Until about six months ago, any reputation The Deanery had was almost solely for its wine. Fashioned from a former car park at the end of a Melbourne CBD lane, The Deanery has a temperature- and light-controlled wine storage facility available to cellar-bereft wine buffs wanting to store their collections in optimum conditions. Those who rent space in The Deanery's cellar can consume their stash in the restaurant and bar, something that has always made the space feel something like a wine club.
Not surprisingly, owner Anthony Jones knows a thing or two about wine, and since The Deanery opened in 2002, its wine list has collected a swag of awards and a solid reputation, particularly for its reserve list.
Food-wise, the ride's been a little bumpier with inconsistency seemingly the restaurant's main feature. But earlier this year, when chef Robin Wickens became available after the closure of his Fitzroy restaurant Interlude, a decision was made to get him on board, which amped up the restaurant's dining credentials.
Wickens is an excellent cook with an artist's eye for plating and an innately interesting sense of balance in terms of both flavour and texture. He's a fan of the modern Spanish techniques and philosophies pioneered by Ferran Adrià. His food at Interlude had a reputation for wackiness that sometimes obscured the rock-solid technique underpinning the amusement-park ride of his soil- and air-littered dégustation menus.
At The Deanery, Wickens is obviously having to cater for a more specifically city/business crowd. The dégustation-only element may have disappeared (though the option is still available), and the structure of the menu is more classically à la carte, but there's nothing conservative or compromised about his food in its new home. It still has elements of whimsy and humour, is still bristling with modern techniques and texture modification, but now it seems more about eating than theatre. Having to rein it in slightly might actually have done Wickens a favour.
What's not doing him any favours is the tired, dowdy dining room. Both the bar and the restaurant are in serious need of a spruce. The good bones of an effective dark and dramatic industrial space are there, particularly with the glass-walled wine storage unit as a feature and the theatrical flight of stairs leading to the mezzanine dining room. But clunky, worn furniture, bog-standard napkins and tablecloths and gloomy - as opposed to moody - lighting detract from the experience. It may be comfortingly familiar to dusty old wine buffs but it doesn't cut it with a wider crowd.
What makes the décor even more mystifying is that everything else about the restaurant is functioning beautifully, not just the impressive, wide-ranging wine list but the sharp, informed and charming service. The room doesn't suit the rest of the picture.
But concerns about the surrounds can almost be pushed to one side once the food begins to arrive, starting with the two or three varieties of excellent housemade bread - perhaps pumpkin and hazelnut or caraway and raisin - served with good salty butter.
A beautifully textured lamb tartare studded with capers, cornichons and shallots sits on a bed of deep brown "roasted" couscous that has been fried in smoking hot oil and then doused in water infused with garlic and rosemary. The meat is surrounded by little piles of hard-boiled egg, finely minced and separated into yolk and white, small blobs of mustard and a scattering of crunchy puffed wild rice.
Fried sardines, slightly vinegary like an escabeche, are teamed with a white gazpacho, classically made with cucumber, grapes, almonds and bread but set with gelatine and refrigerated so that it has the look and texture of a mousse. Also sharing the plate are a nicely tangy dry Spanish sherry jelly and thin slivers of frozen fennel, slightly crunchy, their chilliness wonderfully refreshing.
A dish of blue swimmer crab with "variations of sweetcorn" might be familiar to anybody who ate at Interlude. It combines simple looks and complicated technique to great effect. The swimmer crab, shredded and mixed with tomatoes, chives, lemon juice and mayonnaise (flavoured with corn), is topped with a cellophane-like ribbon of sweetcorn jelly, surrounded by a hot sweetcorn foam and sprinkled with raw and freeze-dried kernels of sweetcorn. The crabmeat remains the hero but is underlined by the earthy sweetness of the corn that is crunchy and chewy, hot and cold, subtle and concentrated.
Wickens cooks all his meat sous vide and his beef dish is no exception. The grass-fed sirloin is teamed with onions in many forms - white onion purée, brown onion filled with a French onion soup mousse, grilled spring onions and red onion crisps - and comes with a potato gratin made with cream and milk that have been smoked over hickory chips. It is a version of a classic steak and potato dish and certainly works on a hearty, meaty level, but the added textural and flavour elements also make it truly interesting to eat.
The duck dish is the busiest on the menu and perhaps the most startling in terms of ingredient combinations. Confit duck legs mixed with maple syrup and duck fat are rolled in a long sliver of potato that is cooked to a pastry-like crispness. There are slices of duck breast topped with dehydrated pancetta, caramelised celeriac mash, a duck jus studded with dates and dehydrated maple syrup sprinkled in granules over the top. Surprisingly, this potential car crash of flavours really works because of Wickens' balance and restraint. There is salt and sweet, earthiness and delicacy, silkiness and crunch. It is rich and robust but not overwhelmingly so, and that's the secret of its success.
The texture ride doesn't finish with the savoury courses. An excellent lemon polenta cake, like a sticky sponge pudding, is teamed with a ginger beer jelly, passionfruit gel and puffed quinoa, slightly sweetened with sugar. Adding further texture are diced dried apricots and a sprinkling of crushed, freeze-dried raspberries.
Similarly solid is the apple sponge cake, cut into cubes that cascade down the side of a large white plate mixed with crushed hobnob biscuits, a panna cotta-like vanilla custard, raisins and cinnamon foam.
It's great to see The Deanery's wine list finally teamed with food that can play to its strengths. Wickens' cooking is easily up to the task, interesting and possibly more enjoyable than ever now that some of its more gimmicky excesses have been toned down. At present the room lets the team down. Get that right and The Deanery could be a destination where wine is just one part of an enviable reputation.