A guest review by Frank Wong.
On a chilly winter evening, a dim Thursday night after a (fantastic) screening at the film festival, we ambled down slumbering Collins Street. One turn into a Melburnian alley later, followed by a greeting from the jovial one-armed doorman and descent down historic steps, we entered the warmly lit subterranean space that is Brooks.
The latest resident at heritage-listed Austral House is acclaimed French chef Nic Poelaert, who closed his multi-award winning Embrasse last year to the woe of the local dining community. Famed for his playful culinary style, which emphasises texture and appearance without forsaking flavour or simplicity, his art on this wintry visitation did not disappoint.
The space remains structurally consistent with its past incarnations as Fifteen and Kitchen Cat, but has been given a new identity by contemporary light fittings and unconventionally presented art pieces. If there is any critique of the establishment, it would be that the hard, cellar-like room inhibits conversation by amplifying noise levels.
The first, and most renowned, of Nic’s signature dishes is the (deceptively) humble Meli of Vegetables. Fresh, minimally prepared garden greens are arrayed in a gorgeous arrangement, orbited by a constellation of equally vibrant sauces. The intense (and natural) flavour of the leaves, the crunch of every stem, together composes a perfect playground for the fun of experimenting and finding your own personal favourite pairing of veggie and seasoning. This is the dish that could turn a red-blooded man to vegetarianism.
The following Squid, shallot, kaffir, ink, kale was more visually understated, but no less delicious. The eponymous rings of squid are perfectly seasoned and soft. The ink sauce lends a sharp aquatic edge to the flavour, while the dried kale leaves add a textural crunch to offset the tender morsels.
We finished with the second of Nic’s signatures, the Forest Floor. The whimsical arrangement gives way to a kaleidoscope of flavour and texture, encapsulating Nic’s culinary philosophy on a single plate. Each element of the dish, from the moist cake ‘soil’ to the mushroom’s meringue stem and ice-cream cup, lends a different (and yet complementary) experience to the overarching latticework of sweetness. Of particular note is the ingenuous (and utterly creative) inclusion of pork crackling offering an unexpected spark and flavour note.
As the Melbourne dining scene joins the global segue into casual fare, Brooks sets itself apart by keeping the linen on the table and maintaining an exemplary service staff. A particular anecdote: When making the reservation, the attendant was informed of my guest’s crustacean allergy. On the night, as we made our order, I repeated this notice. For the first time in any dining establishment, I was informed that this was unnecessary, as all waitstaff have already been notified and prepared beforehand.
By combining informal ambience with winning service, and simple ingredients with an unique execution that would not be found elsewhere, Brooks has made its mark as the newest addition to Melbourne’s stable of local culinary treasures.