cocktails are reasonably well constructed and the list runs to retro classics such as the Grasshopper alongside a page of signature drinks that include a G&T with an elderflower and quinine syrup and sparkling cucumber water, and an Espresso Martini that throws chestnut liqueur, shaved chestnuts and chocolate walnut bitters in the mix.
There's a list of bar snacks, too, and it's here that the enthusiastic stylings of the QT group's creative food director Robert Marchetti (formerly Maurice Terzini's collaborator in the kitchen at Giuseppe, Arnaldo & Sons in Melbourne and Sydney's Icebergs and North Bondi Italian Food), and executive chef Paul Easson (an alumnus of Melbourne's Rockpool Bar & Grill who headed the kitchen at QT Sydney's Gowings) make their love of flavour very clear.
Grilled garlic prawns with mint and shallot salad and lemon mayonnaise.
Onion rings are crumbed in polenta, fried and served with a super-salty squid-ink mayonnaise. Thai-flavoured minced pork is studded with green chillies and served on fried bread with a fiery sambal. Bao are stuffed with fried chicken, hot sauce, American cheese and kimchi.
"Subtle" is not the word. Neither is "restraint". But who's looking for subtle in a place where the wallpaper is patterned with saucy black-and-white illustrations, and the arrangement of red roses in the centre of dining room is big enough to have emptied a couple of greenhouses? The more-is-more theme continues in the restaurant: leather and brass furniture, brass-topped tables, candles, mirrors and thick, patterned carpets laid over a dark-stained timber floor.
Then you're handed a menu of nearly 50 dishes.
Why have three wood-fired steaks when you could have six? Potato sides? There are four: twicecooked chips, French fries, Paris mash, salt-baked sweet potato. The line between generous and overwhelming is a tricky one, but mostly Pascale hews to the right side.
That said, it's not just the carte that's busy; there's a lot happening on the plate as well.
A pretty dish of raw cobia is accompanied by pomegranate seeds, chopped fennel, pieces of nicely sour ruby grapefruit and crackling-like puffs made from freeze-dried white "balsamic" vinegar. Then there's chopped raw tuna mixed with kimchi, bonito flakes, sesame oil, pickled carrots and seaweed crackers.
There are obvious reasons to yell "stop" here. The quality of the central ingredients might allow them to hold their own under the considerable onslaught of sugar, chilli or vinegar, and the play of soft and crunchy textures is appealing but these dishes strain under the overload.
A veal and ox tartare is more relaxed, the handchopped meat teamed with grilled enoki mushrooms, an organic egg, and sherry dressing. Mashing its Gruyère crisp garnish brings a sharp salty richness to the lush meat, adding complexity while maintaining balance.
Crackingly fresh Mooloolaba prawns, split down the middle and grilled over wood, are mostly left to fend for themselves beside an undressed mint and shallot salad and garlicky lemon mayo, while polentacrusted spanner crab cakes, made pleasantly salty with a little pancetta, are pan-fried and served with avocado and fresh lime mousse and slivers of celery heart.
There's more relative simplicity with wood-grilled long-bone Flinders Island lamb chops. The meat, naturally salty and firm of texture, comes with a tangy orange and mint pistou. It's good, uncomplicated, solidly cooked stuff, as is the whole flounder, grilled and served with a Champagne, lemon and parsley sauce.
These simpler dishes are a better fit with the service at Pascale which, early days in, is unfailingly pleasant but often a bit green and gormless. But with charming manager Marie Gallien (from QT Sydney) on board, the odds of efficient and knowledgeable entering the equation are good.
"Pleasant" also describes the wine list. It's a serviceable collection with crowdpleasing choices by the glass - Pieropan soave, Crawford River Young Vines riesling, Spinifex rosé, Torbreck shiraz viognier -and decent premier cru Burgundy, but itreads as timid in a room as exuberant as this. No one expects the boat to be pushed out too far in this kind of setting, but some pushing past familiarity and comfort would be welcome.
Still, with this menu a calming bottle of familiarity is perhaps all that's needed.
It'd go well with clam "carbonara", a ridiculously rich dish of house-made pasta with a cream and riesling sauce, Western Australian clams, Avruga, bottarga, shallots and hijiki all jostling - some might say brawling - for attention.
Sichuan fried duck.
Sichuan fried duck is better: juicy Maryland steamed, dried overnight, doused in hoisin sauce and fried crisp. It arrives at the table chopped up ready to be stuffed into well-made steamed bao with an array of condiments including pickled cucumber, Sichuan salt and more hoisin. Juicy, salty, sweet, soft and crunchy, it's an easy-eating dish that fully delivers on the roll-your-sleeves-up promise.
For those not up to the surreal stove moment at the end of the meal there's other sweet stuff to be had that's less puzzling.
Bird's Milk is the Pascale version of floating islands, the meringue sitting on raspberry and caramel in an anglaise made with salty-sweet camel milk. (Yes, camel milk.) The whole thing is served in a glass bowl under a lid of tempered white chocolate and, despite the numerous elements, it knits together well - somehow subtle and not too sugary.
The Rooftop Choc-Honey Box is back into sculpture territory, with a combination of honeycomb and honey from QT's hives in Sydney and Canberra, and pistachio, nougat and almond biscuits all contained in a carefully constructed white chocolate cube with a honeycomb design printed on each side. Again, avoiding the overly sugary, the box keeps texture front and centre.
Just as QT Melbourne has filled a gap in Melbourne's upscale hotel scene, Pascale Bar & Grill provides a dining experience unlike any other in the city. Though the ingredient overload in many dishes can get exhausting, there are simpler choices - oysters and steak, for instance, or a burger and chips - so the lengthy menu provides options, including a daily à la carte breakfast. But this isn't a place just about the food. The glamorous setting, the greeting and farewelling by well-groomed staff, the money splashed on art and the scale of the room make coming here feel like an event. It's flashy and kind of silly at times, but it's never dull and there's nothing wrong with that.