The place where money and influence like to congregate. Not just the 'hot new thing'. Neil Perry's southern star has bitten hard on the consciousness of Melbourne opinion leaders, and that's the kind of business a restaurateur can only dream of, neither transient nor fickle.
Ah, the power of a brand.
And in restaurant circles, through his energy and determination to make sure Melbourne doesn't go the way of previous side-ventures, his time at Rockpool in Sydney, his media presence and high-profile consultancies, the Neil Perry brand has acquired its own unique power. And those that have it like to be around it.
But beyond business, influence and money, Perry is still a person profoundly motivated by food and cooking, if his new restaurant provides any clue to the man.
Rockpool Bar & Grill is, in case you missed the hoopla, big, plush, international. Moody lighting, iconic neighbours, great views (for Melbourne), very comfortable with soft, user-friendly furnishings and surfaces, modern but not challenging. But most of all, it's big.
Entering from Crown's labyrinth of foyers and retail spaces, you walk through the entry hall, past a meat display that might simultaneously repulse a vegan and thrill a beef fan, to first the bar and then the dining room. Commanding the attention of nearly every diner is the copper-clad kitchen where a sheet of smoke from a series of wood-fired grills is sucked into an overhead filtration canopy with enough vacuum to remove a hairpiece.
A small army of chefs goes about its business of feeding up to 200 at a time, often commanded by Perry himself but always with the former Sydney Rockpool right hand man Khan Danis at the helm.
You can't help but ask yourself: if Neil Perry wanted a Melbourne restaurant, did it need to be something so big? One that carried with it so much risk? One that stood to either make him a lot of dough or, potentially, take him down? And at the same time, you have to admire the ambition, particularly now things are running smoothly. It wasn't always the case, hardly surprising with such a huge staff required to make things happen at a time when getting good restaurant staff, particularly front of house, has never been harder. Despite a few service glitches over the frantic opening months, a looseness of systems, a lack of maturity that seemed a little at odds with the seriousness of the venture and the prices punters were being asked to pay, the food has been superb from the get-go. Perry calls it his steakhouse and it's tempting to say it's a bistro, but that has quite French connotations, and that would be wrong.
At the core, Perry is a food man. Here is a man you feel it would be good to sit down to a proper meal with, to wax lyrical with over a steak, to praise the ballsy, robust harmony of Tasmanian clams with jamón or celebrate the wintry pleasures of a proper macaroni cheese. From sashimi of the highest order to steak tartare with chips, pappardelle with duck ragù to a bowl of Brussels sprouts with smoky bacon, Rockpool is about de-intellectualising food and creating a kind of Perry memoir, a gathering of everything that has rung his bells at a table over a long career of eating and cooking.
At the risk of opening a Pandora's box, the best answer to that old chestnut 'what is Australian food?' might just be to wander down to the Yarra for a long, indulgent afternoon at Rockpool Bar & Grill. It works for me.
At the root of the great, simple pleasure of eating here are two truths: Perry puts produce on a pedestal - and it shows - and there is great professionalism in the way it is handled by the chefs who turn Perry's recipes into something for the plate. Danis and wife Catherine Adams - head pastry chef - are highly-experienced professionals, yet the task of running something of this scale, with consistency, must have seemed daunting.
But they've pulled it off, and with panache.
Every day, a new menu is printed on the back of a sheet bearing one of the many bovine images produced by photographer Earl Carter. And some of its contents are expensive: the 200gm, 24-day-aged wagyu rib-eye at $110 (haven't tried it); the amazingly tender textural trip that is Tasmanian black lip abalone steak, cooked à la meunière with brown butter, lemon and parsley (a sample from the kitchen, lovely but not something I'd pay $110 for); the $150 lobster (suitable for two but the guy next to us is eating one all on his own); the entrée plate of Joselito Ibérico jamón at $50. People tend to miss the $15 entrée salad, the $20 vegetable tagine and a number of main courses that come in around the same price at far less interesting city restaurants.
For the record, I've yet to eat a steak here that blows me away: I've had the dry-aged 44 days, grass-fed 350gm rib-eye several times (to share, mind you), and it is what a $60 steak should be - wonderful - but it does not transport me somewhere else. You get lemon wedges, a choice of béarnaise or horseradish cream plus a number of condiments such as mustard and harissa. You eat it with amazing side dishes such as the aforementioned sprouts; an indecently indulgent macaroni cheese; a potato and cabbage gratin that falls into the same category or a jumble of boiled greens (broccolini, cabbage, etc).
A little steak is a lovely part of a meal here. But I'd come for things like the live scallop ceviche or the wonderful sashimi that gives flesh to the bones of Perry's spin on how carefully they handle their seafood. Or the 'four raw tastes of the sea': kingfish dressed with a paste of cos and tea-smoked oyster; ocean trout with a mild harissa and preserved lemon dice; tuna with a fresh coriander and ginger dressing and tonight (it varies) a ceviche of whiting strips. The balance of flavours, the textures, the seasoning and presentation sing. This is fish to make Melbourne restaurateurs/chefs stand up and take note.
I'd come back for a salad of raw arrow squid with julienne parsnip and Ibérico ham, with squid ink, just to have the pig and the squid get together in the plate like that, all sweet acid and salty brine.
And I'd come back for the sensational combination of wood-grilled pigeon jumbled on the plate with red grapes, radicchio and roasted red peppers.
Tonight, the 'chicken and egg soup': a broth of diced chicken at the centre of which is a nest of spinach and one of those intriguingly textured slow-cooked eggs - the white set, but oh-so-delicate - sprinkled with a little oil and finely grated parmesan. A New World play on stracciatella. It's homely, comforting and lovely.
Another 'hot starter' employs the same egg in a richer, more nostalgic role: it sits on a piece of chargrilled brioche surrounded by pieces of roasted bone marrow, roasted shallots and a red wine-based sauce offering a fine balance between power and weight. It's the sort of thing you'd order if you were exercising a lot.
But it is the unlikely combination of grilled shelled prawns and tortellini filled with goat's cheese that provides the strongest memories tonight: the fresh biodynamic cheese has just the right degree of acidity and the pasta skills are exemplary. The whole lot is tossed in a burnt butter with raisins and toasted pine nuts providing a little Sicilian touch, crunch and sweetness. Inspired.
If you're a wine drinker, you will have no trouble finding something remarkable within the leather-bound list - particularly if you have an interest in rare American wines - but be prepared to pay Sydney prices (by the same token, there are wines here under $40).
Planning a meal here is important; you want to save room for the wonderful pastry work of Catherine Adams. Her familiar, yet quirky offerings have been responsible for some deep satisfied groans since she started in Melbourne. Caramelised rice pudding; passionfruit pavlova; apple and rhubarb crumble: it's not so much retro as a reminder of how great some of these classics can be.
Her baby vanilla panna cotta in a big martini glass sounds modest on paper: what you get is a smooth, rich 'centre' surrounded by Queensland strawberries, cubes of intense rhubarb agar jelly, pistachio praline throughout it all and a baby avalanche of rose granita - garnished with a little chopped dried strawberries - over the top. The flavours are powerful, the textural play spot on and the lasting impression of a great meal, well finished.
Perry's Melbourne Rockpool is set to become the great egalitarian spoil for a lot of Melbourne. And Perry - as a chef and food person - has done it without sacrificing any self-respect. Rockpool has something special for those who couldn't care less about food and wine, those of us for whom it's a little more important, and the powerbrokers, who probably fall into both camps. Lucky powerbrokers.