Restaurant Reviews

Luxembourg, Melbourne review

In his latest encore, Andrew McConnell slips smoothly from mod Asian to Parisian-style bistro, writes Michael Harden. Luxembourg, take a bow.

Luxembourg co-owner Andrew McConnell, chef Chris Watson, sommelier-manager Olga Retzepoglou

Marcel Aucar

On the crowded field of First World problems, “another day, another Andrew McConnell restaurant” is right up there with the more ridiculous. And while it may seem at times that McConnell is a compulsive restaurant opener or some kind of culinary puppetmaster, plotting to take over the Melbourne dining scene one good-looking original eatery at a time, even the most jaded diners still prick up their ears when they hear A-Mac is at it again.

And he is at it again. This time a one-two punch that sees him collaborating in modern European bistro territory while also launching his much drum-rolled third city venue, Supernormal. But where the CBD pan-Asian eating house with its Japanese vending machines and downstairs karaoke room is all about the new, St Kilda’s Luxembourg has arrived with a little more history on its side, a little bit of wear and tear, that’s very attractive.

For those not up on the backstory, a brief recap. Luxembourg occupies the Fitzroy Street space formerly known as Golden Fields, Andrew McConnell’s first foray into Asian food that was euthanised so that Supernormal could live (though some of Golden Fields’ vitals were harvested and transplanted – the lobster roll, the white-cut chicken, the peanut butter parfait – so it’s still with us in spirit).

Meanwhile, McConnell’s head chef at Cutler & Co., Chris Watson, had been expressing interest in opening his own place. Just as with Josh Murphy at Fitzroy’s Builders Arms, Watson went into partnership with his former boss in the Fitzroy Street space, renaming it Luxembourg (after the Parisian gardens, not the country), recalibrating the menu to the kind of modern Parisian bistro admired by both chefs and giving the once minimalist, almost too-stark room an extremely effective tweak.

The approach at Luxembourg is perhaps most neatly summarised by the oysters. Great oysters are McConnell restaurant staples, particularly since Cumulus Inc. began championing the cause of Moonlight Flat, but they’ve never looked so apt as they do in their neat, unshucked rows in the ice-filled white enamelled trough positioned at the end of the bar that catches the eye as you step through the glass front door. Along with some hanging charcuterie, bread stacked in an antique timber and glass display cabinet and chunks of cheese under glass cloches on the marble-topped bar, the oysters are very much part of the new décor approach, adding an attractive earthy clutter and texture to the smooth marble, concrete and white-tiled space.

The oysters – usually two or three different types on any one day – are treated with great respect and arrive brimming with liquor and accompanied by bottles of green and red Tabasco sauce and little dishes of shallot vinaigrette and fresh horseradish. The whole set-up feels cinematically Parisian, one of only a few moments that play the theme-park card (another is the green neon sign in the front window, the curly script evocative enough to make any Francophile a little misty) and so are all the more effective for it.

Sharing the menu’s “raw” section with the oysters are several other dishes that bend the classic bistro mould – an achingly pretty sea bream sashimi (the fish ike-jime-spiked, from South Australia) dressed with buttermilk and dill oil and sharing a plate with wispy dill fronds and fresh horseradish, thinly sliced raw scallops tossed in a slightly sweet ginger and soy dressing, very much in keeping with Luxembourg’s modern bistro manifesto.

That approach is also apparent with the charcuterie section. All made in-house, the preserved meat mix might include coppa, boudin noir or a fantastically rich mortadella, studded with pistachios, sliced and grilled to order and served with a green tomato ketchup adapted from a recipe courtesy of Chris Watson’s great-grandmother. And it’s this tension between old and new, traditional and modern, the rustic and the sleek, that drives Luxembourg’s very appealing energy.

That the dining room has so easily morphed into modern European bistro mode helps enormously.

The adaption seems perfectly logical now (the marble-topped bar, the white-tiled walls) but it felt pretty comfortable in its former pared-back modern Asian guise, too. Who would have guessed that a few deft touches would have made such a marked transformation? The green curtain at the front door, paper and linen on the tables, replacing chairs and stools with bentwood bistro models, the neon sign, mounted antlers and taxidermy, a few strategically placed antique glass and timber and nickel cabinets have made the room feel warmer and so much more comfortable in its own skin. The few years on the clock it’s had to gather a bit of patina and a few worn edges also adds to the feeling that it’s been here forever, or at least it should have been.

Making that apparent longevity a reality shouldn’t be a problem given the user-friendly nature of the menu. A couple of the best moments come from the regularly changing offal section. One, a dish that Watson’s adapted from a recipe by Claude Bosi (from Hibiscus in London), is an absolute pearler of a stew that combines tripe, cuttlefish, tomatoes and herbs sprinkled with a gremolata crumb and topped with lemon zest and herbs. It’s the kind of big-flavoured, comforting dish with just the right amount of chewy texture and lingering salty-sweetness that could have you crossing town.

The other is a simple dish of veal sweetbreads and carrots. The sweetbreads (White Rocks, from Western Australia) are poached in a bouillon before being peeled and then pan-fried in butter so their edges caramelise. They make extremely good pals with the sweet braised carrot rounds.

It’s with this kind of smart, refreshing simplicity, backed by solid knowledge of classic French technique, that Luxembourg really excels, in dishes such as an earthy, gorgeously textured (nearly gelatinous) pine mushroom barigoule teamed with salt-baked celeriac and a duck egg, fried so its edges are lacy and crisp.

Or pan-fried squid tossed with baby cos hearts and sea herbs – saltbush, sea spray, samphire, pig face – all sitting on a nicely balanced, pitch-black, Sherry vinegar and squid-ink dressing.

Or broccoli florets, fried until their edges are crisp, tossed with salted ricotta, capers, raisins and a simple dressing of balsamic vinegar, garlic, chilli and oil.

Or free-range chicken – poached breast that’s finished in the pan and salt-brined thighs rolled in bacon and caul fat before being poached and then roasted – served with Brussels sprouts, chestnuts and a classic bread sauce, the kind of dish that’ll rush to mind unbidden whenever comfort food is called for.

Or pink lady apples, poached in caramel syrup, teamed with gingerbread cake, fresh thyme leaves and a brilliant crème fraîche ice-cream.

Or Sauternes ice-cream accompanied by a bracing carrot granita and mandarin segments compressed with an orange blossom flavoured sugar syrup.

But the food’s not the only place Luxembourg gets it right. Showing that Watson and McConnell really get the neighbourhood bistro brief, there’s a small lake of good things to drink here too, including refreshing grown-up cocktails, like a deep green Sorrel Gimlet (gin and lime with sorrel leaves) and a smart list of beer that embraces both the thematically correct (Kronenbourg) and small-brewer fashionability (Parrot Dog Dead Canary Pale Ale from New Zealand).

There’s real interest in the wine list, too, which is not surprising given that all McConnell’s restaurants tend towards lists that explore new territory, investigate trends and strike out on their own sometimes quirky paths.

At Luxembourg, the six-page list leans to the natural-minimal interventionist end of the spectrum but with pragmatic rather than dogmatic intention. There’s a pretty intelligent geographical spread – chardonnay from France and Victoria, aromatic whites from Canberra and Germany, Italian and Spanish varieties from Italy, Spain, Austria and Australia – and, price-wise, plenty for people more comfortable hanging out around the $50-bottle mark rather than the three-digit crowd.

It’s an interesting list and one that warrants some guidance unless you’ve kept up with you research or remembered to take a few notes at Rootstock.

Good help is at hand – both with wine and with the food – from a very smart and self-possessed team of floor staff that includes some Golden Fields alumni among the newer faces.

Luxembourg makes its own butter and serves fried potato skins filled with whipped cod roe and Avruga. It has a happy hour with half-priced oysters every evening and allows BYO every Tuesday. It offers expertly handled French cheese and a soft-shell crab sandwich, a one-kilogram T-bone and a bowl of stuffed olives. And while there’s definitely this “something for everybody” approach, there’s never any straining for effect. It’s a class act, deft and well focused. Another Andrew McConnell restaurant? Bring it on.

Pink lady apple with crème fraîche ice-cream and gingerbread

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