|Image from the restaurant's website|
"…A Hendricks and ice for me"
"Would you like that with cucumber?"
"Yes please!" My heart skipped a happy beat.
Dining in a suburban restaurant I did not expect to find Hendricks Gin available, but that short discourse told me that I had been placed in good hands.
In my experience the further you go from the Melbourne CBD, the better the Asian food. The converse applies to European food, especially in the South Eastern suburbs.
Go beyond Attica in Ripponlea and the imaginative, conceptual cooking seems to disappear until you reach the countryside, where The Royall Mail and Loam are edging into creative modern territory. The same can be said for what I recently heard described as 'Honest Food' – good ingredients delivered simply, using traditional techniques and served up with a whole bunch of integrity.
While the expensive, modern and adventurous is something I looked forward to about twice a year, it is the honest stuff that would entice me to leave my own kitchen more often. My two favourite exponents of this kind of thing unfortunately are far from my home: George Biron's Sunnybrae in Birregurra and Steve Cumper's Red Velvet Lounge in Cygnet, Tasmania. The tyranny of distance means that I don't dine at either often enough. But now I think I've found another to add to the list, and it's amazingly in the burbs.
By the suburbs I don't mean way out in the heartland of McMansions where Asian cooking reaches amazing highs at low price points. No, this venue is in Malvern, where the leafy streets are filled with meticulously restored and extended period homes, well serviced by public transport and a mere stone's throw from our Jewish heartland. My new happy place venue is Livingrooom.
Hugging a corner in Claremont Street, Livingroom stretches its verandahs wide over the pavement. Close to Malvern station and away from the din of bustling Glenferrie Road it squats low on the landscape surrounded by genteel shops and a doll hospital.
This is a locale that keeps a respectable distance from the youthful outlook of St.Kilda, Windsor and the tourist aspect of the CBD; an interesting spot to do business. And somehow Livingroom manages to face the challenge of entertaining the professional families and Empty Nesters residing in Armadale through to Caulfield with integrity from breakfast through to dinner service.
They do it by making their guests feel like they're visiting neighbours for a dinner party, or by day that they've dropped in at a girlfriend's for a gossip and a cuppa. On Saturday afternoon it's a place where a man of a certain age can just be alone with the newspapers or a group of middle aged men can grab an espresso before catching a train to the football.
Walking the tightrope between various functions, Livingroom manages to be smart, bright, spacious and kid friendly from breakfast through to dinner and at night is as intimate as the dining room of a picket fenced, restored five bedroom Federation house, with parent's retreat and outdoor living area.
Inside, an eclectic arrangement of old domestic dining tables and chairs are delineated into two spaces by chandeliers in the lower, more formal area and red shaded pendant lights in an upper room that feels more café in style. This second space is dominated by the coffee machine, wine fridges and a toy box. On entry the Kitchen is visible and in it you will spy Head Chef Darren Daley.
In 1999 Darren was recruited from London's Bibendum restaurant at the height of its popularity and prowess. He was one of a number of British Chefs lured to Melbourne to work at the Sofitel. At the time TV Masterchef judges, Gary Mehigan and George Calombaris were also employed there.
Darren however, is a quiet achiever. You won't find young Restaurant Critics fawning over Darren. He has not sought out their favour nor courted the limelight. He is not one of The Australian Food Twitterati. He does not have a big PR machine behind him, though I do suspect the PR hawks will be circling, hoping to get a piece of the action soon.
I've watched Darren's progression over the years. He has worked confidently and quietly since leaving The Sofitel by working at reputable venues. From being the lynch pin in revered gastropubs such as The Kingston in Richmond, to a stint at Guy Grossi's Mirka at Tolarno and then over to head up Sud's two venues, he has consistently produced a quality product, built on a passion for what he does best.
So from breakfast to dinner you will find polite subtlety, attention to detail and quality both in service and cooking. A brand new wine list is extensive, chosen by Alan Markham, the owner of Livingroom. This list, I would suggest is to some guests, a little intimidating. But in a thoughtful manner, tasting notes for the European and Australian selection prevents potential blushes.
To me, on a number of levels they have a difficult clientele to woo. If the menu were to sound too molecular or fanciful it would turn the conservative core off, but if it doesn't sound that little bit special, it won't entice those looking for the night out with a brag factor either. So faced with the tightrope of a dinner menu I honestly found it tough to make a decision what to eat. I was tempted by much, but initially thought perhaps it wasn't pushing my boundaries. I later realised that the written menu did not do the delicious creations justice. So I wondered if a certain amount of dumbing-down had been called for, so as not to scare the locals?
I would describe Darren's offering as Contemporary European, at times rustic. In fact on a recent trip to Paris, we found that Livingroom was in step with the regular hang-outs of city living Parisians, because here, it's all about flavor. The dishes are not excessively tricked up with gadgetry or gimicry, just strong traditional techniques. I feel Darren does his suppliers proud. From early evening, starting with diners of families and older folk, to couples having a night away from the kids, it is clear that the customers are well taken care of.
Amongst the entrees on the night we visited there were some excellent locally made charcuterie options from Siketa Meats, a wagyu bresoala dish and crowd pleasers such as fried zucchini flowers stuffed with lemon, ricotta and mint and a roasted pepper dressing. But this clientele also love the chicken livers with capers, parsley, witlof and Roquefort dressing.
While polenta crusted sardines stirred Mr Sticki, he is a goats cheese buff, so went for the cheese in fritters with lemon thyme that was a roll call of his favourite ingrdients. The creamy texture and salt factor in the cheese was pleasantly offset by a piquant julienne of apple, radicchio, candied walnuts and truffled honey.
A five spice quail was reminiscent of dish I grew up with. Satisfyingly crisp fried, fleshy and subtly flavoured it works well with pickled chilli, mint and coriander. While comforting to me, I wondered whether the local clientele considered this Asian inspired offering exotic? But then I noticed in each course there was at least one dish that might appear challenging to the regulars and a number of items that some had not heard of such as, guanciale and scamorza.
Scanning the mains, I toyed with the idea of Parsley and gorgonzola risotto with apple and rocket salad. I flirted with pan fried Mirror Dory with sautéed cavala nero, confit duck and red wine puy lentils. Mr Stickyfingers chose a Black Angus sirloin with soft buckwheat polenta and braised shallots - over the skirt steak with pommes frites, truffle salt and veal jus. Finally, after much deliberation I selected a rabbit wellington with spinach, mushroom, sage and gorgonzola farce. I'm a sucker for meat in pastry and I love rabbit.
My main was very generous. Had not the beloved been on hand, I suspect I would barely have managed half. But that's just me. The contents had sufficient moisture while not making the pastry soggy. The gorgonzola gave the meat a hint of truffle like flavor, adding an unexpected depth to the dish. We could find no fault in the beautifully aged steak either. The shallots braised in wine were a delicious compliment to the deeply flavoured meltingly good meat.
At this point I must apologise for the crappy food photography. The dining scenario after the 8pm peak is moody and candlelit. It is the dinner party scenario of viewing your companions in beautiful, soft, candlelight that is unforgiving on food bloggers wielding a discrete camera that avoids flash.
As the night trickled on into the hour that gen Y usually start their evening, greed kicked in and we opted to share a dessert. While Mr coveted the Munster, Roquefort papillon and the Blairlaith Cheddar, despite hoping to leave room for more, there was no way that our bellies would allow us to man an assault on a cheese course.
Our waitress nominated the chocolate and peanut fondant with vanilla bean icecream and salted caramel sauce, which totally hit the spot in a gooey, crunchy, sweet-but-not-sweet way. It was perfect in all respects. Like a couple of shuffleboard players we found ourselves dueling to scrape the last remnants from the plate.
Later, rolling outside into the quiet night I knew that I would be back. Being in good hands found us sated on more than one level and happy to have found 'my kind of place' south of the Yarra …. and not so far from Chez Sticky. It's really no wonder that the locals love Livingroom.
Livingroom Restaurant and Cafe
12-18 Claremont Avenue,
Malvern Victoria, 3144