Frank and Sharon van Haandel's latest venture, Trocadero, has presented Melbourne with something of a light-bulb moment. Until now, the wining and dining in Melbourne's cultural edifices have largely been provided by contracted catering companies feeding people fast, a fact somewhat at odds with the city's reputation as an arts hub and great food destination. But this paradigm has been overturned at the newly refurbished Hamer Hall, where purpose-designed restaurants run by proven operators - such as the van Haandels - are connecting the city's art and food cultures so seamlessly that you can't help thinking: why didn't we think of this before?
Hamer Hall's recent remodelling has been overwhelmingly deemed $136-million well spent, and not just for the improved acoustics in the concert hall itself. The clever opening up of the formerly clunky, even forbidding, river-side access to the building by architects Ashton, Raggatt and McDougall is a triumph, with windows, promenades and great views adding a new sense of connection to the city. But the revamp has forged other connections that go beyond bricks and mortar (and impressive sculptural concrete). Trocadero, focused, flexible and sophisticated, is one of the best of these.
This isn't to say that there are any wheels being reinvented here. This is a restaurant that deliberately sticks to the middle tier of dining that Melbourne does so well. A quick scoot through the Trocadero menu reveals chef Nick Bennett's eye for the crowd-pleasing end of the spectrum, with items such as Moonlight Flat oysters, quality charcuterie, pasta, steak and chocolate pudding, and a modern-European tone with the occasional Asian influence surfacing here and there.
In keeping with this approach, the young, uniformed staff, led by restaurant manager Marty McCaig, efficiently fill water glasses and quickly replace dropped cutlery, while maintaining a relaxed and friendly vibe. The wine service is excellent too - chatty, jargon-free and in sync with the reasonably lengthy list. At just under 20 pages it manages a broad geographical spread (Argentine malbec, Austrian riesling, Tasmanian sparkling, Spanish grenache, Slovenian pinot gris), and prices, for those not opting for vintage Krug, are at an entirely reasonable level.
But while the ground that Trocadero is staking is familiar, it's not predictable. Nick Bennett doesn't do showy culinary gymnastics, but he avoids the formulaic. Interesting textures, flavours and colours are present across the menu, transforming seemingly simple dishes into meals that are artful and subtly complex. It's a good fit with the arts precinct.
His onion risotto is a case in point. It arrives in a wide, shallow white bowl that emphasises the homely caramelised-onion colour. The flavour is just as comforting - deep and intense with a sweet-salty back beat. It's the nifty textural elements, though, that elevate this dish beyond the rustic - little onions pickled in honey vinegar with charred edges, brittle prisms of onion tuille and excellent, slightly sweet, toasted buckwheat grains.
Then there's a vibrant green nettle velouté that's poured around an "egg in the basket" (a square of toasted brioche with a quail egg sitting in a hole in the centre), topped with a foam of perfectly salty potato, leek and milk, and watercress leaves. The dish is comforting, but as the visual drama of deep green liquid against black bowl attests, the kitchen is paying attention to how things look too.
This attention to detail isn't surprising given the presence of the van Haandel name. Design has always been central to their businesses - Stokehouse, Stokehouse Brisbane, Comme, Mr Tulk - and it's true of Trocadero too. Architect Alan Powell designed the bar and brasserie, design firm Projects of Imagination created the signage, and the main promenade entrance is decorated with a sinuous mural by Japanese street-artist Jun Inoue that channels graffiti and calligraphy.
The dining and bar spaces are quite distinct. The glamorous bar - the first point of contact for theatre patrons, who can enter from Hamer Hall - references the concert venue's reflective, theatrical interiors with its gold, mirrored bar, chrome pillars and black-flecked terrazzo-like floor. Its snack menu is perfect for those wanting to grab a quick bite before the show: Ortiz anchovies served with a beetroot rémoulade and crisped-up rye bread, minute steak with sauce Lyonnaise, soup, an omelette. Add a compact list of classic cocktails, a generous number of wines by the glass, and a bunch of comfortable timber-legged bar stools and you can see the bar fulfilling its role as concert-hall pit-stop admirably.
The carpeted dining room, with its dark-stained Thonet chairs, marble-topped Tom Dixon screw tables, charcoal banquettes, imposing concrete pillars and mirrored walls scrawled with tricky-to-read daily specials, is a more self-conscious space with a monochromatic colour scheme that sports 50 shades of grey. The floor staff and the bluestone-clad exterior are similarly colour coordinated, but the room is saved from the brink of dour by the pretty city lights beyond the floor-to-ceiling windows.
There's plenty of sparkle in the food though. It's there in the kingfish tartare that's diced to order, tossed with a lemon emulsion, capers and diced shallots and topped with a wonderfully tangy and crunchy combination of pomelo segments, tiny onion rings and croûtons. The cylinder of diced fish is accompanied by an excellent dill and caper-heavy green sauce, some toasted nori and a small dab of ginger mayo. It's a busy dish, but a well crafted one, and it pulls its many elements together in a way that makes complete sense.
Similar sense can be made of a sesame tuna dish that teams rounds of just-seared sashimi-grade tuna crusted with pan-fried sesame seeds (black and white) with a miso and eggplant purée, thin dehydrated cross-sections of Japanese eggplant and a subtle citrus aïoli. Texture and design again play a starring role here, though the gratuitous smearing of the purée across the plate feels a little out of step with the clean-lined Japanese influences in the dish.
There are no such reservations about the look of Trocadero's garfish pie. With the garfish head and tail poking theatrically out either end of a gorgeously glossy puff pastry, this is a signature in the making if ever there was one. Under the puff there's a wonderful combination of boned garfish, a brandade made with béchamel, salted cod and tuna and a layer of smoked salmon, all wrapped in a crêpe. Sharp looks and comforting flavours again play together very nicely.
Also playing that riff is a lamb dish that teams a couple of sprightly Flinders Island cutlets (perfectly cooked to slightly blushing) with salted and confit lamb-rib meat flavoured with vadouvan spices (a French-influenced Indian spice blend that includes shallots and garlic among the usual turmeric and fenugreek suspects). This comes with roasted salad onions, a jus gras and a small copper saucepan of pale yellow, super smooth aligot potato.
Sides are noteworthy in their own right: Bennett's Heston Blumenthal-influenced thrice-cooked chips are chunky labour-intensive morsels that are in and out of a blast chiller between being boiled and fried at a couple of different heats. Salty and crunchy in all the right places and topped with grated truffled pecorino, they're destined for top-10 lists.
Desserts push the boundaries a little further, but the design and comfort benchmarks are still firmly in place. The caramel panna cotta (or cooked cream as the menu insists) is a beauty: served in a balloon-style glass, it combines pears cooked in caramel with a caramel cream, a layer of sticky caramel ganache and a topping of excellent popcorn crumble. Another sweet favourite is the mixture of rice ice-cream (basically a rice pudding given the Pacojet treatment), microwaved sesame sponge, a miso-scented caramel, and rhubarb in several forms (pickled, dehydrated, gel). It travels from puzzling to revelatory in the space of one mouthful.
Frank and Sharon van Haandel (in partnership here with Stokehouse executive chef and van Haandel group general manager Anthony Musarra) certainly seem to know a thing or two about food businesses in cultural spaces. Mr Tulk, their bustling café at the State Library of Victoria, attracts many people who've never previously stepped foot in the library. Similarly, Trocadero offers plenty of reasons to eat here even if you don't have a ticket to a show. With its carefully considered food, sharp service and nicely honed wine list, it's more than a supporting act.