Now that it's almost obligatory for ambitious young chefs to pack their knives and head overseas in search of experience and marketable CV addenda, there's nothing particularly remarkable about a couple of Melbourne chefs ending up at the same London two-star. Hell, the stints Scott Pickett (Estelle Bar & Kitchen) and Joe Grbac (ex-Press Club) did at Philip Howard's The Square didn't even coincide.
But Pickett and Grbac bonded over their shared experience and the friendship has now spawned a restaurant, Saint Crispin in Collingwood's thriving Smith Street. Now the mutual résumé DNA looks a little more significant, and sifting the menu for Howard's influence seems that little bit more reasonable.
It's not difficult to spot the Square-ish influences at Saint Crispin, if you're looking for them. In fact, most of the dishes on the menu could be said to pay some degree of homage to Howard's well-documented combination of modern and classic French technique and artful plating.
Take the Grimaud duck salad entrée. It combines slices of roasted breast, salt-cured leg, Madeira jelly terrine, foie gras parfait and slivers of salt-roasted heirloom beets, all lolling about attractively in a thicket of frisée. The salad is ringed by blobs of caramelised cumquat jelly that add punchy sweet-sour notes to the bird and the beets, and unmoor the salad from its trad French bistro roots. (The hideous triangular brown ceramic plate on which it arrives might already have snuffed out any thoughts of this being a classic French bistro, mind you.)
The same modern-classic French influence appears at the other end of the meal with a dish of chocolate, Earl Grey, milk and ginger, a gorgeously minimal dessert where the centrepiece, a block of classic, creamy chocolate délice, faces a quenelle of subtly perfumed Earl Grey tea-flavoured ice-cream across a small pool of pale ginger milk. Classic technique, modern twist, happy diner.
But Saint Crispin, which occupies the space once home to the Brooklyn-leaning Cavallero, is not just an antipodean hipster version of The Square. For starters, both the owner-chefs have since notched up impressive runs on the board in Melbourne kitchens both big and small, formal and casual, and this latest venture seems to be as influenced by those experiences as anything picked up in the English capital.
Pickett in particular seems to have influenced the structure and feel of Saint Crispin. It may eschew the dégustation path of his Northcote restaurant Estelle Bar & Kitchen, but his new venture is still a set-price affair ($50 for two courses, $60 for three), with a further option of a multi-course chefs' tasting menu. And, as at Estelle, there's a series of small individually priced dishes - carefully handled oysters served with just a lemon wedge, knockout eel croquettes served on sunny saffron rouille, fancy pork scratchings called "snap, crackle and pop" - that head the menu, reading as either bar snacks or bite-sized drum rolls to the main set-course event.
The other Estelle parallel comes with the décor.
As he did with that restaurant, Pickett has taken on a space with a very particular style - Cavallero was a masterclass in beautiful, high-ceilinged austerity - and made quite significant changes without compromising the essence of the room. The most obvious of these changes is the extension of the open kitchen; the marble-topped bar is now overhung by a sizeable bulkhead built to house the utilities. Far from losing the airy, warehouse feel of the space, the bulkhead seems to make its dimensions less cavernous, cosier even, and may also have something to do with the lowered noise levels.
With its banquette seating, upholstered chairs, rustic timber tables, rendered walls, timber ceiling and '70s-era light fittings, it's a casually elegant room, a little edgy but comfortable, which makes a snug fit with the food. The enthusiastically eclectic soundtrack (Rufus Wainwright, Pixies, 10CC, Rodriguez, Neil Young, Gorillaz, Faith No More) also strikes an amusing, unpretentious balance some way between raucous and refined.
The well-drilled, professional floor team led by ex-European long-timer Ashley Firman follows suit. They provide the kind of service where the waiter can deliver the bread to the table, deftly explain that it's served with both an unsalted butter and a dip-like caramelised onion cream (cream cheese, butter, onion flakes, caramelised onion) and be on his way without making you feel as though you're being lectured about provenance, sustainability or the chefs' life histories. And if you really want to know that stuff, you'll get a considered answer.
The wine list is fairly succinct. Its couple of pages devote equal time to the New World (New Zealand chenin blanc, Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon, South African shiraz) and to ticking the Burgundy, Rioja, Wachau and Piedmont boxes. It's a great compact list, well curated and well priced, with a good mix of the familiar and the fresh. Add the presence of sommeliers Christian Burge and Ben Skipper dispensing wine advice and a night of happy drinking looks certain.
The availability of solid wine advice is helpful because Grbac and Pickett's food, though not particularly complicated, is often quite complex with sudden bursts and rushes of unexpected flavour.
Take their ode to the ocean. It comprises New Zealand king salmon, cured in sugar and salt, then cooked confit style, resulting in an almost jelly-like lusciousness; shavings of poached calamari dressed in a vinaigrette briny with oyster juice; natural oysters; a slightly sinister blistered squid-ink and tapioca cracker; squid-ink mayo; and saffron-heavy rouille. Served on a black plate scattered with nasturtium leaves and herbs, you'd never confuse the dish with rustic home cooking, but neither does it seem like the kitchen is showing off. It's a dish where texture - soft, crisp, slippery, chewy - plays as important a part as flavour, and both are in abundance and balance.
Similar textural goodness arrives with an egg, rice and mushroom dish that sealed a return visit for me.
It starts with the slow-cooked pullet egg and runs to sautéed mushrooms both wild and cultivated (slippery Jacks and pines among them), black venere rice, crisp puffed wild rice, parmesan jelly, parmesan foam and mushroom sponge. If they opened for breakfast I'd be lining up in my slippers.
Possibly the best-looking dish in a tight field is one that combines pan-fried John Dory with chickpeas, fennel, a remarkably smooth celeriac purée and pieces of octopus, dark hued from being slow cooked in red wine and aromatics for about 10 hours. Served on the closest thing to a white plate that Saint Crispin possesses and topped with chickpea shoots, it's a dish that's about light and shade both in looks and taste, with the big-flavoured, almost black octopus and the golden brown of the Dory skin contrasting beautifully with the near-translucent fennel and pale chickpeas.
Flinders Island lamb - braised shoulder, loin, a piece of leg, a rack - also looks the goods, sharing the plate with an intense, grassy nettle purée, radishes, turnips and little crunchy, puffed-up slivers of potato, as do slices of venison, deep pink at the centre and laid out along a "muesli bar", containing quinoa, oats, dried cranberries and chocolate, as well as Sichuan pepper, juniper and white peppercorns that's a little too powerful and intrusive for its own good.
Also powerful, though in a more inclusive way, is the Sichuan pepper that coats the long grissini-like Italian meringue poking out of a dish of poached rhubarb, marshmallow, more meringue and blood-orange gel. The pepper is surprising and unexpected, adding crunch and tingle to the sweet and citrus flavours of this, once again, artfully plated dish. Phil Howard's presence hovers, but faintly, like a memory.
Spotting the influence is a great game for people who love that sort of thing, and Saint Crispin, like any other small, focused restaurant that's passionate about cooking and is up with what's going on around the world, has its influences. But it also has sincerity. There seems to be no cynicism in the Pickett-Grbac partnership, no eye on what they "should" be cooking. Instead, there's an enthusiasm for the job and for this model of chef-run restaurant that hands them the freedom to cook the food they truly want to cook. Enthusiasm and sincerity are attractive. And so is Saint Crispin.