Sunday, July 17, 2011

A Cave In The Clouds

Shhh. Come closer, now. Sit here. Right there, next to me. I'm going to tell you a secret. The universe is dark and deep, a swirling, whirring mass of planets and stars and dancing dust. Godless or not, it's black and bright and mesmerising with meanings we can never know. All a kaleidoscope of burning, brilliant chaos. There's a planet suspended somewhere in that sparkling gloom, an orb in shimmering blues and greens. Transfixed, it spins around the axis of a sparkling star, blindingly burning brilliant ocherous. It's a world. A world heavy with colours and noise and weight and worries. It's a world that holds everything we are, and everything we could ever hope to be. It's a world where far away from all of the space in which you stand, the air becomes the ground, and where imagination - beautiful, fragile imagination - can sometimes become washed away in a gutter bound for nowhere. 
If you could stand in space and zoom in on this world for just a moment, you would be able to make out the shape of a humming city. Grided with wide streets and people crossing them, lines and lines of crisscrossing life. If you focused, further still, the other lines would blur away and you'd see Collins Street, clear and sharp, all the way up from where you stand. If you were a body, you would cross a threshold and be met by a guide who would usher you into a brilliant black box, mirrored darkness with splashes of striped neon white. A moment, it wouldn't be much longer than that, and you would feel your body fall away. You would feel gravity leaving you,  a slight dizziness and your jangled nerves and your quickening blood would only have one moment, two moments, three in which to recollect themselves before you, stunned and a little bereft of breath, found yourself standing on something solid again. Yes, you would arrive. 55 Levels up from where you were only a few seconds ago. You'd walk in, and upon the polished surfaces of so many reflecting shades of black there - in an open, endless glass you would see it - the world - polished and perfect, the world, all yours, smiling back up at you.
Okay, I realise you have to be an especially food-crazed wanker with highly poetic pretensions to describe walking into Shannon Bennett's newly done and dusted Vue De Monde restaurant in Melbourne's Rialto along these lines, but you know me, and I know me, and let's face it - that's exactly what I am. When I packed my dispirited little Sydney-self and my ever curious foodie-boots into some carry-on luggage for a little three-day jaunt to Merry Melbourne (with not a ball of wool or a French tune in mind) - I had no idea that I was about to fall in love. It had been months of nothing much in Sydney, despite some very expensive non-eventish lunches (coughQuaycough), the palate was down and the soul was weary. I was amiss in the world. But that is how love always, always finds you. And turns you. Love. Madly, truly and deeply, 55-levels in the clouds, breathless and tea-soaked, among sticks and stones and freedom and choice, with some of the best stuff that ever happened on a pretty plate. Turns out Belinda Carlisle was right all along, heaven is a place on earth, and I managed (in the short window of opportunity afforded by 3 days) to get in not once, but twice, for a dinner and an epic lunch. Pour yourself a red, sit back and get comfy, this is probably going to hurt...a lot...
Like any good and proper fairy tale, before the protagonist is allowed to have the magical experience, she must first make a very important decision. One that reflects on her character and says something about who she is. Two black, heavy, perfectly folded sheets of paper sealed in golden wax lie before me on my leather clad table which is dappled with heavy stones and blackened pieces of driftwood, they offer me two doors, and I can only walk through one at a time. The little, magical golden lettering spells it out: freedom or choice? Choice at 55 levels up is a la carte, freedom is a 10 course degustation. Sorry to be predictable but I didn't select one, I went with both. Freedom, for the 5-hour-long-lunch of my life, and Choice for the quick-ish dinner I managed to squeeze in before my flight back to Sydney. 
With not a decision to be made, I sank back into the leather and fur trim of my majestic seat, surveying a view that kept winking at me over the expansive black table decked in seamed, textured leather. So many surfaces and textures and contrasts. You want to run your fingertips over the lot of it. Beyond the gentle hues of pale pink that croon Sinatra-smooth through the lustrous Johnny-Cash-Black darkness of the bar and entrance, is an intimate space finished in natural textures that all at once Walks The Line between private, hidden, secretive and luxurious. And magical, too. Like a cave, quiet and dark, the space holds you in solid colours and grounding, heavy furnishings. The dining space, which holds no more than 60 people, wraps itself around you and draws you deep inside like a satisfied sigh. The open kitchen that shimmers in silver stands a little like a mirage in the middle of all that hushed black. This solid interior brilliantly contrasts with the sheer glass from which spills out the captivating view of Melbourne by daylight or, even more spectacularly, twinkling into the length of a deep, dark night. The space draws you in and out, and back again like a pendulum, you feel safe but also ever so slightly on the edge of falling. Safe-danger. The drama of it is astounding. Polished silver against wood and stone, gentle champagne-filled glass flickering against thick, worn leather. You feel silenced in a room that seems to say so much. And it is from the quiet heart of this stark opulence and the heightened feeling that it all creates that Shannon's food creeps in, and through all of its myriad colours and flavours, pushes you right over the edge and casts you - stunned and silent - into the gentle world of the culinary clouds. Get ready for it, Cake+KnifeKids, Shannon's is not only food that speaks - it is food that has something to say. When you're this masterful at your craft, the only thing left to do is have some fun with it... 
After whisking in a stunning little chip and dip number that reminds me of a miniature potato-Guggenheim, my waiter informs me that it's completely fine to double dip, and I am pleasurably reminded that no moment in life is so perfect that it can't be enhanced by a Seinfeld reference.
Scorched-edged translucent waves of blazed potato crisps with surfaces of frozen crunchy blistering-bubbles play as beautifully with the light as they do with the mouth. 
The salty crunch crashes and liquefies into the creamed embrace of a luscious, mooshy dip that doesn't just please my taste buds, but actually grieves them with delight. Such a simple combination, so tarted up, is a wonder for a startled heart. It also hints at what is to come, smart, witty food, with personality and if you'll pardon me: balls. Food that rather than being afraid of being different, completely and utterly revels in it.
Next are the 'amuse bouche'. It seems I paid just enough attention in French class to know to expect that something good is about to happen to my mouth. Tres Bien, Amanda...
On polished slabs of heavy, gray stone, like little jewels lying in patient wait are a crispy venison sandwich - oh my deer! So good in salt and meat with a crackle of deep, dark red crunch -
Oysters + lemon, in some kind of viscous edible swathe...
...a biological looking concoction simply labelled 'pumpkin'...and smoked eel w white chocolate + caviar which, please forgive me, I was far too busy decimating to actually get a good shot of. Thoughtful, simple flavours, big on texture and quirk, and then heartbreak...
Marron + beef tongue sandwich w beurre noisette. Divine. Gently salted flesh with cream and a side of crisp. I died. Then I came back to life and devoured it, this was unbelievable. I was still recovering from how sublime and subtle the flavours were, slightly discombobulated by a swooning, searing joy that was quickly taking hold of my balance and sanity - when this contraption appeared before my weeping eyes.
This old-school coffee gizmo was used to deeply infuse a broth that promptly anointed a forest-like mass of pine mushroom, walnut + bird's cress. Gentle, deep and warm mushroomly broth, light and dancing above the richness of the walnut. A good balance between formed and formless. But before I go on with the food, I have to tell you about another love story that was quickly unfolding in skies of cupid's arrows before me...
As if between the surroundings and the food I wasn't already on the verge of becoming completely undone. As if all of this wasn't enough to push me into a harrowing pit of joy-induced madness from which I might never return...Vue De Monde has....wait for it....a tea...sommelier. !?@$#^. Holy Hell. Jesus Mary Mother of Gobsmack. So ooh-lala-long. Tea Sommelier. Two words could not in all of the language that man has ever uttered since dinosaurs been of more music to my half-deaf ears. Tea Sommelier. They're better than any other two words put together. Better than 'marry me'. Better than 'dark chocolate'. Better than 'crispy pork'. Better than 'free parking'. Better even than 'Daniel Craig', especially since he went and got married. 
Her name is Sarah Cowell and she is a wide-eyed seraph of camellia sinensis-spun tea pouring fury. She loves tea and she lives tea. It was all I could do not to actually squeeze her and take her home with me. From an epic list of greens and blacks and reds and whites, Sarah lovingly introduced me to three of finest teas I have ever had brewed, two of them from Taiwan.
Between mouthfuls of airy-creamed butter..
smothered upon inelegant chunks of leatherbound, stone-sitting bread...
I was mesmerised by the depth and flavour of a fruity Taiwanese white, a divine serpent-green Japanese Yuzu, that sung like a lyre bird in citrus, and the #18 Hong Cha - a blisteringly ethereal liquor of ebony-red that blazed a spiraling web of stunned smokiness down my truly startled throat. I couldn't cope. It was too much. My toes started bobbing up down secretly in my boots and i think my left eye even starting twitching a bit. How to handle all of this tea? 
Showcasing all of the delicate and beautiful teaware at Vue, dainty glass pots that swallowed pools of luscious light were exchanged with wonderfully earthen-textured traditional Japanese ceramics, a teagustation in heaven was taking place among perfectly timed brews and tangles of prized leaf and gently swimming swirls of precious, rich fragrance. Each cup was perfect and drawn out, I breathed it in deeply as I sipped, trying to remember each and every note and its own unique movement of flavour. 
Alas, I did not delve into the $1000 priced, 3200 year old Pu'erh of which Vue only possesses one serve, or the other $250 reserve brews they have in stock. I am going to save that kind of tea-ing for when Dad is shouting me, which will be damn soon if I have my way. From the melting warmth of the precious tea, 
...to a liquid nitrogen splashed cucumber sorbet w crushed herbs. Exclamation point on a plate! Culinary Curve ball goes a little something like this:
A cheery mass of herbs and blooms tangles itself in the bottom of heavy ceramic painted in a pale, grey-blue. As the liquid nitrogen swarms and bubbles on top and freezes all of that suddenly halted colour, you crush it, with all of your desire and fury and longing, with a wooden pestle. And then, on to this multicoloured mess is dolloped a gentle, cooling and blissful blessing of cucumber sorbet. This is definitely one for those of you who think you've seen it all. Delicious and iced and maddeningly fragrant with flavours that keep coming and going. An ice princess in a perfect arc of ceramic, with flavours rising up from the rubble. Tactile, curious and winsome to taste.
More tea, lots of it. Several trips to the bathroom, and then...
Breakfast at lunch: fried duck egg, pickled onion + shaved truffle. Rich and full and earthy, bright yolk spilling against the pale of white and crashing with a sonorous crunch into chunks of crispy bread. Salty and rich and heady and beautiful.
Watching the bright yolk slowly spill onto the blue-white swirls of the plate was stunning. One of the things I loved best about the lunch was how varied all of the plates were, heavy and expensive but with ever changing patterns and colours, it's a bit like Shannon's food: as long as it's good, anything goes. From sunny side up, to ocean deep...
Southern blue fin tuna, fennel, wasabi + beach herbs...
a poised blade, a stone and a sigh...
more tea, always more tea, more trips to the ladies', and then...
kangaroo, radish, swede + turnip. I never knew something that gets run over so often could taste quite so good. A pale pink, sharp and sure flavour, perfect flesh and the sweetness of the vegetables, all tied together in a dizzying glaze. This was gorgeous and perfect to taste, the vegetables gave colour, texture and sweetness to the salty gentleness of the lightly cooked meat. I was in hopping heaven and understood perfectly for the first time why this delicious animal is in fact our national emblem. Moo-ving right along...
...Blackmore wagyu beef, chestnut + wild garlic. Forget about it. This killed me. Honestly, it's like it stood up, punched me right in the face, and I was sitting there in the wake of it all left absolutely senseless. Gorgeous little dollops of aching well massaged wagyu against crisp wafers of chestnut massage your taste buds into some kind of frenzied messed up ecstasy. 
Pungent and poignant and lots of other good words beginning with P that I can't really think of because i'm too flooded with the memory of how this tasted. The gentle frothing pools of bubbling green gave a beautiful freshness and lightness to the deep pinkness of the dish. It was a fantasy in taste and colour and a great final note before my palate shifted gear towards the end.
Take a moment and collect yourselves. Try to be composed, even if you aren't.
Cheeses christ. This is the bit that's getting really hard to write. I don't quite want to remember how good this was. It was painful-good. Wreck-your-soul and tear into your innermost being good. I don't like the idea that a border separates me from this cheese.
This hard salty stinging cheese.
This soft dreamy, creamy, obscenely-teeming with meaning cheese.
Little dollops of sweetened, jeweled jam globs against slivers of aching goats cheese, the crunchy, glowing seeds of incandescent fig aloft the strong, pungent and tumultuous rage of a gorgeous blue. Deep and rich and full and true. Sharp flavours. Soft flavours. Coming and going and sinking and falling. Sticky, thick, soft, crumbling heavens of cheese. Sticking to plate, to knife, to the roof of my mouth and sticking forever onto my deepest imagining. I cannot dislodge myself from the memory of how good this was. I was dreaming of it that night at the next day. To know what this tasted like was  suddenly a visceral part of what it meant for me to be alive!
I was almost reduced to a pool, to a puddle of the former human who walked in hours ago never knowing that the earth was about to fall out from under her. And there it was, in the same vein that was present throughout the entire meal, the embodiment of all of that playful, crazy culinary-bird-flipped-towards-ho-hum-boring imagination... 
the house made lemonade w frozen toffee apple + popping candy. Jesus Christ. The kid in the 31 year old in me sat right up, bolt up, to full attention, rolled the frozen little apple with wide-eyed wonder into the soon to be exploding shards and splinters of apoplectic sugar, dipped it into the lemonade, dipped it into my mouth...
Fireworks. Sweet and bubbling and fizzing and erupting. It was so so so so SO so good. Worlds were colliding beneath molars and under fangs. My teeth didn't know what was going. I didn't know what was going on. Even my tongue stood still and stunned in the center of it all. Opera and magic and dazzling lights. I closed my eyes and became my mouth, which was a good thing given what was headed its way...
A very deconstructed lemon meringue w white chocolate + parsley. Most dessert just tastes good, it offers you a play on sweetness mixed with body and bashes you around a little when it comes to texture. It looks pretty. You want it, you have it, it's over. This did that, all of that, sure, there was crumbling and melting and lemon squidgey sting-sweetness against the tempering balm of some gentle parsley, crashing into the wanton richness of deep white chocolate. But then there was more, there was intelligence and desire. This dessert actually stimulated my mind. Someone sitting opposite me at this time would have seen a silver spoon disappearing down my lemon struck mouth and each of my frontal lobes bulging through the small space in my forehead with evident, rhythmic, delight. This dessert was einstein. It had IQ, damn it! I was stung by its sweetly melodious genius. There was a sobering moment of tea (again) before the final and most painful plate of the day found its very welcome way before me.
I saw it. On the plate. Sitting there. It saw me. We looked at each other, there was a moment, a quickening of the pulse, a bolt of silent thunder in the air between us, there might have been some music playing far away. I could have lifted the plate with all of the energy created from the concentrated desire between us. Above us, I am sure planets were colliding and beneath us continental plates were probably antsy in their pants, but I noticed none of it. It was just the plate and me. I am convinced that I not only had to have this dessert, it had to have me...Seriously, we were made for each other. 
Enter into Amanda's life: tonka bean souffle w smoked cocoa ice cream. Shoot me. Shoot me now. Shoot me now and I won't fight you, shoot me  because I have lived and already sampled the sweetest of joys this life has to offer. To taste this molten light frothy haze of smoked chocolate brilliance is to live an age of happy dizzying and electric moments all within the space of one silver spoon. It is like being born and dying and falling in love and falling over and spinning and hate and love and unrequited love in the rain with tea. It's like snow storms and thunder storms and raging electric skies and anger that boils in hidden ventricles and aortas. It is like longing and leaving and coming back again. It is like forgetting who you are and remembering all at once. It is death and it is life and it is smoked...fucking...chocolate! 
Why? How? Who? Where am I? Who are you? What's happening?
Folds and dips and voluptuous curves. Oh, bending, relentless cocoa. Richness and lightness dancing together in one maddening waltz. Whiteness and darkness and spinning-spinning falling gasping dying chocolate. I'm sputtering as I write this. I am not kidding you. This is hands down the best thing that's happened to me in about 3 years. I was very slightly shaking as I held the spoon and dipped it into depth after depth of pure delight, it's livid raging chocolately sweetness running from the spoon to my fingers, through each and every one of my stunned metacarpals, over my wrist, through firing nerves to light up, one by delicate one, each charged little hair along the skin of my arm, up my arm and through my shoulder, over my neck and along the tingling of my jaw up, up, up and behind the eyes, explosions. Exploding. Dying. Mad mad mad true love. Smoked chocolate ice cream. Kill me. Please, kill me. And let it never be said that I didn't live... 
And into the startled space that followed the souffle, a chocolate mousse masquerading as a lamington, a minty marshmallow, a lemonish drop and a sweet, wee little gaytime on a toothpick. Can I get an Amen?
Above the clouds, up, up and away. This was the best lunch I have ever had. Between the theater and the food, between the view and the plate and between this world and something else. Shannon Bennett, take a bloody bow.
Please Vue De Monde at least once in your life. The experience is magical. The attention to detail, the design and the fun to be had completely redefine eating as an experience. There is so much to marvel at in the way everything has been put together, and the space and the service are absolutely impeccable. Polished and unpretentious. This is the very, very vivid product of so much able skill and imagination. I am speechless (I am without speech). Vue De Monde is at 525 Collins St, Melbourne. Website here. And, for the booking you will probably need to make ph: (03) (how I wish it was (02)) 9691 3888.
Vue De Monde, I think I left my heart in the lift...Thanks for two amazing experiences have to go to Sarah, Garrett and Brian and all of the lovely staff who I must have spent hours yaking to between courses. I will be back, please don't take the smoked chocolate ice cream off the menu, I need to know it still exists, even if I never try it again, I want to know it's out there in the world doing its own magical thing. Congratulations to Shannon on finding a space that lives up to his food, and for creating an experience that is so uniquely perfect that I don't think it can fairly be compared to any other. Rather than being just randomly unusual, there was something very consistent and considered in how all of the meals surprised - you got a sense at the end that every dish had its place and belonged, each plate like a charm on a bracelet that made the whole look much more complete and perfect. Stunning.
Vue De Monde is not just dinner and it's not just lunch, as far as I am concerned it's the greatest show on earth. All those number plates don't lie, when it comes to some things Victoria really is, the place to be. 

Thank you, thank you, thank you x Signed, Starving-In-Sydney.

3 comments:

dannygoldstein said...

beautiful writing bub! and the photos are amazing... i'm sorry i wasn't there with you. love you

amanda said...

CF of 50, baby x

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