Restaurant Reviews

The Atlantic, Melbourne restaurant review

At the helm of big-time venture The Atlantic, Donovan Cooke’s boutique origins and characteristic attention to detail stand him in good stead, writes Michael Harden.

By Michael Harden

There's a lot of big at The Atlantic. Crown's latest high-profile Yarra-side addition weighs in at 300 seats over several areas including an oyster bar and a downstairs cocktail lounge and so the place is, despite being carved up into a series of smaller spaces, physically imposing. Then there's the big name of its front man, chef Donovan Cooke, who delivers a hefty, daily changing, mostly seafood menu from a big, open kitchen attended by a large troupe of chefs.

After figuring in that The Atlantic is owned by the Atlantic Group, best known for large reception venues in Docklands, and that it has engulfed the sites of two former restaurants on Crown's prime promenade, you could get the impression that all this super-sizing might see a restaurant too big for its britches.

But just when you think that you've got a handle on what makes The Atlantic tick - that it's just an incarnation of a high-volume seafood barn given a designer makeover, expensive views and a marketing budget - chef Cooke will send out a dish that stops those preconceptions in their tracks.

Take his beautifully textured and subtly voluptuous dish of soft scrambled eggs topped with briny pale-orange sea urchin and oscietra caviar, finished with a light, shimmering Champagne foam. Served with slices of toasted brioche and sprinkled with a few finely diced chives, this dish ticks boxes with wild abandon, balancing the warmed rock-pool intensity of the urchin with the slightly sweet acidity of the foam and the creamy wholesomeness of the slow-cooked eggs.

Then there's the paprika-marinated octopus salad, Cooke's version of the time-honoured Galician dish, splayed out across a slab of dark grey slate, the chunks of octopus nestling among salad leaves, halved caperberries, pieces of Ortiz anchovy, Ligurian olives, vibrant orange drips of capsicum coulis and cool green daubs of rocket pesto. The octopus is cooked sous vide, giving it an addictively appealing sashimi-like texture, but this is a dish that rewards mixing and eating all the ingredients together, despite it looking almost too pretty to disturb. The paprika is certainly a strong presence but the main impression when you add in the salt of the anchovy, the tang of the caperberries and the earthiness of the olives is one of finely tuned, deftly conceived balance, a sophisticated retelling of a dish with decidedly rustic roots.

That there's this level of finesse and balance at The Atlantic won't come as a surprise to people who have experienced Cooke's food before. Something of a culinary cult figure in Melbourne because of his involvement in restaurants such as Est Est Est, Luxe and Ondine, the English-born chef's appointment at the casino restaurant seems light years away from those more intimate and artisanal places and closer in spirit to his more recent projects, like the Hong Kong Jockey Club.

Still, despite the slightly overwhelming size of the menu - hot and cold starters, lists of oysters and caviar, enormous seafood platters, fish on and off the bone prepared in a variety of different ways and with different sauces - Cooke's attention to detail has not wavered in his progression from small to large, and his knack for plating food in artful, pretty ways is very much present.

It's a good thing that there's some visual drama on the plate (the most obvious example being the $85 a head Atlantic seafood platter, served on traditional metal stands, bristling with a pile of expensive crustaceans and emerging from the kitchen with startling regularity) because the dining room is muted to the point of being a bit dull. The palate is all greys and grey-blues, from the grey stone tiles to the marine-like patches of carpet. With raw timber panelling channelling weathered jetty timber and light fittings that riff on lobster pots and seaweed, there's no doubt that a fishing/ocean theme was part of the design brief, but it seems that in a desire to steer clear of cliché, it has ended up playing it too safe. Still, with river frontage, city views and crowds of tourists getting their photos taken against the backdrop of the casino fireballs, there's enough to keep you occupied until the next dish arrives.

The wine list also makes for some distracting reading. Nicely assembled by former Sydneysider James Dossan, it's a list that's in tune with both the casino setting (newly flush high rollers can splash $3500 on a 1996 Domaine Romanée-Conti Romanée St Vivant Grand Cru Burgundy) and the seafood bent of the menu, even-handedly balancing Old and New World fish-friendly labels.

The dining room is given another lift by the quality of the service team here, led by Joe Antonino, a long-time presence at Café Di Stasio, and Jeffrey Fan, who worked with Cooke in Hong Kong and has a seemingly encyclopaedic knowledge of how every dish is conceived and constructed. The floor staff not only know their way around the menu - quite a feat when it changes substantially every day - but also know how to time a meal so you don't feel as if you're being rushed or allowed to gather moss. In a large restaurant with many tucked-away and screened-off spaces, this is undoubtedly trickier than it looks.

The kitchen team at The Atlantic is also bolstered with members of Cooke's Hong Kong crew, though the menu sticks mainly to the European side of the equation. When it does dip its toes in Asian cuisine, such as with a truly excellent version of soft-shell crab tempura served with fried chilli, fresh coriander and a snappy, salty little ponzu and jalapeño dipping sauce, the results point to a kitchen more than capable of broadening its horizons.

With a menu this size, you probably wouldn't want it to grow too much further for fear of some sort of decision-making-induced meltdown. It's difficult enough to choose between the quasi-signature cold starter of picked blue swimmer crab meat lolling over a carpet of thinly sliced, lightly pickled beetroot teamed with a pickled-beetroot jelly, basil and little tangy explosions of finger lime, and the kingfish carpaccio laid out against a dark plate, topped with a pickled-ginger-dressed salad of fennel ribbons and citrus, sprinkled with dried and powdered citrus peel. They're both good dishes with appealing and surprising textural elements (but if it's one or the other, the crab nudges ahead).

The Atlantic seafood cocktail is a good choice for the decision-challenged, offering as it does three or four different crustaceans that might include (depending on availability) lobster, Moreton Bay bugs, crabs and prawns. The sea creatures are usually teamed with a sweet element such as rockmelon jelly or slices of apple and there'll always be another ingredient, perhaps crisped-up pieces of jamón Ibérico. It's served in a slightly annoying (and off-puttingly bedpan-ish) glass receptacle - you have to rummage around to get at the food, but perhaps the lucky dip nature of what emerges with each forkful is part of the dish's charm.

It would be missing the point slightly to come to The Atlantic and not order something from the section of the menu headed "Today's Catch". This is where whole fish is cooked on the bone (woodfired, roasted or steamed) and presented simply garnished with lemon wedges and one of four different sauces, one being a sensational (particularly with woodfired baby snapper) Antiboise made with shallots, olive oil, olives, tomato, lemon, basil and coriander and bursting with vibrant flavour.

Then there's the choice of fish "off the bone" that might include a workman-like, underwhelming version of fried fish (whiting) and chips or an excellent black bream en papillote where fillets of the locally caught fish are steamed in a paper bag with fish stock, ragoût of oyster mushrooms, leeks, celery, fennel and some shy, retiring Tasmanian truffle. The reveal - when the bag is torn open and the waft of things to come hits you - is brilliant with earthy aniseed aromas. The eating is good too, black bream being a firm-fleshed fish born to be steamed, with subtle flavours that play nicely with other ingredients without being overwhelmed by them.

The sweet end of the menu is in tune with the main list - light and balanced and injecting playfulness into the proceedings. There's the appealing pineapple and coconut bar: all two-toned 1970s corner-shop style with pineapple sherbet, coconut ice-cream, "twigs" of lime meringue and a rum-macerated Piña Colada salad. Or there's the cassonade, a spiced crème brûlée-like dessert that arrives in a flip-top jar, its surface studded with pistachio praline, served with baked figs and little wafers of sticky baklava. It's good looking and fun to eat.

It's these small elements - meticulous presentation, whimsical touches, the democratic embrace of both sea urchin and seafood cocktail, the skilled cooking - that keep this casino behemoth from being overwhelmed by its size. Cooke's attention to detail has always been an important part of his success. That he's able to translate that attention to detail in a restaurant of this size, in this location, now means success for The Atlantic.