Wilson & Market's truffle, egg, soft polenta and parmesan dish should come with a trigger warning. Whether first encountered at the gaudy Radii restaurant late last century, or the sceney Botanical Hotel early in this one, Paul Wilson's signature dish - luxury and comfort all at once - made an impression, and its reappearance has the power to induce the culinary equivalent of an acid flashback. Once it dawns that Wilson's back cooking the kind of food that made Melbourne embrace him in the first place, there may even be some hyperventilation.
Inside Wilson & Market
Twenty years ago, Wilson swept into town along with a gaggle of other young British chefs - the Brit-pack - bringing with him a classic French and modern British take on Australian ingredients. Now, after a period exploring Latin American cuisine, Wilson and his wife, Bec, have gone back to the future with their new venture at Prahran Market. Classic Eurocentric combinations. Carefully sourced, sustainable ingredients. Big flavours. Big portions
First impressions are a little fuzzy. Varying sections, fonts and colours don't make Wilson & Market's menu easy to navigate. Is the bread with seaweed butter really an appetiser? Does the single vegan main course require its own section? And why are some dishes printed in hard-to-read red?
But as soon as you figure out what it's trying to say, things start looking up. Who wouldn't be happy with a carte that includes five types of oysters, pasture-fed beef, rôtisserie-cooked pork and poultry, and whole fish barbecued over wood? Or with the collection of creative all-organic vegetable dishes such as caramelised Brussels sprouts with chestnuts and dukkah?
The eating is far better than the reading, too. The smoked ocean trout, for instance, is brined, cold-smoked, coated with a dark-green crust of sea lettuce, dill, chervil and chives and served with a devilled egg and a sprightly relish of pickled seasonal vegetables.
Smoked Petuna ocean trout and devilled egg
Local calamari picks up a bit of smoke and char on the barbecue before it's tossed in a radicchio and fennel salad with house-made guanciale and a cracking vinaigrette flavoured with mustard fruits and tarragon.
The risotto, loaded with sea urchin and pieces of shallow-fried soft-shell mud crab, is rich and intense, sitting on a base of brick-red sauce flavoured with crab stock, fennel seeds, saffron, white wine and Grana Padano.
Crème brûlée gains raisiny oomph from Rutherglen muscat, while a hot lemon delicious pudding arrives topped with Amalfi lemon cream, oozing thick, sweet marmalade. Phew.
Rich is the word. And with it all so generously proportioned, it's easy to become overwhelmed unless you're in a group of four or more.
Assembling a party is certainly the best way to appreciate Wilson & Market. The room, sleek-lined with timber and stone floors, and neutral tones, is noisy when full, and easily lends itself to dining in numbers.
Hot lemon delicious pudding with Amalfi lemon cream
Should the conversation flag, the main design flourish - a series of large photos of naked women, adorned with horns or draped in labradors - provides a talking point. You could start with: is it art, or is it just a little embarrassing?
Or you could just order one of two signature whole chickens: a Milawa bird, or a superb Milking Yard Farm Sommerlad. They come with a salad of simply dressed leaves and a copper pan filled with a "stuffing" of fried garlic croûtons, dried sour cherries, toasted pine nuts and salty, crunchy bacon bits.
You might also find a kilo of rump on the menu, or if you're lucky, smoked and roasted suckling pig - leg, shoulder, plus saddle stuffed with chestnuts and sausage meat - served with muntries.
The dining room at Wilson & Market
Wilson & Market also operates as a bottle shop. Only bottles under $80 attract the $15 corkage when drinking in, so you may be tempted to stretch upwards, but either way you can refresh reasonably and well from a user-friendly collection of wines from all points New and Old World. Choices include a good chenin blanc by South Africa's Badenhorst family, a biodynamic romorantin from Domaine Huards in the Loire Valley or a Rob Dolin pinot noir from the Yarra Valley. The list isn't challenging or edgy, but it's firm friends with the food.
With its all-day café, bottle shop, crustacean bar, and an all-weather bar complementing the main brasserie, Wilson & Market has a lot going on. It can feel unfocused, but there's no doubting the anchoring power of Paul Wilson's cooking. A meticulous researcher, a stickler for organic and sustainable principles and a bloody good chef, Wilson proves why he's been such an important part of the Melbourne dining scene for so long. He's never actually been away, but it's great to have him back.