When a new restaurant from an all-star team is delayed, it's hard to know who feels more excited when the opening rolls around: the owners or the diners. In the case of Lesa, the sister venue to beloved Melbourne wine bar Embla, it's fair to say the punters are a little breathless after two years of anticipation.
But last night, the time finally arrived for owners Christian McCabe and Dave Verheul to lift the curtain on their new 50-seat restaurant, which sits above the starred Embla and has been in the works since that venue opened in the CBD in 2016. Where the latter takes no bookings and encourages sharing a few plates before heading on your way, Lesa (meaning "to gather") is all about pressing pause. The idea is to linger over four or six courses and a couple of bottles of wine while embracing a more formal style of dining. And yes, that means reservations are encouraged.
"Upstairs is more about the occasion of meeting your friends and having a nice dinner and taking your time," Verheul, chef across both Lesa and Embla, says.
For the first couple of weeks, dinner will be a four-course affair, with a set six-course menu (and lunch service) to follow shortly. On the four-course menu, diners have three choices within each course. That could be a veal tartare with wild rocket paste, saltbush and braised and fermented fennel juice to start or perhaps a dish of raw flounder, miso paste, pear-leaf oil and almond-shell brine. Further down the carte, more substantial plates include chicken porridge with almond milk and black chestnut and line-caught hapuka cooked slowly by the large hearth, which is the main piece of equipment in the gas-free kitchen.
While the team initially wanted a wood-fired oven like Embla's, structural issues in the upper levels of the building prevented it from happening. Now, Verheul says he's happy there's a point of difference for the food at Lesa. Diners can enjoy that distinction across the menu in the form of grilled leeks, slow-grilled pumpkin and the crackling on aged pork loin, served with buckwheat miso and crisp kale.
Verheul is also putting to use summer produce that the kitchen preserved in anticipation of the restaurant opening. That includes a smoked and fermented tomato dressing on the veal tartare, the fermented fennel juice that appears on several dishes and a dessert of preserved nectarines, jelly made with the nectarine pits, verjuice, buttermilk ice-cream.
"It tastes like a perfectly ripe, fizzy nectarine," Verheul says.
To match the more formal menu, wine guy Christian McCabe has lovingly built an extensive list over the last two years, purchasing several private cellars and importing drops from Northern Rhone and the Loire Valley.
"We've tried to diversify a bit away from the Embla selection, which is quite focused and I guess a bit edgy," McCabe says. "Up here we want to have a broader range for people."
A strong Italian selection will soon complement the French, with McCabe and his sommelier Raffaele Mastrovincenzo (a former GT Sommelier of the Year) making several buying trips to Italy. Benchmark Australian producers are also part of the mix.
By night, the room is moody and low-lit, however lunch-goers will be able to enjoy the sunlight that streams in through large windows covering two sides of the building. The architect behind the pair's other venues (including the now-closed Town Mouse), Allistar Cox, is also involved here, working with a mix of light and dark woods, brick and bottle-green tiles to create a sense of occasion that's enhanced by leather-backed chairs and antique tabletops dating to the 18th-century.
If you needed an excuse to slow down, it's Verheul and McCabe to the rescue.
Lesa, level 2, 122 Russell St, Melbourne, Vic, lesarestaurant.com.au, Wed-Sat, 6pm-11pm.