Pei Modern is a two-faced affair.

The old post office has been gutted and transformed into a Mark Best (Marque), Peter Bartholomew and David Mackintosh (MoVida) project.  On stage right is the fine-dining area which is very relaxed in its outlook – no starched tablecloths, no gilded chandeliers. On the other side is a café/bar offering the excellent food and service you’d expect from a fine dining experience.

The restaurant’s homage to famous architect I.M. Pei is not that he designed the transformation but he in fact worked on the Collins Place building in which  Pei Modern now stands.

We decided to eschew the $30+ main courses for our workday lunch and headed towards curved wooden arches of the cafe area. The café splits the menu into a few bites, three or four medium sized, a similar number of larger, main course-style dishes and cheese/desserts. It’s mix-and-match dining – you can choose a few small dishes, or one main meal or share a bunch of different dishes.

At the cafe we were welcomed warmly by a waiter who explained the philosophy of the menu, answered questions about various dishes and gave his recommendations from the blackboard options. I was most impressed with the time he spent with us while we dithered this way and that with our choices.

When the real lunch hour rush started and the tables started filling up I noticed that his standard of service didn’t waiver. I overheard him patiently explaining the menu again and again with enthusiasm. His commitment to providing consistently high quality service was noted by everyone at my table and on that sole basis I’d recommend Pei Modern.

Not that the food isn’t also consistently excellent.

From the small dishes we had the brandade croquettes ($8 for 4), pillowy bites of salted cod, potato and herbs lightly deep-fried with a light crunchy shell. As you’d expect from a MoVida relation,  Pei Modern made excellent croquettes – the mixture was loosely packed and not dense with just mashed potato. Our other choice from the bite-sized dishes was the cuca sardines with tomato jam ($6). To be plain, sardines on toast done really well, with a hunk of fresh flaky fish on a smear of concentrated summer tomatoes, offset by a hemisphere of tart green tomato.

For mains our waiter highly recommended the lamp chop with pumpkin ($24) so we tried the large slab of meat on the bone, cooked to pink, accompanied with several large rustic slices of roast pumpkin. Not very photogenic but simple and honest fare.

We also had Bullhorn peppers with mozzarella and majoram ($13), a riff on the classic Caprese salad with soft cheese, very sweet roasted peppers and a pretty sprinkling of herbs. The prettiest salad I’ve ever seen!

The highlight was the rabbit risotto with radicchio ($21), a large bowl of plump, perfectly cooked rice mixed with braised shreds of rabbit meat, topped with crunchy purple leaves and finished with the distinct sweetness of maple syrup (mixed with balsamic vinegar). That hint of sweetness in every few bites was just enough to counter the acquired taste of the sharp bite of radicchio.

The menu changes daily, even several times daily, depending on what fresh produce the chefs have on hand. I noticed that ingredients from Thursday night’s menu such as the roast rabbit, radicchio and peppers appeared in the Friday lunch menu sp what I ate may not necessarily be there tomorrow! Which is all the more reason to keep returning.

For dessert make your selection from some of the sweet nibbles on domed display at the bar. A finger of caramel, chocolate and shortbread with a salty golden dust ($3) and a crumbly pear frangipane tart ($7) and you’ll be set for sweets.

Their website is still a bit skimpy with menu details but as a guide for the fine-dining menu you’re looking at $14-18 for entrees (I hear the almond gazpacho with blue swimmer crab is unmissable), $28-$35 mains except for the dry aged porterhouse and $15 desserts.

For a review on Pei Modern’s fine-dining dinner options, check out The Chronicles of Ms I-Hua.

Pei Modern, 45 Collins St, Melbourne +61 3 9654 8545
Mon – Sun: 7:30 am – 1:00 am

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