It's difficult not to get into the whole Sydney versus Melbourne food scene conversation when a Sydney chef - particularly a top-of-the-tree dweller such as Mark Best - opens a southern outpost. Melburnians have a tendency towards touchiness in these matters which, despite the pioneering work of Sydneysiders like Neil Perry and Martin Boetz, can still manifest as defensive when northerners come to set up shop. The "ice to Eskimos", "coal to Newcastle" arguments remain surprisingly close to the surface in some corners of the local dining scene.
So it's probably best to get it out of the way first: at Pei Modern, Mark Best has brought something unique and original to Melbourne, something that owes a lot to having been imported. But it can be argued that, despite some dishes on the menu having DNA similar to those at Marque, much of the food at Pei Modern would also read as original in Sydney. By paring back and reimagining Marque, GT's reigning restaurant of the year, in a more casual form, Best has created a mature, thoughtfully considered blend of well-priced flavours and ideas that would feel fresh no matter where it landed.
Take, for example, a dish that pairs a grilled, rich-red bullhorn pepper, left whole (seeds and all) and delivering a marvellously deep smoky backbeat, with powerfully meaty pieces of grilled ox heart, fiery red house-made harissa and some assertively floral fresh marjoram leaves. It's a lovely looking dish whose colours leap off the plate with as much vim as the virile flavours. It comes across as southern Med rustic but then along comes the wackiness of the almost lavender-like marjoram that pushes it into less predictable, more experimental territory. This may be a foray into bistro territory but boundaries are still being pushed and expectations, if not overturned, then at least re-routed.
It happens again with a dish of carrots and mussels. Slices of confit organic carrots, cooked in olive oil with fennel seeds for up to six hours so that they release their juices and obtain an almost apricot-like sweetness, are teamed with mussels in what the waiter calls "an orange and orange theme". The sudden burst of briny saltiness from the fat mussels is a brilliant match for the sweetness of the carrots, adding surprising and complementary energy to the play of flavours and making this dish, with its pale orange good looks, a lot of fun to eat.
Obviously there's more going on here technique-wise than you'd find in regular bistro territory, and to be fair, it has been the term "bistronomy" rather than "bistro" that's been bandied about to explain the approach at Pei Modern. What this means is that Best, with head chef Matt Germanchis, has reduced the number of ingredients and the number of steps needed to get the food on the plate but remains committed to flavours with an edge and a difference. This isn't Marque II, but there's an obvious investment in keeping the food looking good, and many of the dishes are as carefully, artfully plated as you'd find in a fine diner. Others may be more rustic-looking but there's never anything slapdash or unconsidered in the casualisation of Mark Best.
The casarecce pasta (which should, if the world ever aspires to fairness, become a cult dish) is a case in point. The casarecce, a semi-rolled pasta, is made from hard durum wheat and is cooked to order like a risotto in a mixture of olive oil, rich chicken stock and Parmigiano-Reggiano. It comes bearing beautiful full-flavoured dumplings made from chicken livers, hearts and gizzards flavoured with a little nutmeg, salt and pepper and cooked with the pasta in the creamy rich sauce. It's an excellent dish, labour-intensive, comforting, rustic and luxurious all at the same time. It's a good example of the kind of balance that makes Pei Modern roll.
This tension between fine and casual also plays out nicely in the look front-of-house. Named after IM Pei, the Chinese-American architect who, along with local architects Bates Smart McCutcheon, designed Collins Place, Pei Modern has set up shop in the covered driveway of the Sofitel hotel, where it occupies a former Australia Post outlet. The outdoor tables, well protected under the cover of the framed glass roof and looking out onto creeper-covered walls, come across as peaceful and sheltered rather than claustrophobic.
Inside, an all-day bar with a vaulted timber roof sits to one side of the entrance; to the other is the dining room with its rippling dividing screen, herringbone-patterned white-tiled floor and timber tables with undressed plain timber or white laminated tops. The dark roof has been left raw with utilities but there are touches of luxury such as the two pale blue upholstered "throne" seats (like high-backed banquettes) that face the kitchen and can make you feel special or slightly ridiculous, depending on your sense of entitlement.
There's nothing flashy about the crockery, glassware or cutlery (though the hefty French Perceval steak knife is certainly covetable) but the quality is always there, and the service, led by former Royal Mail Hotel and Attica maître d' Ainslie Lubbock, hits the right note of friendliness and efficiency. Explanations of each dish are succinct unless you ask for a more detailed description, which is then proffered without a missed beat.
Lubbock is also responsible for the wine list, a short, finely honed beauty with a generous selection of good stuff by the glass and a democratic attitude that's not afraid to include some Argentine sparkling alongside the Champagne. There's a lean towards biodynamic and natural wines from both the Old and New Worlds and grape varieties - pecorino, nielluccio - that you don't see every day. It's a sophisticated list that easily keeps pace with the interest on the menu.
And there's plenty of interest to be had, whether it's in the Marque-inspired almond gazpacho, rich and pleasantly grainy, that surrounds small islands of picked blue swimmer crab meat, sweet, halved grapes and a generous slug of fruity olive oil, or in the tender squid, simply grilled and finished with lemon then teamed with a deep green purée of spinach spiked with anchovy juice, a sauce based on squid-ink with a slight chilli heat, and earthy leaves of fat hen.
It's also there in the bonito cured in sugar, salt and citrus, cold-smoked and served with slivers of pickled green strawberries, sautéed pine mushrooms and dill oil and topped with braised mustard seeds. It's a dish that dashes about the place, taking in sweet and salty, earthy and tart and manages somehow to get it all to make sense.
A hugely rich concoction of Dutch cream potatoes served in a bowl with a soup-like creamy potato foam riddled with bone marrow and topped with ground coffee makes less sense (unless perhaps you're hungover or otherwise in need of simplistic comfort), but there's no mistaking the brilliance of the crisp pork jowl, admirably tender and juicy, that shares a plate with radicchio in myriad forms - crisp inner leaves, puréed with Sherry vinegar, sautéed to sweetness - that have you looking at the leaves with newfound admiration for their versatility.
Then there's the excellent combination of sea urchin butter (a nod to the legendary custard at Marque), char-grilled corn and fried curry leaves that accompany the ever-changing fish - wild barramundi, rock flathead, bass grouper - or the toe-curlingly good dessert combination of crunchy ginger granita served with cinnamon-poached pears, lemon verbena ice-cream and a scattering of pine nuts, a brilliant grouping of compatible textures and refreshing, not-too-sweet flavours.
More Marque inspiration shows in desserts such as the table-dividing shiny caramelised tomato filled like a Christmas cake with fruit, nuts and spices and accompanied by star anise ice-cream, and the crowd-pleasing, ever-elegant Sauternes custard, a textbook example of what a rich, smooth, deep-yellow voluptuous custard should be, teamed here with excellent sugar dusted crostoli.
One of the most appealing things about Pei Modern is its sense of calm and its complete lack of interest in being the latest cartwheeling, trend-tapping kid on the block. It feels solid and interesting, mature in a suave and experienced way, the sort of place that becomes immediately lodged in the repertoire as the one you'd turn to after a hard day. Add a menu that changes daily, reasonable prices and Mark Best's reliably original take on bistronomy and there's yet another argument that intercity cross-pollination is a force for good and not evil.