Does Melbourne have room for another Scott Pickett restaurant? If you like your food flame-licked and your wine lists lengthy - and you happen to live south of the Yarra - you'll likely be in the yes camp. Or you might be a guest at United Places Botanic Gardens, the new luxury hotel at which Pickett's new restaurant Matilda 159 Domain is the flagship diner.
Matilda will be the chef's fifth restaurant when it opens this week, joining his fine-diner Estelle by Scott Pickett and three others, all located on the city's north side. Despite the venue being tethered to a hotel, Pickett is confident that he's created a neighbourhood staple for the locals of South Yarra.
"You can drop in once or twice a week," he says. "Whether for oysters and Champagne, or to share a Hopkins River grass-fed steak and a bottle of red with a mate."
The menu certainly favours the approachable, reading like a bistro greatest hits with touches of Australiana here and there. The tartare is kangaroo, the David Blackmore beef is seasoned with wattleseed and the grenobloise sauce on the John Dory is tricked out with native mint, lemon myrtle and desert lime. Everything is cooked over wood or coals.
The idea for a fire-powered restaurant developed out of a trip to Argentina six or seven years ago for a friend's wedding. Fast-forward to 2018 and Pickett has virtually banned gas from Matilda's kitchen, bar two small induction cooktops for heating sauces. The set-up includes a smoker box, broiler, wood-fired oven, two fire pits and a rôtisserie that, at eight metres, runs the length of the open kitchen.
"By removing gas and electricity we have no other options but to adapt," he says.
Pickett and the team at Estelle by Scott Pickett, including head chef Stephen Nairn, have been developing the menu since January, a phase that even involved trial runs in the warehouse of Matilda's kitchen designer in Melbourne's northern suburbs. Duck was smoked, tongue was grilled and fire pits were built as Pickett tested different woods and stockpiled two tonnes of logs to be dried and aged.
"I'm trying to link the food with the wood itself, looking at the fruit trees they come from and how that pairs with the meat," says Pickett.
Cherrywood chips are used to smoke the duck while Blackmore bavette is cooked over Mornington Peninsula cabernet vine clippings, echoing the combination of red meat and big red wines.
Smoke and char flavour everything from beets cooked in coal and roo tartare drizzled with charcoal oil to a smoked vanilla bean ice-cream that's served with apple tarte tatin. Elsewhere on the dessert menu, a blackened edge on paper-thin slices of pineapple betrays time spent on the rôtisserie. The fruit is layered over olive oil cake and sorbet, both made with oil produced on Pickett's parents' farm near McLaren Vale in South Australia.
The wine list – a mix of premier Australian labels and Old World benchmarks – covers all budgets and tastes, with plenty of Champagne, a few natural wines and a strong showing of Victorian breweries.
Keeping the focus squarely on the open kitchen and its display of flames, the dining room is all muted tones and earthy textures, seen in the ceramic plates and bowls by Andre Davidoff and the handmade timber tables that come from Castlemaine carpenter Hugh Makin. Two six-foot-high glass cabinets at the entrance will showcase produce being used in the restaurant and dried herbs.
Opening at the same time as the restaurant is Oscar's Bar (staying with the family theme, it takes the name of Pickett's youngest son), a 30-seat space beneath the restaurant that's dark, moody and will serve a menu of snacks that echo the food at Matilda. There's also a weekend brunch menu at the restaurant in the works. Think scrambled eggs and caviar, and four or five Champagnes available by the glass.
Guests at United Places will have priority access to the restaurant or they can order room service from the Pickett-designed menu that runs from breakfast through to 10pm.
Matilda opens on Friday 1 June for dinner.
Matilda 159 Domain, 159 Domain Rd, South Yarra, Vic, (03) 9089 6668, matilda159.com. Mon-Sun noon-10pm.