I hadn’t even noticed the changeover until the foodies of Melbourne started buzzing about the pedigree of the owners of the new restaurant – Scott Pickett of The Estelle and Joe Grbac, former executive chef of the Press Club. So my anticipation and expectations were high when I walked through those beautiful filigree wrought-iron gates.
The location’s new moniker harks back to the premises’ original purpose as a cobbler’s workshop – Saint Crispin is the patron saint of cobblers, tanners and leather workers. There is a slight sombreness and religiosity in the decor – the main wall is utterly white except for a rip of exposed brick right in the centre (a bit ‘On the third day he rose again…’) and at night pillar candles flicker among unnerving plaster icons of Jesus.
Fortunately the food is not about poverty and denial. The one page menu allows you the option of choosing two courses for $50 and three courses for $60 and the kitchen focuses on using seasonal produce – so for autumn there’s lots of mushrooms and slow-cooked meats.
The food is tricky and sharp but the laid back ambience, friendly staff and stripped-back decor prevent the dining experience from being uncomfortably up-itself. Having said that, while you can choose to perch up at the marble bar I think that food of this refinement deserves a more mindful and formal approach to eating, so grab a seat at one of the tables instead.
To start, some tissue-thin slices of fried chicken skin. I’m not even sure what was on top of them (tomato and vinegar jelly?) as I was so awed by the idea of using chicken skin as a vessel for other food!
The bread was also excellent (and I like a place that provides a generous wad of carbs at the beginning) and came with some addictive caramelised onion butter as well as a pat of regular butter.
From the entrees we ordered ‘pullet egg, mushrooms, parmesan, goats curd and black rice’. The classic pairing of mushrooms and cheese was a comforting antidote to the freezing winds outside, though I have to say it’s not the most attractive dish – to me it looks a bit like Weet-Bix with yoghurt and bugs on top.
The Grimaud duck terrine with coil of foie gras parfait, hidden under a rustle of leaves and flowers, was similarly rich and warming with textural interest coming from the crunchy heirloom beetroots and some tart dollops of cumquat cutting through all that fat.
The king salmon was a revelation and isn’t it just the prettiest plate you’ve seen? Hidden under the edible lilypad-like floral arrangement was a generous slab of salmon confit to the point of ice-cream softness, with slithery and tender shaved calamari, some nuggets of oysters hidden around the edges and a slick of subtly salty squid ink rounding out the seafood extravaganza.
We each selected one of the three omnivorous main courses available (the fourth option was vegetarian). Flinders Island lamb was an artful rendition of roasted lamb with concentric rings of nettle puree, spiky radish tops and slippery jacks. Loved the use of puffed potato pillows as well.
The veal cheek and sweetbread were also meltingly tender and the sweetness of the miso was an interesting combination. The only comment we had was that the dish could have done with some more jus and the long macaroni was overly doughy.
My heart sank when the harpuka came covered in frothy foam. I really dislike the texture of foam and in this case I really didn’t think it it added anything to what was otherwise a beautifully balanced dish. The fish was fresh, sweet and paired well with the classic olive oil pomme puree. Again I enjoyed finding little mollusc treasures (this time clams) in amongst my fillet.
After two courses you won’t be groaning from indigestion so I highly recommend that you sally forth and opt for dessert.
We tried all three available desserts and our unanimous #1 vote goes to the plate simply described as ‘carrot, star anise, almond and honey’. It’s a trail of colour and textures, with a crumbling of dehydrated carrot cake, tiny cubes of fresh carrot, a garnish of dried carrot shards and held together with a sweet cream tinged with a hint of almond. It was playful and masterful at the same time.
The other dessert standout was the combination of blood orange poached rhubarb, spoons of burnt custard, sugar shards and Szechuan sticks. Again it was a clever play of autumnal colour and textures though don’t expect any tongue-numbness from the pepper sticks.
Traditionalists will enjoy the chocolate delice with an earl grey icecream but after the riot of imagination offered by the other desserts a well-executed slice of set chocolate mousse seemed a bit ho-hum. We also couldn’t discern any earl grey flavour in the ice cream.
Saint Crispin is only new but the outstanding experience we had is evidently the outcome of a confident and professional team. Smith Street excels at good value mid-range food so it’s great to see Saint Crispin upping the ante with its sophisticated offering. Our party of three unanimously agreed that we had an excellent meal.
Welcome to the neighbourhood Saint Crispin. I like you a lot!
Fri to Sun 12:00 pm – 11:00 pm