Fine dining is either super-sturdy or supernatural, given the number of times it's been pronounced dead over the years. Every time a top-tier restaurant calls it a day, the predictable hand-wringing and sage head-nodding about all fine dining going to hell follows. But just as video failed to kill the radio star, the shift towards a more casual and flexible style of eating is still a long way from doing terminal damage to the luxury end of the business. In fact, if Albert Park's The Point is anything to go by, old-school fine dining might just be making a comeback.
Recent changes to the way The Point goes about business have been incremental and subtle rather than radical, but they do amount to a politely rattled sabre announcing that the dining stakes here are being raised. Alongside the more frequent appearance of luxury ingredients - foie gras, lobster, pheasant, truffles - and classic sauces and sides hailing from the Escoffier school, there's also the occasional theatrical serving flourish that many presumed had gone the way of the dodo.
A good example of how this is played out comes from The Point's steak list. Since the days when Ian Curley was in charge of the kitchen here, the restaurant has been renowned for the quality and variety of its beef. It's a bias emphasised by the glass case filled with hanging slabs of dry-aging meat which awaits guests at the top of the stairs. That emphasis remains, with the menu listing six kinds of grass- and grain-fed steak (including 220gm of Blackmore's full-blood wagyu complete with extensive aging, a marble score of nine-plus and a price tag of $115), a three-steak tasting plate, and three further sharing options that are carved tableside on a smart new carving trolley, including a 1.2kg Cape Grim chateaubriand on the bone.
The chateaubriand is skilfully cooked and well supported by a cast of potatoes, broad beans, mushrooms and smoked bone marrow (not to mention various condiments). Having a trolley wheeled up to the table is a great form of drum roll, while seeing the meat carved with an impressive knife and impressive skill in front of you adds healthy doses of drama and retro charm to the experience of eating steak. It's the sort of thing that makes a meal memorable.
These front-of-house changes arrived with Bryan Lloyd, a former GT Maître d' of the Year, who came to The Point after nine years at Vue de Monde. Lloyd's is a particular and singular style, efficient and correct but without any of the stuffiness such a description might imply and with a hefty dose of dry wit. He has a finely tuned eye for detail and for recruiting staff who get the dining-room approach he likes, the sort who are always obliging but never obsequious.
The Point's oddly shaped dining room - a long, narrow space behind a curved glass wall overlooking Albert Park Lake - has always had the challenge of shaking off a slightly sterile reception-centre vibe. While vestiges of that challenge remain, under Lloyd's watch the room feels more cosseted and luxurious. Dark carpet, tables sporting candles and two layers of linen, kind lighting and sculptural ceiling details all help, and there are now fewer tables, something that adds a real sense of space and luxury. A wine table decked out with various decanters and other vinous paraphernalia has appeared too. It's a smart visual acknowledgement of the hefty, impressive wine list that has been one of the restaurant's strengths from the beginning.
A wine list of this size - about 30 pages bulging with multiple vintages of the Grange, Henschke Hill of Grace, Margaux and Yquem ilk - can elicit feelings of delight or dismay, depending on your wine expertise and how many times you've stared into space while a wine-buff companion loses themselves in page after page of benchmark labels. The good news is that the wine service is excellent courtesy of a two-pronged attack from sommeliers Jane Semple and Jack Nolan.
The rock-star labels on the wine list and the retro fine-dining feel front-of-house sit comfortably with chef Justin Wise's approach in the kitchen. He's interested in the techniques and refinement of classic French cooking and not afraid of big-ticket ingredients.
You get some idea of this approach early on with the amuse-bouche, a small square of foie gras parfait coated with brioche crumbs and served with a dollop of sweet, intense quince jelly. It does its job - setting the tone and stimulating the appetite - admirably.
Foie gras shows up elsewhere on the menu too, pan-seared to give a brittle crust and teamed with slivers of lobster, steamed Flinders Island Ceylon spinach, quince poached with brown sugar and roasted, and a slightly crunchy dehydrated walnut sponge. It's a busy but nicely orchestrated mix.
The lobster (or crayfish as the menu would have it) comes from Port Campbell and is used in another dish as the central ingredient, teamed with a classic Thermidor sauce. Tail meat is cooked with béchamel, mustard seed and a crust of parmesan, while meat from the head is included in a tiny Russian salad of mayo, carrots, snow pea shoots and lemon zest that sits on an admirably symmetrical pommes Anna. It's an excellent dish, heavy on the nostalgia, and one that makes you wonder why there's not a little more Thermidor in your life.
You might ask the same question about the snails after polishing off the beautiful vibrant green nettle soup - all butter, leeks, chicken stock and garlic - that hides the tender, garlicky little snails. As a final touch, a generous amount of fresh Manjimup truffle is grated over the soup at the table.
Another highlight is the chef's take on the traditional Japanese hotpot, shabu shabu. Thin slivers of wagyu from the top of the brisket are joined by log-grown shiitake, diced radish, dainty carrot flowers, spring onions and shiso cress in an absolutely superb, sparkling beef stock made from beef trimmings, without any bones or fat. The stock is both fortifying and delicate and allows all the other ingredients to make their presences felt, in both flavour and texture.
There's more excellent balance in the clean-tasting pan-seared Murray cod teamed with leeks braised in butter and a little cream, a silky parsnip purée, sweet roast Brussels sprouts and salty, smoky Avruga.
It's there, too, in the skilful handling of pheasant: confit thigh and a breast that's poached in a bag before being finished in the pan. The pheasant is served with chestnut purée, slippery jacks, braised Savoy cabbage and more truffle shavings (this time from Braidwood in New South Wales).
There's certainly a lot of technique on display here, but there's never the feeling that the ideas are overloaded. Plating-wise particularly, the food mostly steers clear of the splash-and-smear school, sticking to neat and artful arrangements favouring the ingredients rather than any garish garnishing.
Desserts break with this rule and with the general thrust of the menu, tending more towards the kind of sweet stuff that's made from a wealth of small bits which often don't gel as a whole. The jokey, playful banana cake with bubblegum ice-cream, popping candy, chocolate and caramel sauce and marshmallows, for example, seems to belong to a different menu in terms of approach and taste.
A pre-dessert crème anglaise foam, creaming-soda sorbet and passionfruit is better - simpler, with a more coherent approach. A frenetic dish of white chocolate and lemon ganache that has mint meringues, mint jelly and frozen lemon marshmallow in the mix has its moments, especially in its broad range of textures.
The Point has always aspired to the finer end of the dining spectrum and has found its successes doing so. But this latest incarnation from a team with a fond eye on the past and obvious ambitions for the restaurant's future has hit on a formula that's changed the feel and pumped up the luxury. Casual and flexible are wonderful adjectives but there are times when pampered is the one that best fits the bill.