THIS RESTAURANT HAS CLOSED.
"Bargain" isn't a word typically associated with Australian dining, particularly at the more acclaimed end of the spectrum. Nor for that matter is humour. But at Prix Fixe, chef Philippa Sibley's latest gig in Melbourne's CBD where she's both headline act and part-owner, good value and wit are integral parts of the formula.
And there is a very particular formula at work here, this being "Australia's first ticketed restaurant" and all. But first to the bargain side of the equation.
The value here is unmistakable. At dinner, you're looking at soup, a tasting plate, a main course and a dessert cooked by one of the country's most acclaimed chefs for $79. That's less than $20 per course for those without a calculator and, as quickly becomes apparent, the savings have not been made at the expense of portion size or the quality of the ingredients. What is traded for the lower cost at Prix Fixe is a degree of flexibility. At lunch the deal is two courses for $49, and they throw in a glass of wine.
This is how it goes: each month Sibley presents a new, month-long four-course menu (two or three courses at lunch) that takes inspiration from one of a variety of random sources - a change in seasons, for example, or a particular festival or current theatre production, a favourite book (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is coming up in a dinner with a Turkish Delight-based dessert) or an inspirational chef or ingredient.
The inaugural menu, for example, was based on A Midsummer Night's Dream and ran with a Greek-influenced feast that included Sibley favourites such as her crunchy green-pea felafels and white taramasalata alongside more classically inspired dishes such as chicken ballotine stuffed with a panzanella flavoured with lemon zest, marjoram and garlic and named, for the occasion, Chicken Titania. The menu succeeding this initial Shakespearean one was a pork-based affair called The Whole Hog.
It was the result of the chef's affection for the meat produced by Judy Croagh at Western Plains Pork in regional Victoria and had all the Sibley hallmarks: finesse, ingenuity and wit.
It started with a brilliant cool soup, a course that's already becoming something of a Prix Fixe calling card. Titled Green Eggs & Ham, this voluptuously textured green-pea soup, made with smoked hock stock, had a clever take on Heston Blumenthal's egg and bacon ice-cream lurking in its depths that added an attractive touch of carbonara to the proceedings.
After the soup came OTT, a tasting plate that contained Sibley's ode to Tansy Good's Silk Purse from a Sow's Ear dish (chopped and braised pork belly mixed with mushrooms and chicken mince and shaped like a pig's ear), a classic ham hock and lentil terrine with truffled mustard, San Daniele prosciutto teamed with house-made watermelon rind pickle and a dreamy artichoke gribiche topped with fried pieces of pig's ear and with the binding mayo made with oil from the preserved artichokes.
The Whole Hog main course was This Little Piggy's Date, porchetta with eye-wateringly good crackling rolled around a stuffing of roasted bread, dates soaked in brandy and apples, while dessert was a familiar Sibley whimsical/pretty cracked fairytale affair called Tickled Pink. It mixed blackberry and liquorice jam with chocolate and raspberry velouté, a white chocolate mousse, pear and raspberry sorbet and pear chips, the shape of which recalled the cartoon character Peppa Pig's stylised head.
There's little chance of walking away from a Prix Fixe dinner hungry and many will applaud the restaurant for that. The fairly prescriptive structure, though, means that modern diners, accustomed to a high degree of flexibility, have to adjust their expectations. Eat here more than once a month and you'll be eating the same menu in the same order. There's not even a chicken-or-beef option (though vegetarians can be catered for if they confess their shortcomings ahead of time).
This may not count as terrible hardship given the quality of meal and service, but for those who like to mix things up and dislike handing total control of what they're eating over to others it may be a game changer.
The other more frustrating part of the equation comes with the booking system. Prix Fixe sells tickets rather than takes bookings. You pay upfront for your table and, if you can't make it that night there are no refunds, much like at the theatre or any kind of ticketed live performance. You can, however, pass your tickets on to someone else or try to sell them via the Prix Fixe Facebook page.
While there are clear advantages with the ticketing system that help keep prices down (no worries about economically ruinous no-shows, a clearer idea of exactly how much food the kitchen needs to order, reducing waste), there's also something a little irritating about an online-only booking systems that only lets you book a table of two, four, six and so on. Those wishing to eat with only two or four other friends can email Prix Fixe and ask for leniency but you have to search the website for that information. With no phone number and in a city not lacking in restaurants, some may just find the process too convoluted. This would be shame because the system, once negotiated, has its own logic. It's also gateway to a unique experience in one of the city's smartest rooms.
What could have been an awkward, split-level space with little personality beyond some odd angles, has been beautifully transformed into an edgy, elegant dining room, skilfully lit and very comfortable.
Beaten copper and custom-made ceramic light shades cast diffused light across polished concrete floors and the peach-apricot painted exposed utilities on the ceiling. Linen dresses many of the tables and there's a mix of banquette and bentwood seating.
The soundtrack, which changes with each menu, is both entertaining (everything from Judy Garland to Bon Iver, from '70s disco to 19th-century opera) and evident without being intrusive.
Curtains, flower arrangements and menu inspiration-specific décor (the Ode to Autumn month saw a deer head framed by autumn leaves on a feature wall) add personality and warmth and have a direct aesthetic link to co-owner Jason Jones who's shown a similar flair for the sophisticated and comfortable in a string of cafes that include Porgy and Mr Jones, Mazzitelli, Snow Pony and The Stables of Como.
Service strikes a similar relaxed and sophisticated mix as does the wine list, a compact and accessible four-pager full of well-priced and easy-drinking wines from the Old and New Worlds with a refreshingly democratic geographic spread of Australian labels.
The list gets tweaked with each menu, though the most obviously on-theme drinks section is the cocktail list that goes all-out each time to echo the inspiration in the food.
The "Ode to Autumn" menu featured a whole page of Tipples for Fall, named from lines of classic autumnal poetry. It's seriously hard to resist a "Thou watchest the last oozings" (Keats, a mix of vodka, elderflower, apple, pear, lime and egg white) or a "Wild spirit, which art moving everywhere: creator and destroyer" (Shelley, a mix of whisky, Drambuie, mandarin, Earl Grey tea, lemon and sugar).
The cocktails made perfect scene-setters for the menu to come: a beautifully realised, completely successful sketch of autumn in food.
The starter soup was a cool vichyssoise, deliciously smooth, with a Gorgonzola and dulce de leche ice-cream adding further textured and subtle-flavoured character. Crunchy little chips made from purple Midnight Pearl and pink Crimson Pearl potatoes sat on top of the soup.
The tasting plate included a classic game terrine, mostly hare, served with a pear and ginger chutney plus a superb, lightly seared and spiced venison carpaccio. Then there was a "rooty" rémoulade, a gorgeous-looking autumnal bundle of Jerusalem artichoke purée, raw celeriac and parsnips bound with a mayo flavoured with mustard, chardonnay vinegar and truffles from New South Wales. A shard of rye and buckwheat cracker completed the sculptural, almost poetic composition.
This was followed by a hefty slice of pheasant Pithiviers, the pastry intricately patterned and gloriously shiny and golden, the filling, wrapped in an herb crêpe, richly complex with mushrooms and chicken mousse.
Then came Hansel & Gretel, a dessert made with poached quince and gingerbread and featuring not just a trail of macadamia crumbs scattered across the plate but "leaves" of fillo pastry glittering with edible gold and copper. It was a theme, signed, sealed and emphatically delivered.
These month-long menus delivering their disparate inspirations so successfully will be what lodges Prix Fixe onto diners' radars, not the slightly annoying booking system and probably not even the bargain price. Once you've experienced how Sibley interprets one idea, you find yourself wondering about what's going to happen next with the French menu inspired by the return of Les Misérables or an Aussie Christmas menu planned for the end of the year. It's hard not to get a little excited. Unique is pretty hard to resist.