Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, the first branch of the London restaurant outside the UK, opens at the end of this month on the site freshly vacated by the pop-up version of Blumenthal's Fat Duck at Crown in Melbourne. As a preview, Dinner chef Ashley Palmer-Watts, a 16-year veteran of the Dinner and Duck kitchens, walks us through the new restaurant and menu (see more pictures of the room and menu at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal here).
"When you come to see us at Dinner, you walk up an entrance tunnel that's light at the beginning and gets darker and smaller as you go on, towards a historical and abstract kaleidoscope. We've been working with a flavour and scent company to design a scent - the tunnel is 20 metres, and we're using it as a conditioning tunnel, so it smells of damp moss, wood, smoke and leather. It's not too in-your-face, but after you've come through Crown, through the very varied smells and atmospheres of the complex, we then want to transport you into a different world in Dinner, but without you really knowing.
"As the door opens you've got this huge expanse of glass and the open kitchen behind the glass on the left-hand side with the pass and the chef's table. Dark wooden floors, no tablecloths, quite bright, beautiful teak tables and orange banquettes. It's a large restaurant, with 120 seats, including the chef's table for six and the private dining room for 10.
"There's a small cocktail bar for diners on the right. We've been collaborating on cocktails with a barman from London called Tony Conigliaro on historically inspired cocktails that have no dangly bits, if you like; they're not all show and bits and bobs hanging out everywhere. They're very focused, simple yet elegant drinks that I think will fit Dinner very well.
"This is our first bar, but it's more a bar to come to before and after dinner, not a bar to come to simply for drinks. It's fairly small - about 16 or 20 people - but I think the whole drinks scene in Melbourne is quite exciting and I think we've done some interesting pairings with different dishes, so it'll play a part in making Dinner in Melbourne what it is, localising it a little bit more.
"The core of the original Dinner menu is about British culinary history, and in Melbourne we're also exploring how British history has influenced and been influenced by Australian settlement. We're using frameworks of dishes from London such as salamagundy and rice and flesh, but they're housing Australian ingredients. The rice and flesh, for example, is now done with a braised kangaroo tail instead of a calf's tail. We've been braising it for eight or nine hours, and it's absolutely delicious - just like oxtail but I'd say it's better.
"The fish are so different, too - there's probably only four or five of them that are the same, so learning about the species and the seasonality is very interesting. Thinking about what texture we're looking for, and how we can marry Australian fish with our menus. We've come down to cobia, snapper, kingfish, King George whiting and marron. Oh, and ocean trout - that's very, very good.
"At the other end of the menu, too, we're working on a dish based on the lamington. We're not coming to Australia to just make a lamington, of course, but rather take it as inspiration and make an incredible new dessert. Imagine the Fat Duck's Black Forest gâteaux, but merged somehow with a lamington - that's kind of where we're headed. Whether we have it nailed for the opening, I'm not sure, but it will be there at some point. And when you mention this idea to Australians, everyone laughs but in a really good way. That's so much of what Heston is all about, playing with that nostalgia and memory, and I think we can do something really nice with it.
"The intention with the original Dinner was to create a large restaurant with a bustling energy, very comfortable, and that's true of Melbourne as well. Not overly lavish and plush, but more about how the diner would feel. You could go for steak and chips and a bottle of red wine - gutsy, hearty things - but there was a lot of technique going into it. And that steak and chips wasn't just going to be steak and chips - it gets as much attention as anything else on the menu. Or you could go for something a little bit finer - pigeon cooked with ale and artichokes, or salamagundy, or rice and flesh, which is probably one of the oldest dishes, dating back to the 1300s.
"It's not a history lesson, though. It's there if you want it, and the majority of people really do want to discover and explore these ideas, and learn about things that were happening in Great Britain three or four hundred years ago. But if you just want to come in for a plate of delicious food, you'll get it.
"We're going to be open every night, and we're aiming for 200 covers once we've got the team trained. We were overwhelmed by the response to The Fat Duck here. It was far more than we'd ever expected - we had 70,000 people on the waiting list. This time, though, we're here for a good time and a long time. The goal with Dinner has always been to create something we could do around the world, with British history at the core, but localised elements to it as well. Dinner Melbourne is here to stay."
Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, Crown Entertainment Complex, 8 Whiteman St, Southbank, Vic, (03) 9292 5777