As every singer who took on lead vocalist duties for INXS post-Michael Hutchence knows, stepping into the shoes of an icon can be a fraught experience. Hayden McFarland and Thomas Woods, the two young chefs who've taken on the Victorian mansion in Prahran formerly known as Jacques Reymond, must understand the dilemma better than most.
Grabbing the reins of one of Melbourne's best-known restaurants, owned and operated for nearly three decades by one of the city's most acclaimed chefs, plus having both worked under said chef for the last few years, McFarland and Woods left themselves open to the prospect of looking like either coat-tail riders or brand-trashers no matter what decisions they made. So, aside from renaming the place Woodland House (an amalgamation of the chefs' surnames), how else to relaunch and reboot the house that Jacques built?
Fortunately, McFarland and Woods have nixed the brand-trashing path. There are no tacos, sliders or burgers, no sharing plates or bench seating. Instead the pair has been measured and respectful, choosing to stay the fine-dining course - complete with fine-tuned and well-groomed service, multi-course menus and a normal bookings policy - while implementing a few colour-driven décor changes in the dining rooms and a menu that looks mainly to Europe rather than the more Asian-influenced food they'd been cooking under Reymond. And while there are distinct nods to the past, there are also some humorous, cautiously irreverent moments obviously inspired by fresh eyes.
The first thing you're given to eat, for example, is a giant flat purple potato chip. It arrives on a section of yellowbox with slots cut into it to hold the chip upright while you break off pieces with your fingers. Made from broken down purple congo spuds mixed with tapioca and a little salt, then spread out on a tray and dehydrated until crisp, it's not immensely flavoursome but it's kind of fun.
It also flags a potential for playfulness in the kitchen, something that bodes well for the meal ahead and for what's to come at Woodland House generally.
The irreverence is there again with the ice-cream trolley that gets wheeled out into the front courtyard and parked near the central fountain. The timber trolley is charmingly handmade, a tall, narrow, slightly wonky-looking cart designed and built by Woods and capped with a striped awning stitched by his girlfriend.
You get to visit the trolley after completing the savoury section of the eight-course tasting menu (ice-cream lovers should be aware that there is a slightly bewildering number of menu options on certain nights of the week and not all of them include ice-cream, so be sure to read the fine print or check with the waiter if you want the option). The stroll outside is a good chance to stretch the legs, take in some air and to eat as much ice-cream as you'd like, either in waffle cones or little cups, before going back inside to eat more dessert.
The ice-cream gets an enthusiastic tick, too, with a constantly changing range of flavours all made in-house. Many of these are seasonally driven (apricot and spiced pineapple in the middle of summer), but there's always a chocolate ice-cream, and always a couple of sorbets (including a surprisingly successful, head-clearing lemon myrtle number).
Breaking the formality by heading outside to eat ice-cream is among the more obvious changes in style at Woodland House. The differences inside are subtler but still underline the régime change.
The impressive formal entrance is much the same and, on first impression, the main dining room looks similar, too. But changes have been made: cloud-like light fittings; some lovely Scandinavian-inspired timber chairs with black upholstered seats; a simpler colour scheme with pale earthy-green tones that, for those who remember the old room, give it a slightly unsettling, dream-like quality where everything seems familiar and new at the same time.
In the other smaller dining rooms, the changes are more apparent and arguably more successful.
A formerly orange-toned room has been transformed with lighter, earthier shades; the heavy curtains are gone and the dial is set closer to a Nordic clean-lined simplicity. There's still an air of luxury that runs to linen-dressed tables and good glass and tableware, but the atmosphere is noticeably more modern and a smidgen more relaxed, as it should be when two young chefs venture out on their own.
The pared-back approach is apparent on the menu, too. There's still complex cooking here, and there's certainly a whole lot of classic technique in play, but many of the dishes are firmly ingredient-focused and appear straightforward - something that's never happened in the past.
Take the pig's-head fritter, a hefty, oblong-shaped little beast, crumbed, fried and dollopped with a sauce gribiche-like garnish of chive, eggs, cornichon, capers and shallots. It's certainly tasty, but its realm is more earthy than ethereal.
Then there's a beetroot dish that lands about halfway through all the tasting menus, be it the eight- or five-course, vego or omnivore option. It looks good - a big disc of purple beet, cooked in a salt crust, sitting on beetroot leaves with a bavarois made with blackberry juice, and topped with slices of different-coloured beetroot, some golden beetroot gel and red beetroot jelly. Perhaps more interesting than lovable, there's still an undeniable appeal to its robust, unapologetically beety stance.
There are also some moments that can seem too pared-back, too polite in the simplicity of their seasoning or texture. An appetiser of green-tea noodles that's teamed with braised and hibachi-grilled abalone slices sounds promising but is disappointingly limp in both texture and flavour.
Those noodles could have taken a few tips from a clever fish dish that brings together classic Mediterranean flavours in a vibrant, original way.
A small piece of John Dory is topped with a Harvey Bay scallop cured in a lemon-based marinade and surrounded by a vibrant-green parsley purée, a garlic crisp, green-olive jelly and roasted capsicum gel.
It works a colourful treat and, really, how could it not with all those elements - lemon, garlic, olives, olive oil, parsley - kept skilfully in balance.
Similarly successful was a dish of Pekin duck that's roasted whole on the crown and glazed with maltose, black vinegar and honey. A slice of the duck, pink with a thin, perfect strip of fat running down one side, is accompanied by a confit leg fritter (brilliant - the meat is mixed with cherry purée and dehydrated grapes, then wrapped in potato and fried), crisp fried duck tongue, sweet and sour cherry purée, a couple of pickled cherries and tatsoi leaves.
There's good eel, too - Skipton smoked eel from western Victoria - that's glazed with white miso and grilled (pictured above). It sits on a jelly made from spiced cucumber and tomato next to a quenelle of aniseed cream and some slices of breakfast radish and salad onion. It's then dressed at the table with a pale-green gazpacho dressing that adds a further sweet-acidic layer to the smokiness and crunch.
It's difficult to avoid comparisons with then and now, particularly as Woodland House is still such a pup. Dishes are still thoughtfully plated with a careful eye on aesthetics, though they're less busy and more rustic than in the JR days. The service, led by former Reymond restaurant manager Gareth Burnett, on the other hand, still sticks to the prior script, walking the friendly formal path with good results. But perhaps it's on the mostly inherited wine list where the new régime has yet to really make its presence felt.
Not that there's anything wrong with an extensive, French-leaning list laden with back vintages of Bass Phillip pinot noir, Côte de Beaune, Sauternes and a couple of pages of vintage Champagne, but the list, with some bottles worth thousands of dollars, still seems to speak of the old rather than the new.
A work in progress, no doubt.
Desserts speak very much of the new, produce-focused approach. A dish called peaches and plums highlights a whole variety of those fruits - everything from golden queen clingstone peaches and blood plums through to pluots and mirabelles - that are poached, compressed, dehydrated and teamed with a roasted peach gel, malted sorbet and small sheets of crisp milk. It's a dish of popping flavours and chewy, brittle, sumptuously rich textures that balances its fruit sugars and acids well - and it's also a whole lot of fun to eat.
There are times at Woodland House when things can seem a bit reined in. But, if not exactly daunted by the prospect of what they've taken on, McFarland and Woods must be at least hyper-aware of the legacy they've inherited and of being closely watched by Melbourne's upper-end diners - enough to make anyone a little cautious.
Still, the signs for Woodland House forging its own path are very good indeed. The two young chefs are talented, well-trained and, by the look of many of the dishes on their first menu, imaginative and original too. They've already managed to make eating here a different experience to eating at Jacques Reymond. It's going to be exciting to see what happens next.