With degustations booked at Vue de Monde and Attica for our Easter Melbourne trip, a visit to Cutler & Co. - or any other expensive fine diner for that matter - was not originally part of the plan. While the $130 asking price for their dinner degustation (excluding the inevitable wine and tea) is far and away the cheapest of the three, I was thinking a more upper-middle priced restaurant like Hell of the North's $65 'Let Us Feed You' would be more economically sensible as a third premium meal for the trip. That was before Melbourne resident friends Tash and Lloyd hipped us to Cutler & Co's Sunday Lunch - a casual four course meal, with the first two courses consisting of multiple share plates and a selection of main and dessert options for $75. Convinced that this was a great opportunity for us to fit a Cutler & Co. meal into our schedule without totally blowing the budget, the initial plan was for all four of us to share the meal together, however with Tash busy with the tail end of Melbourne Comedy Festival, I ended up making a Sunday Lunch reservation for two.
The flagship restaurant of chef and prolific restaurateur Andrew McConnell's restaurant empire that includes the wildly popular and successful Cumulus Inc, Cutler & Co's adamantly non-descript exterior belies its interior's elegant mise en scene by McConnell's wife Pascale Gomes-McNabb, whose design aesthetic is very sympathetic to the unfussy but refined quality that is the hallmark of McConnell's cooking.
Given the cost of a bottle of wine at high end restaurants usually hovers above $80 for their cheaper selections, Alissa and I decided to go with the $50pp wine matching option since it would allow us the opportunity try a selection of four paired wines we may not have otherwise selected ourselves. While not as esoteric as Attica's menu, the selection of international and Australian wines were astutely paired with our meal and is something I would recommend for those considering it. Our first wine was a Lillet Rosé Aperitif from Bordeaux. Served chilled with ice and a slice of grapefruit, this tonic wine proved floral and refreshing.
The first course of the meal is a selection of amuse bouche/snacks. The first we tried was the Sydney Rock Oyster served with a slice of lemon. Alissa and I are not mad about oysters, but this simple dish presented the oysters in a manner than shone a light on their freshness and quality. They were a tasty start to the meal, but nothing particularly unique - if you've eaten quality oyster before, you'll know what to expect.
The same could be said for the selection of Marinated Olives that served as the next of our small nibbles. With a variety of different sizes and types, it was interesting tasting the small differences between the olives in the bowl, but again if you've eaten olives before this was simply a selection of quality Marinated Olives. Tasty, but very much what you'd would expect.
The Whipped Cod Roe on the other hand was a revelation. A decadent spread made from Cod Roe, this was an utterly delicious umami-rich butter alternative that was so good we barely touched the perfectly fine House Churned Butter until all the Whipped Cod Roe had been greedily consumed. Its hard to describe, but if you can imagine the taste of roe if it was a smooth paste, you're probably halfway to understanding how amazingly addictive this spread was. We've been served various different alternatives to butter in our dining adventures, and this would have to be one of our top favourites. The best thing? The recipe (or at least the version from Builders Arms - another McConnell venture located down the road) is available here.
A great spread can be made even more amazing with great bread, and Cutler and Co's Soy and Linseed and Focaccia were easily some of the best we've been served since the lofty standards set by the Michelin-starred Otto e Mezzo Bombana and Caprice in Hong Kong. Both featured a lovely crust while maintaining a fluffy and soft interior that seems to elude many a restaurant (and baker in general). I think Alissa could have happily eaten just this bread and the Whipped Cod Roe and have been very content.
But of course we'd only just started. Kingfisher Sashimi, Crème Fraîche, Apple and Horseradish was the first of the share plate entree course to arrive. Visually, the dish reminded me of a similar dish of Hamachi in the Eleven Madison Park cookbook, and seemed like a simpler take on transplanting a Japanese idea into a western setting. The kingfisher was of a very good quality (as one would hope with sashimi), with the sweet apple and radish slices providing a nice, crunchy textural contrast with gratings of horseradish providing a subtle kick that served as a decent but mild wasabi analogue. Its simple, but simple in the sense of 'elegant and not overworked' rather than 'plain'.
A salad of Heirloom Tomatoes, Pickled Red Onion and Pastry was second of our four entrees - a beautifully fresh melange of leaves and tomatoes in a myriad of hues.
Tomato and basil are a classic combination, and this was done well - even if it didn't reach the kind of culinary heights of Attica's phenomenal tomato and basil dish Ten Flavours of St. Joseph's Wort. The tomatoes were fresh and juicy, the basil flavoursome, the pickled onion mildly sweet and tangy, and the fragile crispiness of the pastry giving the dish some nice textural contrast. This was a dish that put the emphasis on great produce, and its simple appearance does not do justice to how tasty it was in person.
A generous pile of Jamón Serrano was our penultimate entree. Not as fatty as the richer (and more expensive) Jamón ibérico, Alissa were more than happy with this leaner alternative, and as fans of the swine flesh happily chowed down on the thinly sliced meat. As a dish that is more an assembly job by a good providore than anything particularly unique to the restaurant, the smoky, salty and umami-rich jamón may not have been surprising for someone who knows what this dry cured ham tastes like, but we certainly welcomed it.
The best was saved for last, with the Cotechino, Lentils, Beetroot & Mustard a knockout of a dish. The unctuous slices of Cotechino had a certain treacly stickiness and richness of flavour that made us think it was perhaps blood sausage - before consulting the menu reminded us it was not. By itself it probably would have been a bit too much and over the top, but its fattiness was nicely cut by the smoothness of the lentils - a combination that works so well I can see why its a classic combination. Cheffy components like a mustard sauce, cooked purple beetroot and slices of fresh striped heirloom beetroot only helped to make the dish all the more delicious and wonderfully presented while maintaining McConnell's restrained, unstuffy style.
Our wine for the entrees had been a nice 2013 Andrew Thomas 'The OC' Semillon, with Alissa and I receiving different wines to match the two mains. Alissa was served a glass of the 2012 Pittnauer 'Pitti' Zweigelt blend, a grape varietal neither of us had tried before. Upon seeing the balloon-shaped Reidel glass we knew to expect something like a Pinot, and it did indeed have quite a Pinot-like character - albeit a spicy Pinot. My 2010 Lamothe-Vincent Sauvignon Blanc was probably my favourite wine of the meal, a refreshing dry wine bursting with fruity flavour. I'm not usually a big fan of sauvignon blanc (I'm more into rieslings), and if I hadn't gone crazy stocking up on riesling, shiraz and pinot in Western Australia's Great Southern Region the week after, I would definitely have tracked down a few bottles of this wine to drink at home.
For our mains we had a choice of chicken or fish, and as I'm more partial to fish than Alissa I agreed that she should go with the Roast Chicken, Artichoke & Pine Mushrooms. Alissa and I suspected the chicken may have been cooked sous-vide before being roasted, but regardless of the process the chicken had been roasted with skillful technique resulting in pieces of meat that were tender, juicy and flavoursome. The pine mushrooms proved an ever-reliable source of umami flavour, and the artichoke rounded out what was a rather moreish dish.
I was very happy with my decision to go with the fish as the Leather Jacket, Smoked Potato & Mussels was a dish full of flavours right up my alley. Leather Jacket is a fairly mild, oily fish and the choice of smoked potato, mussels and (if I remember correctly) Crème Fraîche were flavours that helped support the fish without overshadowing it too much. The Leather Jacket was grilled with a nice sear while remaining moist, with the flavoursome mussels cooked perfectly as well. I particularly liked the texture and smokiness of the artfully cut pieces of potato.
My dessert of Honeycomb Ice Cream Sandwich and Almond Praline was unfortunately a choice I regretted making. The ice cream was a bit meltier than I would have liked, and while tasty had largely lost its form by the time I was halfway through the biscuit, which was so outrageously rich it took quite an effort to eat. Being not much of a fan of dark rich chocolate I would never have picked the dish if I had known that it would be the sandwich component. The almond praline was the best, most delicious part of the dish but unfortunately my memory of this dish was largely tarnished by the melted ice cream and overly rich biscuit. If only I had gone with the Toffee Pudding, Roasted Pear and Milk Sorbet! At least I really enjoyed the Chambers Tokay that accompanied the dish; a lovely Muscadelle from Rutherglen, Victoria.
Alissa's choice of the cheese plate of Cantal, Quince and Lavosh was decidedly more astute, served with a glass of the very nice 2011 Circe 'Red Hill South' Pinot Noir - something I was all the more jealous of as a pinot fan. The wine paired well with the cheddar-like (but better than cheddar) flavour of the cantal, with the quince paste gel being far nice than the standard quince paste you would fine at the local supermarket, and the crisp slices of lavosh and bread providing an artisanal crunch.
As a sweet end to our meal, petit fours of Beetroot Jelly were served. These jube-like sweets were delicious, with the earthiness of the beetroot really shining through along with its inherent sweetness.
Coffee was good, as is to be expected at a place of Cutler and Co's calibre - but then its hard to get a bad coffee in Melbourne.
The Verdict: Exceptional
Apart from the structural problems of my dessert, Alissa and I thoroughly enjoyed our meal at Cutler & Co, and left full and very satisfied with a what was a hearty and relaxed meal. No one is ever going to be mistaking Andrew McConnell for a boundary-pushing proponent of molecular gastronomy, but his style of down to earth cooking shows that more traditional methods in skillful hands can result in truly impressive food, even without the shock of the new. I feel in some ways that the simplicity of his cooking does not translate as well in photographic form as the food probably looks a lot less impressive than actually we found it to be in person, but the continued success of Cumulus Inc and Cutler and Co speak for themselves. Service was exceptional, with our waiter Adriano being attentive and preempting our requirements while impressively serving multiple tables at different stages of their meal throughout our time there. The $75 price for the Sunday Lunch is a great value tasting lunch for food of this quality, and I would recommend it to anyone curious about Cutler and Co but hesitant to splash out on the full dinner degustation.
As an historical footnote: we visited Cutler & Co the day after St. Kilda's Golden Fields, the Asian-inspired restaurant in McConnell's stable, closed its doors for the last time on the 19th April but before its successor Supernormal opened on Flinders Lane in the city. Over the summer, ideas for Supernormal's menu were tested out at a pop-up next door to Cutler & Co.
Supernormal proper opened by the time of writing, and will definitely be on our list for our next Melbourne visit.