Monday, October 13, 2008

A special meal with a special Buzz, or: we eat and swoon over ezard.

I was a very lucky girl last Tuesday. Buzz kept the venue of our special meal under wraps brilliantly (in fact a little too brilliantly and I now know he is an excellent trickster!) and we ate to my absolute joy at ezard, one of Melbourne’s finest restaurants and one which had already earned my respect on an earlier visit when it provided me with a vegan meal approaching perfection. This visit was no different, so indulge me while I describe it in loving detail and have a little bit of drool dribbling down my chin (you won’t be able to see this. But it will be happening).

ezard specialises in degustation, many courses of a couple of bites each designed to show off the abilities of the chef, allow the diner a taste of everything, and introduce a bit of experimentation into the meal. ezard runs a vegetarian degustation menu with a footnote that vegan meals are available on request. We chose the a la carte menu, but to know that a vegan degustation is possible makes me very, very excited. On each occasion I’ve eaten there the vegan meal has been prepared with no less care or consideration than other meals, which is an absolute boon when you consider that so many chefs consider veg*n food either a hindrance, an annoyance, or an abomination (Gordon Ramsay and Anthony Bourdain … I am blowing raspberries at you). On my first visit I made sure to tell the waiter how much I appreciated that ezard prepares such food, and was thrilled when he told met that the chef had put a lot of work into the vegetarian menu and was very proud of it – now that is a chef who is interested in food and creation and experimentation, not one who is unable to see past the butcher’s shop.

The meal started well when our waiter brought an extra dipping plate of olive oil to the table as the standard oil had been infused with parmesan.

This kind of active thoughtfulness continued throughout the meal, and is why the service at ezard is truly magnificent. Unfortunately I wasn’t sure if I could eat the bread (it’s brought in from babka – does anyone know if that’s dairy-free?) but that didn’t stop me dipping my finger in the oil and then sticking it right into the condiments. Two of the three were vegan: a startling sugar and chilli combination that started off tasting like a sugar cube and ended up with a mule’s kick of the red stuff; and a Szechuan pepper combination that was dark, smoky and sweet, and ended up being repeatedly dunked by my finger.

The complimentary appetiser was a red miso soup with lemon, wakame, sesame seed and tofu.

The lemon was an unexpected and surprising addition, which if mishandled could have turned the fresh miso into LemSip … but obviously it wasn’t and instead lent a very Chinese flavour to the Japanese soup. The sesame seeds also contributed something unusual, counteracting the tart acidity of the lemon with their nutty, neutral taste.

My entrée was an Asian gazpacho with avocado tempura and a fennel salad. The gazpacho was a tangy with a soft undernote of what I thought was basil; it was orange rather than the regulation green and had a thick pureed texture that contrasted well with the soft fennel.

The gazpacho was totally lick-the-plate-clean-with-your-fingers-in-public. The fennel salad was tart and tangy, complementing the soft texture of the thin fennel slices, with a smidgen of pungent coriander throughout. This again contrasted well with the tempura avocado, which was soft and slick with whole pieces of fresh, unblemished avocado. The first time I had this dish the avocado taste was untouched by the heat of the tempura (you know how it gets a different taste when heated? None of that – I thought they must have flash fried it at an incredible temperature and then cooled it almost immediately to achieve that bubbled tempura and totally raw tasting avocado, and I marvelled at it for months), but this time that heated taste was a little apparent, although with very little detriment to the dish overall.

My main was a dish that has continued to fascinate me. I didn’t love it, although I liked and admired it immensely – the reason I really enjoyed it was because it was so challenging and interesting, which left me feeling like I’d really experienced some top level cooking.

It was a witlof salad, with each witlof leaf separated and containing a piece of cold, cooked asparagus, peanuts and a sweet chilli-like sauce. Each fuzzy, furry, watery witlof leaf, slightly hairy on the tongue, was distinguished from the crisp asparagus and crunchy peanut, all of which was well-coated in a sweet, soft, fruity olive oil.

I really can’t say enough just how fascinated I am with this salad – the contrasts within it were superb and even though it wasn't my favourite taste of the night, it was certainly the one I’ve thought about most.

We ordered two sides, one a green bean with peanut and chilli sauce dish and the other Asian mushrooms. The green beans were well-oiled (not oily … well-oiled) and the chilli worked well with the salty peanuts scattered on top.

The Asian mushrooms had a sauce that was like one you might find in Chinatown, but was clearly made with fresh ingredients, a total lack of chemically additives, and which was garnished fantastically with fresh greens and crispy … things (if anyone can identify them from the picture, I’ll edit!).

Each flavour in each dish was considered, balanced, subtle and mathematic. Unlike my own cooking attempts, where packing a punch is the best I can hope for, these flavours were so well developed and carefully combined that every mouthful begged for slow and refined tasting.

My dessert was three sorbets – pear, blood orange and coconut (with a very lovely chocolate message!).

The pear was sweet and textured with vanilla undertones, leaving a lovely pear concentrate at the back and sides of the tongue.

The blood orange was Sorrento, Italy, where I once ate a lemon-lime granita in a vine-filled courtyard in the sun. It collapsed in icy crumbles, with the water diluting the intense citrus as it melted. The coconut was creamy, thick and rolled about the mouth until it softened and melted without aftertaste.

We finished with coffee (Buzz) and tea (me), which came properly – that is to say, with a teapot, a strainer, and a holder for the strainer. My one gripe here was the lack of soy milk – for a restaurant that so beautifully and fully catered for the non-dairy among us, this was a shame.

One other small thing was the $35 corkage. I understand that in a restaurant such as ezard the wines are chosen not for mark-up but to match the menu, and the corkage in part encourages guests to imbibe what is best suited, not what is on sale at the local bottle-o. However, as I couldn’t drink any of the wines or champagnes on the menu, a small reduction might have been nice. On the other hand, the prospect of $35 corkage made me want to make the most of it, so we had a bottle or Moet & Chandon Grand Vintage Rose, and let me tell you – it was bloody great, mate.

ezard truly excels in all it does. The service and food are equally matched and any meal that makes you leave feeling like you’ve really participated in something new and exciting, as well as just plain yummy, has hit the bullseye. When added to this is a real interest in feeding veg*ns with equal pleasure as omnis – in my opinion this is what makes a great chef. Teague Ezard is respected amongst peers and guests for his vision and technique, but to me the greatest compliment I can give is that I felt like I was just as much a valued guest as anyone else.

Incidentally, the meal was not ridiculously priced for what it was. In fact, I think we got the best of the bargain.

ezard: 187 Flinders Lane, Melbourne. Ph. 9639 6822.


Cindy said...

Wow, that's cool! I visited Ezard for the first time just a couple of weeks ago and had a creative and thoroughly enjoyable four-course vegetarian meal. I had noticed that they also offered vegan options and was curious to see what they come up with - I don't think there was any overlap between our meals at all!

Lisa Dempster said...

I AM SO JEALOUS!! That sounds amazing. I sooo want to try the vegan degustation; unfortunately, I am poor.

a vegan about town said...

I really want to try a vegan degustation - shame I won't be in Melbs again until March. Alas!