With Donovan Cooke in the house, you know the sauces are going to be every bit as interesting as the things they sauce. Cooke's classical training and impeccable technique shone especially brightly in his sauce-work at Est Est Est in the late 1990s and at Ondine in the early aughts. Sauces were less of a feature during his seven-year tenure at Crown seafood behemoth The Atlantic, but at Ryne, his new 60-seat restaurant in Fitzroy North, they're up front again. Red wine fumet. Antiboise. Bois boudran. It's back to the future.
The "returning to his roots" narrative is unavoidable at Ryne and it's not just about the sauces. Cooke's menu references the past as consciously as a heritage rock tour.
Savarin with grapefruit and white chocolate sorbet
How else can you read a dish of pigeon that's been slow-cooked and then pan-fried and served with peeled grapes macerated in muscat and a sauce that involves pigeon, chicken and veal stock, a gardenful of herbs, and has chicken-liver parfait folded through it? You may not be surprised to hear that the sauce is great - so much so that you might find yourself closing your eyes to savour its silken power and the elegance of its seasoning. It takes you back.
That chicken-liver parfait will be familiar to those who remember the Est days. At Ryne, Cooke aerates it to give it a texture like whipped cream, and teams it with an amber Madeira jelly, apple compote and prunes soaked in plum wine, some pistachio powder and crisp chicken skin. Playful, evocative stuff.
Lamb saddle, cooked to an exact medium-rare, is crusted with brioche, Dijon mustard and herbs, and plated with a stalk of blistered cherry tomatoes, peas, broad beans and baby leeks, with a garlicky lamb sauce making for an elegant gravy.
Lamb saddle with baby leeks, peas, broad beans and cherry tomatoes.
There's nothing nostalgic about the room. Polished concrete floors, washed brick walls textured by down-lighting, Nordic-influenced furniture and globes dangling from a lofty-peaked factory ceiling braced with heavy timber beams. It's spacious and familiar, relaxed.
The staff are mostly relaxed, too, and solidly invested in the details. That's impressive when even the simpler dishes bristle with a profusion of elements. The tuna "pizza" is raw tuna flattened, cut into a circle and topped with lime zest, shreds of jamón Ibérico, julienne of confit tomatoes, black garlic, baby chives, olive oil and grated horseradish. It's a strong dish and less long-winded on the fork than that rollcall of ingredients might suggest.
Tuna "pizza" with garlic, Ibérico ham and chives
Ryne's wine list, pulled together by Krystelle Cooke, Donovan's daughter, is solid, particularly as far as classic and conventional winemaking is concerned. For cashed-up buffs there's a cellar list (2006 Clos de Tart Mommessin Grand Cru for $1,100) and an interesting selection of wine poured from the Coravin. The lean is European, and tilts mostly French on the cellar list, but doesn't exclude Australian offerings in the vein of Bass Phillip chardonnay and William Downie pinot noir.
The concise cocktail list is best enjoyed at the central bar, where there's also a separate menu of snacks and main courses, which is far from an afterthought. Chicken wings, for instance, cooked slowly in duck fat, boned, cut into little squares and pan-fried, are served with a Bois Boudran - the sauce of vinegar, tarragon, shallot, tomato sauce, Worcestershire and Tabasco - that does Michel Roux Snr, who learned it from the Rothschild family, proud.
Ryne's dining room.
The thrillingly well-balanced acidic-sweet mix of herbs, shallots, olives, lemon juice and confit tomatoes in Cooke's sauce Antiboise does good things for fingers of pan-fried John Dory, while a brilliant salad tosses calamari with a sauce à la Grecque, julienned endive and shaved fennel.
The sweet stuff can lack finesse. The pastry on an otherwise decent blueberry tart served with sheep's milk yoghurt sorbet, for example, is too sturdy. A classic savarin flavoured with pink-grapefruit syrup and topped with white-chocolate sorbet is more on the money.
It's great to have Donovan Cooke back cooking on this scale in his own joint. Retro, sure, but also relevant. And who wouldn't be elated by those sauces?