Restaurant Reviews

Press Club, Melbourne restaurant review

George Calombaris’s latest Press Club incarnation is modern Greek meets Aussie kitsch – bold, playful and at times puzzling, but without doubt memorable, writes Michael Harden.

By Michael Harden
Whether you'll enjoy The Press Club or not probably comes down to the Hills Hoist. Not the actual backyard rotary clothesline, but a scale model version (pictured below) that owner-chef George Calombaris is using to serve chips and dips at the latest incarnation of his modern Greek flagship restaurant, the one he plans to make the best modern Greek restaurant in the world.
The miniature Hills Hoist arrives at the table with its own patch of (plastic) grass and bearing appetisers, in a whole variety of shapes and colours, of dried and fried vegetable chips pegged to it like washing. There might be a squiggle of fried salsify dabbed with garlic aïoli. A sesame-seed biscuit dotted with fennel purée and stuck with tiny fennel fronds. A rice puff dusted with fennel pollen. Tiny carrots dipped in peanut butter and tahini. A sliver of king brown mushroom, earthy and crunchy.
It's a cute idea, the clothesline - eye-catching, memorable, sentimental. But it's the line in the sand, the point where The Press Club experience goes one way or the other.
Do you just laugh at the silliness of it, enjoy the snap, pop and crunchy intensity of the snacks, the quirkiness of the visual and move on, looking forward to the next piece of fluffy, amusing entertainment? Or do you frown and ponder what it all means? Why a Hills Hoist? What the hell does it have to do with dips and chips? Is it just an obvious play for social-media photo-friendliness? Does the fake grass jump the shark? Has this even been thought through properly?
Those who like to take their dinner seriously, particularly when they're forking out the big bucks ($145 for five courses, $190 for eight), may not find this new version of The Press Club to their liking.
It may seem too frivolous, too full of jokes and puns and unnecessary fooling about to be considered a serious dégustation force. There's even Vegemite in the mix, for crying out loud. It's whipped with butter in a Pacojet to super-fluffiness and then dolloped onto a rectangle of toast - a thin, crisp, gluten-free cracker - topped with rosemary flowers and served on a Dodoni feta container, all for no other tangible reason than it reminds Calombaris of his childhood.
There's certainly a touch of vanity in this version of The Club, an element of "because I can". The successes Calombaris has had with his other restaurants (Hellenic Republic, Gazi, Jimmy Grants) and multiple seasons of MasterChef Australia have enabled this intimate 34-seat restaurant with its $2-million fit-out and test kitchen. They've also given Calombaris the freedom to cook and present the food that he wants, perhaps even to recapture some of the freewheeling experimentation of days past when he was the young gun at Reserve (his first head chef role), willing to try anything, turning heads and winning awards with his crazy imagination and off-the-wall flavour matchings. The days when he was sparking with creativity rather than new business opportunities.
Whatever the psychological backstory, what comes across most clearly at this version of The Press Club is the sense of playfulness. If Calombaris is going for the best modern Greek restaurant in the world title (as he has said he wants to do), he's clearly planning to conquer with touchingly earnest charm and humour rather than classical furrowed brow seriousness.
Hence the clothesline. And the dish that follows, called mezethes, that features three elements - mussel, octopus and walnut - in various states of de- and re-construction.
The mussel, simply steamed, comes in an edible shell made from, among other things, squid ink and two sugars including isomalt. It's not an original idea (paging Noma) but it's in the right spirit and is one half of a matching set with the walnut element down the other end of the white slab plate. It looks remarkably walnut-like and again, the whole thing is edible, the shell made with crushed walnuts and filled with a whipped mix of blue cheese, celery and apple.
Sandwiched between those is a skewer with three gently poached pieces of octopus dabbed with a chicken-flavoured mayo and sprinkled with a powder of chicken skin and vine leaves. Salty, sweet and earthy, it pulls all the elements together with great finesse.
There's tomfoolery that accompanies the mezethes, too, in the form of the saganaki Martini, a survivor from the original Press Club. The Martini is made at the table and involves freezing Greek basil leaves with liquid nitrogen, pounding them to dust in a mortar and sprinkling them into a small bowl of clear tomato broth, tonic water and salt. There's also a skewer with fried kefalotiri cheese and semi-dried cherry tomato in the mix. The theatricality is obviously unnecessary but it's entertaining (helped along by the charm of the staff) and the flavours are punchy and invigorating.
The unnecessary-but-entertaining aspect to dining at The Press Club is present in almost every part of a meal here but is perhaps writ largest in the room itself.
There's a brilliant, glitzy 1970s cocktail bar-feel to the place (Athenian Hustle, if you will) that's a bit startling at first but also funny and exciting. Ten horseshoe booths upholstered in tan leather fill the room, partly screened from one another by curved dividers made from the same lime-washed timber as the tables. The ceiling is a dazzle of shiny brass light fittings, perforated and twisted into organic shapes, while there's more reflective brass on the walls and on the front door that has, in lieu of an actual sign, a handpainted portrait of St George that Calombaris picked up in Italy. Seriously, you have to laugh.
There are mirrors everywhere in the room, upping the dazzle factor and, along one wall, a narrow stretch of window that gives diners a view directly into the kitchen. Factor in the compact size of the room, a soundtrack of dance music that runs the gamut from ironic to questionable to retro (sometimes in the space of three tracks) and the constant parade of expensive, sculptural crockery and cutlery and quality glassware and it's hard to escape the impression of being wined and dined at some kind of flashy, private yacht party where the floor could suddenly light up and the dancing begin.
But the dancing is for later because first there's the eating, which can be as flashy and entertaining as a mirror ball. The classic Greek salad is given a couple of treatments. One arrives like a piece of sculpture, a puddle of basil jelly studded with basil seeds arranged with slivers of green almond purée, fresh cheese, dwarf cucumber, baby tomatoes and bronze fennel. The other comes on a feta mousse and includes fresh tomatoes, pickled vegetables and prosciutto, all dressed with "the bottom of the salad", a dressing made by smashing up a trad Greek salad, spooning it into muslin and catching the liquid that seeps through.
There's also a brilliant version of the classic Greek egg and lemon soup, avgolemono. It's creamy and comforting, made fresh with a good whack of garlic and filled with slivers of abalone stir-fried with olive oil and guinea pepper and with hilopites, traditional egg noodles that here have been made with chicken stock.
More good times arrive with marron, cooked gently in white tarama butter and teamed with a crunchy-sour-smooth mix of cauliflower skordalia, pickled cucumber, enoki and sprouted lentils. The marron plays perfectly with the white roe butter, which adds a robust umami element.
Good times accompany the wine list, too, especially when sommelier Marc Esteve Mateu is in the house. His working with a hefty list of 50-plus pages that bristles with benchmark and boutique wines from all over. It's an impressive collection, with strong representation from the Old World, and can be a little overwhelming, which is where the charming Barcelonan comes in.
Mateu's style is about guiding rather than leading and he has quiet, convincing enthusiasm for labels from off the beaten track. It's a good idea to listen to him, not just because he's interesting and knowledgeable, but because otherwise you may never discover the joys of the 2009 Hatzidakis Nikteri Assirtiko from Santorini or the 2009 Mercouri Estate Daphne Nera Mavrodaphne, wines that remind you that the world's still full of good stuff to be discovered.
The mavrodaphne, a smooth, velvety, restrained dessert wine, is a good match with the Smashing Plates dessert, a take on the pavlova (discs of meringue that you smash to get to the mousse or granita, berries or chocolate underneath) that follows a cute pre-dessert called a half-time orange, a segment of whole poached orange filled with an intense, cleansing orange sorbet.
More tricks are on the way. Smashing Plates will be accompanied with an iPod loaded with the theme from Zorba the Greek, and miniature spits will arrive at the table so you can give your lamb rump a couple of turns over coals before it's returned to the kitchen for carving.
No joke or stereotype is off-limits, it seems. But that's the fun. It's glitzy, fun-park dining but with top-notch cooking and flavour pairings that, while not uniformly successful, often surprise, delight and make you laugh out loud. Not everybody will believe this can be the best modern Greek restaurant in the world. Not everybody will love the Hills Hoist. But those that do are going to love it a lot.