Relaxed. It's never been a word to spring to mind in relation to Vue de Monde, nor is it an obvious choice when imagining this latest version of Shannon Bennett's fine-diner, 55 stories above the CBD on the former observation deck of the Rialto building. But relaxed it has become. Not in terms of standards, and certainly not in terms of prices or theatricality, but in attitude and (without getting too hippie about it) in feel. This new Vue de Monde is a warmer, more tactile and more personable beast than previous incarnations, and with the obvious addition of a cracking view, it's become a restaurant that can be thoroughly enjoyed as well as admired.
The tables are a good place to come to grips with the new approach. First off, there are no cloths, in line with an environmental policy that encompasses various forms of recycling, composting and energy saving across the restaurant. The policy probably has its roots in sentiments both noble and, in the current climate, pragmatic. This is, after all, a location that demands every micro herb take a 55-storey lift ride before it graces a plate.
So instead of heavily laundered snowy white linen, the tables are covered in dark, textured kangaroo hide, stitched and tacked across the tabletop, over the sides and halfway down the thin dark timber legs. The hide is a lovely surface to lean on - and the first nod to the restaurant's Australiana theme. The table is empty apart from a meticulously arranged pile of smooth river pebbles and blackened sticks at its centre. At first glance, the arrangement seems like just another part of the elegant and natural décor - screens of darkened sticks cover the ceiling and a glimmering curving wall riffs on corrugated iron - and it certainly plays that role. But as the meal progresses, the sticks and stones become integrated into the meal: the gnarled sticks (actually Penfolds Grange vines) become cutlery rests, the larger stones open to reveal salt and pepper or to become receptacles for the butter that is formed into quenelles at the table. Other stones have slits cut into them to hold steak knives that arrive with the meat courses.
There's more stonework involved when the bread and appetisers arrive. The bread lands in a kangaroo leather pouch with heated rocks in the bottom and the bread plates are slivers of polished bluestone. Three of the four appetisers - beautifully seasoned venison tartare sandwiched between thin sheets of crisp dried venison meat; a pleasingly strange truffle marshmallow dusted with salt, truffle crumbs and crushed coconut charcoal; little rods of raw pumpkin topped with lemon yoghurt and toasted pumpkin seeds - sit on top of bluestone chunks. The fourth of the appetiser quartet, a bite-sized square of intense smoked eel topped with a sliver of clear, crisp white chocolate praline and caviar, arrives on an earthenware plate, paler but similarly textural.
Even the cutlery, Christofle etched with tattoo-like botanical forms that snake up the handles and onto the blades of the knives and the bowls of the spoons, carries on the tactile theme, and it's this touchy-feely approach and the sense of interactive fun and theatricality it brings that adds to the feeling that the new Vue has loosened its belt a notch or two.
It certainly appears that this has happened with the wine, particularly the wine service. Of course it's still frighteningly easy to blow a huge hole in your budget at Vue de Monde and the top end of the lengthy, remarkable, global, benchmark-packed list can make a $200 bottle of wine look like a bargain. But it's also become easier to navigate your way through the night without thoughts of having to hock your first-born. The by-the-glass list even features prices that drop into single figures, and the sommeliers are as enthusiastic about pouring the Mendozan malbec as they are about the Piedmont Barolo, surely a sign of a restaurant wanting to shake off perceptions of exclusivity.
Having the kitchen in the centre of the room with the marble pass at the same level as the tables that surround it adds to the looser feel, as does the new custom of allowing the chefs to venture into the restaurant to serve some dishes at the table. There's something quite endearing about these chefs - relatively new with customer interaction and still a bit shy and stiff - getting a little bit excited when they reveal some of Vue de Monde's more theatrical moments.
One of these is the nifty palate cleanser that starts with a wooden pestle landing on the table followed by a mortar filled with fresh lemon balm, baby parsley shoots, wood sorrel, pineapple sage flowers and tiny lime grains. Liquid nitrogen is poured over the top of these, and when it's done its thing, you grind up the frozen leaves and flowers into a crumb that coats the truly lovely cucumber sorbet that's dropped into the mortar after the grinding is done. It's not just a zesty, refreshing success as a cleanser, it also provides a bit of slightly ridiculous, giggly fun. Relaxing.
In a Mugaritz-like move, you are presented at the start of the meal with two pieces of paper sealed with gold wax that offer you "choice" or "freedom" - a cuddlier version of the Spanish restaurant's "submit" or "rebel".
"Choice" is the four-course à la carte option, offering a choice of four entrees, four mains and four desserts with a cheese course in third spot. "Freedom" is the $250-a-head, 10-course behemoth that demands enthusiastic commitment in terms of time and stomach capacity.
Both menus take a similar path in showcasing finely crafted French and molecular technique, artistic plating and a sense of playfulness from Bennett and his head chef Cory Campbell (ex Noma). But in the new Vue, the sense of the local is not confined to the décor; it's also obvious on the plate.
This can be as literal as a dish of kangaroo meat, just seared to a smoky rare on a yakitori grill, teamed with roasted radish, baby turnips and burnt butter sauce and served on a slab of fresh yellow box that's been heated under the salamander so it releases oils that subtly flavour the dish. Or it can reside in the locally foraged beach herbs - tangy pig face and saltbush -that accompany the bluefin tuna: a "terrine" of braised, pickled and pressed tuna head, some belly and some loin, served with fresh and dehydrated fennel, a brilliant, sinus-clearing horseradish foam, and wasabi leaves.
Bennett's connection with the kitchen garden at the Heide Museum of Modern Art ensures that most dishes have at least a small taste of freshly harvested produce. A dish of pork - pressed pig's head rolled in polenta and fried, a roasted loin wrapped in a ribbon-like swirl of apple, pickled and roasted leeks and smoked-bone-marrow sauce - is finished with sheep sorrel from the garden. A simple, pale and lovely spanner crab salad - all pale discs of kohlrabi, deep green avocado purée, lime gel and black dollops of caviar - is spruced up with tiny fresh sprigs of wood sorrel. Manjimup truffles mingle with a brilliant, comforting breakfast-like dish of duck-egg yolk, pickled onion, onion rings, fried bread and lamb sweetbread sausage. Mushrooms from the Dandenong Ranges drift in and flavour a broth infused (at the table) with Huon pine needles and shavings and walnuts.
Bennett has always known how to have fun with the sweet end of the meal. Signature sweet appetisers lead the way to some fantastically realised sweet things, such as the mandarin and milk sorbet "Weis bar", pale and rich and creamy, surrounded by fresh mandarin segments that have been briefly poached in sugar syrup, and intense, crunchy piles of dried mandarin. Or there might be the deconstructed lemon meringue tart, looking like a cartoon village with its twirly meringue cones, mounds of aerated chocolate infused with lime, and oozing yellow lemon curd. They're desserts designed to make you smile and they do. As do the Aussie-style petit fours - charming, one-bite, slightly whimsical takes on the likes of jubes, lamingtons and Golden Gaytimes.
With the dramatically outfitted lift, the ride to the top, the guided walk through the wine cellar to the dining room and that incredible sparkling view, there's no doubt Vue de Monde packs a grand punch. But while this remains a seriously good restaurant ferociously committed to the details, Vue de Monde seems to have lightened up in its new lofty location. It's taking itself a little less seriously. Dining here is fun now. It's memorable. And it's relaxed.