Since returning to Australia after two years overseas, I’ve developed a hypothesis that Australian food trends lag behind the northern hemisphere (especially the US and UK) by 1-2 years. That means that I’m expecting to see a flurry of gastropub openings in Melbourne in the near future (probably macaron specialists and ramen stalls a year after that), which is fine by me as I’m not much of a drinker or big-screen sports fan, so I’m only attracted to pubs which serve good food.
To mark my point, ex-Melburnian and celebrity chef Luke Mangan has returned to open his new gastropub venture, The Palace, in the middle of nowhere in South Melbourne. Given that the location consists of almost no foot traffic and there’s a big-ass picture of Mr Mangan hoisted up on the side of the building, I expect that initially The Palace will be relying heavily on Luke Mangan‘s fame to bring in the punters. Then I imagine the kitchen’s reputation will overtake the name-dropping, because in my view, the food is very very good.
We stopped briefly to check out the bar area (sleek, shiny, a little bit opulent) before being seated for our meal in the dining room. I never went to The Palace before its renovation, but I was a bit disappointed by the fitout of the dining room. I know a gastropub is not supposed to be a challenging environment but the interior design was so staid and safe (muted colours, bare white walls, corporate-reception floral arrangement) that its dullness actually became noticeable. RM and I agreed that reminded us of the uninspiring and forgettable surrounds of a Qantas Club. The one great thing was that the activity in the kitchen was completely open for viewing, making for some fun entertainment.
To the food. Firstly, let’s get one thing straight – don’t go to a gastropub expecting the food and drink to be at pub prices. The menu at The Palace has starters around $15-$18, mains at $30-35 (with three ‘to share’ dishes of barramundi, roast chicken or chateaubriand) and desserts at $14. For me, that’s ok as the menu moves beyond the bangers-and-mash and fish-and-chips standards to more innovative dishes, while still catering for the pub meal traditionalists in its grill menu of meat, meat, and more meat served with veg.
To start, big juicy oven baked prawns served with a slightly spicy mango salsa and roquette salad ($18). RM loved this dish, a perfect summer marriage of lightness and kick with bright, fresh flavours.
My starter was a crab omelette in a miso mustard broth $18). I couldn’t taste much of the miso or mustard in the broth, but no matter, as the omelette was a stand out, a mix between the mint and coriander flavours of a banh xeo and a melting Cantonese oyster omelette filled with large pieces of crab meat. The topping of fried shallots and sesame seed sprinkle gave the eggy fluffiness a nice contrasting crunch.
The barramundi with chorizo, fennel salad and spiced eggplant ($32) was a punchy dish of Spanish/Middle Eastern flavours. It was very good for RM, but not as much of a highlight as the prawns.
My main was a generous portion of pan-fried gnocchi with white asparagus and cauliflower polonaise (a sort of crunchy topping) with truffle oil. I normally avoid gnocchi because you never know whether you’re going to end up with a wad of potato glued to the roof of your mouth, but The Palace ‘s version was one of the best examples of gnocchi I’ve ever had. Not floury, not sticky and slightly glutinous pellets of potato paired with light spring flavours.
As I mentioned before, a large focus in the choices of main dishes is meat from the grill. The diners at the next table informed us that it was one of the best steak meals they’d ever had. High praise indeed when you feel compelled to praise your dinner to strangers!
For us, the grand finale was the chocolate fondant with cookies and cream icecream ($14). There’s no picture because as soon as RM dipped his spoon into the centre, a lava of molten chocolate came gushing out. He yelled “Hurry! Hurry! Take the photo!” but in my haste to capture the moment everything came out blurry. So you’ll just have to believe RM when he declared it the best dessert he’s ever had in Melbourne. This from a man who doesn’t generally descend into superlatives when describing food.
Finally, my admiration goes to the smooth kitchen and floor service on only the second day of public opening. No hiccups, no mix-ups, no panicking. Both the food and the service were poised, confident and consummately professional. The Palace should do very well.