My first attempt at landing a table upstairs in the resurrected Stokehouse failed. But it still had its moments. I walked in early one weekday in December at lunch soon after the restaurant had reopened. I didn't have a booking - I'd been told the place had booked solid until March the moment reservations opened - but I thought there might be a couple of tables set aside for walk-ins. A cancellation, perhaps. The place was still partly a construction site after all, the upstairs bar weeks from completion. Surely people would hold back until it was closer to ready. Wrong. I was informed politely, firmly and quickly that there wasn't a single available seat. And as if to prove the point, I was invited to take a quick look at the dining room.
Walking into that mostly completed and already busy space was a strange, lovely experience, the best kind of déjà vu.
It is, of course, different. For starters, it's in a building that's larger and more architecturally ambitious than the 110-year-old timber original that famously burnt down during a dinner service in 2014. The ceilings are higher, the dimensions grander. The views of the bay, seen through larger windows, are more encompassing and there's a large semi-open terrace down the bar end. Charred timber screens in front of the windows protect diners from the glare and throw dappled light across the room. Then the glare dissipates, and the room's most theatrical moment happens - a button is pushed, the screens slowly retract and the view opens out to the full panorama. It's unmistakably modern. And yet it's still very Stokehouse.
There are the same Arne Jacobsen "Series 7" chairs in pastel shades around linen-covered tables. The timber floor is more rough-hewn than in the original but it gives the room the same relaxed atmosphere, the same timber also wrapping some of the walls. There are brass details, most notably above the large central light fittings - massed hand-blown frosted glass tubes - referencing similar metallic details that had graced the old room. There is still Thievery Corporation on the playlist and the crowd this day - groups of colourfully dressed women with expensive hair and shoes, well-groomed men with rich tans and much younger lunch companions, boisterously celebratory mixed groups feeling good about themselves - look as comfortably at home in this new version of their clubhouse as the old one.
From the outside, the looming concrete building housing the Stokehouse Precinct (the collective for the three businesses now housed there - the restaurant, the more casual Pontoon and a fish-and-chippery) couldn't be more different from the old building on the St Kilda foreshore. The box-like forms and the ground floor, hidden from the street behind a man-made sand dune planted with indigenous beach flora, point to owner Frank van Haandel and architect Robert Simeoni deciding on landmark over replica.
Grilled beef with lemon, watercress and jus.
But the interior of the upstairs restaurant, designed by Pascale Gomes-McNabb, has cleverly captured the atmosphere of the original Stokehouse. It's an unmistakably modern room but you also feel that you can party like it's 1989.
Fast forward a month or so after the failed attempt to secure a table by stealth and the "completely booked out until March" story seems to have softened. Armed with a legitimate booking and a window-side table in the dining room, I'm again struck by the sense of familiarity. Especially when the menu arrives.
It's not just that dishes have reappeared verbatim from the old menu. "The Bombe", the exuberantly sweet meringue and parfait dessert fixture, is here, as are the fish and chips and a couple of steaks from reputable producers, but it's the general approach of the menu that ramps up the déjà vu.
Frank van Haandel sometimes calls the style "resort food". Dishes are pitched to be a part of the equation alongside the location, view, interiors, cocktails and crowd rather than the focal point. The menu favours accessibility over complexity. Flavour combinations are designed to soothe rather than challenge. It was how the old Stokehouse earned a crust and there's an "if it ain't broke" kind of feeling with the new iteration.
There's a familiar emphasis on seafood, particularly with the raw bar section at the head of the carte, and it's here that one of the restaurant's best dishes resides. Tuna, wasabi and radish always make happy playmates and the version here sees the tuna marinated briefly in white soy before it's blowtorched, cut into long, thin pieces, sprinkled with sesame seeds flavoured with bonito and roasted. A geometric smear of palest green wasabi syllabub packs low-key heat, and little pink cubes of pickled daikon bring the crunch. It's a well-constructed crowd-pleaser, presented with a panache that is almost retro.
Market fish with smoked almond purée, beurre noisette, carrot reduction.
The smoked eel pâté is another looker. It's studded with oat crackers and dusted with a fine dark-green bay-leaf powder. The pâté is good, very good even, with the salty, sweet smoky eel happily mixing with crème fraîche, horseradish and herbs. The texture is fine, too, just firm enough so it stays where it needs to be. The problem is with the crackers - they're so delicate that they tend to snap when you try to use them to scoop up the pâté. It makes what should be a clean and easy snack messy and a little bit exasperating. First-world problems? Absolutely. But it's something you'd hope the kitchen would've worked out by now. It's a pity because the crackers are as tasty as they are good looking. They just need to harden up.
A new kitchen and kitchen team means that there's a bit of this hit and miss with the Stokehouse menu at the moment. Understandable teething problems perhaps, but less forgivable given the prices.
Fish and chips, for example, is not the signature dish it should be: King George whiting coated in a tough, sourdough crumb, the fish underneath it dryer than you'd hope. Anyone who's eaten the fried fish at Paper Fish, Stokehouse's fish-and-chip kiosk by the building's beachfront, right on the boardwalk, might wonder why the light and lacy tempura batter they've got going on down there isn't making an appearance upstairs. According to Stokehouse head chef Ollie Hansford, the choice of fish is being reconsidered. Good thing.
Roasted beetroot tart, burnt macadamia, dandelion leaves, fenugreek.
The chips, on the other hand, are triple-cooked things of beauty and the accompanying tartare sauce has a salty, capery punch and verve.
There's punch and verve elsewhere, too. Western Australian arrowhead squid, roasted hot enough to leave a smoky torched quality, makes an excellent salad dressed in a lemon vinaigrette and accompanied by sharp-sweet pickled green mango and a punchy salsa verde with lemon myrtle and black mountain pepper in the mix.
Agnolotti stuffed with scallop mousse, topped with spanner crab and a seafood bisque and corn sauce is lifted with the addition of fermented chilli that adds a noticeable but finely tuned whack of heat. The tartare of Cape Grim eye fillet is cut to order, and reinterpreted interestingly with lime juice and fish sauce alongside puffed grains, sorrel leaves and an odd, slightly Vegemitey black-garlic purée.
There's a dessert on the current list that should give "The Bombe" a run for its money. The peanut butter semifreddo is a well-adjusted member of its species, beautifully textured without a hint of ice and peanutty enough without being childish. It comes with a dark chocolate macaron, macerated cherries that loll about in a dark chocolate sauce, candied peanuts and a quenelle of fresh cream. It's not subtle, but it flamboyantly delivers.
Perhaps the most surprising part of the new Stokehouse package is the quality of the service. At a time when there's much gnashing of teeth in the trade about a dire shortage of experienced waiters, the team here is charming, professional and efficient. Perhaps good waiters are as seduced by water views as the rest of us.
The wine list by head sommelier Gavin Cremming is similarly impressive and is one part of Stokehouse version 2.0 that feels very much of the present. There's plenty of impressive Champagne at similarly impressive prices and those after a blow-out on Raveneau, Romanée Conti or Grange will have their needs met. But there's also some really worthwhile drinking under $100, including a smattering of interesting new stuff from Australian makers like Ochota Barrels and Manon, alongside South African chenin blanc and Georgian rkatsiteli. The offer by the glass list is sharp, varied and generous, too.
The staggered openings of the Precinct - Paper Fish, followed by downstairs casual and DJ-soundtracked Pontoon, followed by the restaurant and then parts of the bar upstairs - has felt like the restaurant equivalent of a fan dance. Doing it piecemeal like this, with the continuing mess and noise of construction as a backdrop, hasn't been the ideal way to reveal a brand new day. But bills have to be paid and, as its instant popularity suggests, people are prepared to compromise a little for the things they love. And love is exactly what Melbourne has for the Stokehouse. It's great to have it back.