There's always some trepidation involved when the word "renovation" occurs in the same sentence as the name of a much-loved restaurant. And when that restaurant is the constantly packed, landmark and slightly tired Stokehouse, it's understandable that the "if it ain't broke don't fix it" crowd might start muttering mutinously at the thought of an over-enthusiastic interior designer taking a wrecking ball to the joint.
The good news, after a million-dollar-plus reno of the dining room and kitchen that closed the upstairs restaurant for a couple of months, is that the operation has been a success. Not only has the dining room become, under the precise, artful eye of Pascale Gomes-McNabb, a picture of pared-back elegance, but the kitchen has also sniffed the breeze of restraint and is dishing up food that's beautiful to look at, modern in conception and enjoyable to eat. Add the calming presence of sommelier Lincoln Riley, recently of Taxi and Maze and no stranger to balance and elegance with his wine lists, and you have a well-rounded and exciting return to form.
One of the best aspects of the new-look Stokehouse is how executive chef Anthony Musarra's food and head chef Oliver Gould's cooking is so simpatico with the décor. Take the simple creamy whites and pale greens of the entrée of yoghurt parfait, for example. All perfect frozen custardy texture and sweet/sour balance teamed with delicate fennel shavings, peas, pea purée and oscietra caviar, it's a pretty, fresh-faced dish that also presents as a poster child for precise but simple sophistication.
There's similar pastel simplicity in an appetiser of Levoni prosciutto, a carefully arranged jumble of restrained but intensely flavoured pale pink ham topped with a "salsa" of brown-orange chopped roast hazelnuts and diced pear and finished with a couple of charmingly rustic grissini, sharp with the flavour of parmesan. It delivers crunch, sweetness and salt in both expected and unexpected places and looks good while doing it.
It's an approach that's in step with the dining room. All limed American oak floors, white walls, leather banquettes, pastel upholstered Saarinen chairs, covetable timber ceiling fans, linen-swathed tables and brass details (wrapping the room's pillars and as cladding on the bar that's been installed down one end of the long space), the room seems to reference both old-time sail boats and casually well-heeled beach houses, especially with all those windows bringing in the palm-fringed water view.
At lunch the flood of natural light across the pale, expensive colours and textures makes for an appealingly serene experience, though the lack of any soft surfaces (there are curtains and other sound baffling on the way, apparently) can give the noise levels an alarming nudge, particularly at night when the place is packed and groups of (over) excited diners are taking full advantage of the impressive wine list (and, one would hope, their designated drivers).
The only other caveat comes with the fact that Stokehouse occupies prime beachfront real estate and prices are pretty high by Melbourne standards, with many of the main courses nudging and occasionally slipping past the $50 mark. With a less polished operator you might be inclined to be wary but Stokehouse rarely fails to deliver on all fronts. Certainly the service here is among the best in town, calm, witty and capable, even when the 140-seat dining room is bursting at the seams.
It's the sort of service that also seems genuinely enthused about the food being brought to the table, and it's easy to understand the enthusiasm when dishes such as the kingfish ceviche land, a lovely splash of colour on a round black plate. Small strips of fish marinated in green chilli, verjuice, coriander and chardonnay vinegar are topped with a tumble of peeled and salted grapes, toasted sunflower seeds, sprigs of watercress, a tiny dice of zucchini and bright orange dollops of flying fish roe. The balance of sweet, citrus and salt is remarkable, as is the ever-changing texture, now slippery, now juicy, now with a nutty crunch.
Smooth and slippery texture addicts shouldn't miss the roast asparagus with the 60/63 poached egg, shaved parmesan, and mustard and tarragon dressing (60/63 is the groovy new menu shorthand for 60 minutes at 63 degrees), or the excellent side dish of soft white polenta studded with walnuts and Gorgonzola. And they should definitely consider the slow-cooked veal cheek that's been braised in tawny and Madeira and teamed with fine textured cotechino and breakfast radishes, if only for the quite superb cauliflower purée that brings the dish to an altogether satisfying conclusion.
Obviously Musarra hasn't altogether lost his love of plus-sized flavours and jostling ingredients, and there are some fine examples of that kind of joy to be had. A generous serve of roast John Dory is accompanied by coin-sized disks of smoked eel that have been rolled in pancetta with caramelised onions and roasted, and share a plate with a garlicky celeriac purée, braised and roasted baby beets and a beetroot-based sauce mixed with veal juices. There's plenty of action on the plate but the honest earthiness of the flavours make it a measured, considered busy-ness.
The new Stokehouse menu also taps into the vogue for shared dishes, offering a simply grilled whole fish (the variety depending on what looks good that day), a whole roast chicken with poached apricots, and a kilogram slab of grain-fed beef rib from Rangers Valley in NSW served with king brown mushrooms and foie gras butter.
The restaurant's rusted-on regulars are also acknowledged. Battered and fried King George whiting fillets with hand-cut chips have survived the renovation, as has The Bombe, the signature white chocolate parfait, strawberry sorbet and toasted meringue dessert that could conceivably cause rioting (or at least prolonged bouts of boozy weeping) if it disappeared from the menu.
Musarra's desserts have always been something of a Stokehouse highlight. They're generally rich, complicated concoctions that, while not really giving a hoot about the healthy eating brigade, are equally uninterested in being merely sweet and silly. Musarra's tiramisù, constructed and served in a wide, shallow glass, is a thoroughly enjoyable take on the classic, layering chocolate mousse with amaretti biscuits soaked in coffee liqueur and brandy, a powerful espresso granita and coffee liqueur jelly, the whole lot topped off with sponge fingers and fresh raspberries. It's fun without being solely frivolous.
Though it never really went away, it's great to see Stokehouse back at the top of its game. The dining room, pared back to its essentials, is a thing of thoroughly Australian beauty, and this, combined with the seaside location, makes it close to the best place in town to have lunch. The kitchen is also showing the benefits of having some cash splashed, allowing a more precise side to Anthony Musarra to make its presence felt alongside his crowd-pleasing, democratic one. But best of all, the essence of Stokehouse has been retained, even enhanced, by all the changes. Trepidation has made way for relief.