22 April 2009

Momo under the knife

“God, grant me the serenity to accept
the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Reinhold Niebuhr

Greg Malouf is a brave man. A few years back, after a couple of heart bypass operations and a heart transplant saw him taking it easy in the dessert section of his Melbourne restaurant Momo - and his anointed Kurt Sampson at the pass - he would cheerfully cut himself a portion of cheese along with each one ordered by a customer, keeping a spoon in his back pocket so as to avail himself of a mouthful of crème fraîche whenever he went into the cool room.

He knew it would have a serious impact on his already fragile health. But I wonder, is this perhaps the passion for the delicious, along with sheer determination, that has seen him rise again and again like the mythical phoenix?

In the spirit of disclosure, I’ve long been a fan of Greg's. In fact since years ago in Hong Kong when he and Michelle Garnaut brought a taste of what Aussie foodiephiles were taking for granted at their venue 97 in Lang Kwai Fong. I recall my uncle proudly taking us to latest hot spot in Honkers only to see his face fall when my father said – “Yeah this is the kind of trendy Yuppie stuff we get at home. I bet this guy’s an Aussie”.

Dad was right. It was Greg’s cooking. After a stint in Melbourne with Dennis Hagger and stages in France and in Austria, followed by employment under local gastronomical luminaries Mietta O’Donnell, Gloria Staley and Hermann Schneider, his talent began to emerge in earnest.

So I have followed his career, visited Malouf family restaurants, gone to Stones to await the return of Momo, read the cookbooks, attended the master-classes and got the autograph. I am not ashamed of my fascination, following his progress has been very fulfilling on the palate and always left me groaning with excessive abundance. Thankfully my career has grown along with his, allowing me an occasional extravagant meal made by his own hands.

Greg is the first to admit that he used to over complicate his dishes with an exuberant amassing of ingredients, but with experience it is evident that he has gradually pared things back. He himself has said that he has learned restraint. I have never tired of the evolution of his cooking and in the latest incarnation of Momo we see a very mature offering which I would deign to say makes other local ‘hot’ ethnically focused chefs seem way less sophisticated in their conceptualisation.

The dining room at the new Momo is a swish adddition to Collins Street's Grand Hyatt. It reminds me of the fashionable luxe dining rooms that my parents took me to in Europe in the 1970’s. There is abundant space between both the large, comfortable seats and the tables, unlike so many fashionable Melbourne venues where a private conversation is out of the question.

The lighting is soft – if a little dark for photography where I was seated at the head of a table of eight diners - and the feel is golden. Gone, are the ethnic dark wood screens and faux Levantine panoply. In its place, highlighted by Swarovski pendants of twinkling light, is the ideal vehicle for fine dining; smooth and luxurious without being ostentatious or intimidating. Greg’s Kitchen is no longer in view, leaving a hushed space jingling with the chorus of excited revellers and excellent, discreet waitstaff.

Perfectly in keeping with this is the food. My friends were looking forward to more of the same from the old Momo, but as we ate, I realised that the food of the old Momo is now being served at Mama Ganoush, and that it would feel a little out of place in the current environment. Clearly Greg has moved on and with it has come a delicious, grown up space to match the new direction in cooking. While I curled my toes with happiness, a friend was disappointed at the loss of rusticity.

Our choice was slightly curtailed by one of our group not liking any form of aquatic comestible, something that we were all forced to avoid due to the restaurant not serving a la carte. Two polite phone calls preceeding the evening covered this and any allergies to be considered, along with my credit card details. The shared meal concept and prices were discussed, and you will see them on the menu above. There would appear to be two sittings and we chose 8.30pm.

The wine list covers a lot of ground and I was grateful to the Sommelier as I had to find a happy medium between the type of wine I knew my friends favoured, and what would be most complementary to Greg's cooking.

From the menu our group chose the $100pp Arabesque Sharing Menu of two entrees, two mains, two sides and all the desserts. We knew that we did not have the fortitude to eat any more than that, as tempting as it may have been. At one masterclass, Greg had said that it was against the values that his mother had instilled in him to serve tiny portions.

Unlike Greg’s shared degustations at Stone’s this was not a slew of self service dishes to hand from person to person at the table. Adding to the sense of refinement, two waiters attended us, plating up and reviving the seldom seen art of silver service in Melbourne. After detailed descriptions and happy banter from Stuart we set upon the items on our plates.

First came the mini pita breads that A1 Bakery used to bake for Greg, though I believe they are now made on premise. Small puffed discs of heaven arrived on a bread board with olive oil mixed with pomegranate molasses. At the other end sat a burnished Turkish coffee pot filled with crudites. They were gloriously young and crisp while the bread formed a fluffy foil dipped in unctuous oil with sweet, tart molasses. A bottle of 96 Marc Bredif Vouvray, scented with stone fruit set us up for the first two courses.

The first plate we had chosen was Musakhan. Mountain bread shrouds wrapped daintily around subtly spiced quail meat, a paste of chickpeas and shallots. Where once Greg might have used this dish to smack you in the face with cinnamon and baharat - and he would have served it in a pouch - we had a morsel more akin to a lighter, eastern European dumpling in its pared back refinement.

Crunchy golden kataifi wrapped zucchini flowers with almond and barberry rice stuffing served with hot yoghurt sauce were a delicate and crisp three mouthfuls of earthy flavour. The textures were the focus in a way that is missed in the almost too common battered favourite of the Melbourne bistro scene.

His fattouché is something I have eaten on a number of occasions and although not ordered, was curious about its new refinement - along with that of the pigeon bistayeea. I would have loved to have also tried the Ras el Hanout King Prawns with crab and preserved lime. The Weekend Australian described it as ‘halved and bulging with crab, tomato and angel hair noodles is like a spaghetti marinara, refined and revisited’.

The milk fed veal was melt in the mouth and sat with a slim dolmade. Sinking into an intense velvety parsnip skordalia it had a sensual quality. I lingered over each mouthful discerning the subtle notes of ginger with pepper and a vague hint of cinnamon that reminded me of a gentle version of a Vietnamese braise. Alongside, Nicola potatoes, beets and courgettes with melted cumin gruyere formed a rich melange of comforting flavours. Thankfully the 06 Poderi Colla Barbera had enough clout for those at the table who are accustomed to big Aussie reds, but not as to overpower the dish.

The Honey cardamom duck was so luscious as to make me wish that it was a dish that would never end. I have always held the impression that Greg’s handling of duck stems from working with a team of Chinese chefs in the 97 days and no doubt impresses Hong Kong diners at Restaurant Olive, where he consults. The spicy Sujuk sausage made with ground lamb shoulder, a puddle of lentils and creamy labneh layered the sensations on the palate, sitting well with the vaguely salty side order of creamed feta spinach.

True to Greg’s palate the sweets were a little overwhelming for me. I am not a sweet tooth but I thought they were marvellous - even if I had to shunt my fairy chimney meringue across to my beloved in defeat. They are the same little delicacies that feature on the cover of his book Tourquoise, but in this instance filled with a rich white chocolate mousse.

Three of the desserts arrived together arranged on the one plate. I began with the pear baklava with candied walnuts. The pastry formed a thin, crisp maple leaf shaped sandwich to the sticky pear and was lubricated by a blob of crème fraîche. I wondered how Greg’s health is.

I took a sweet, crisp mouthful of the meringue next, then moved onto the small gilt glass filled with Mejdool date Brûlée ice cream. Removing the wafer I sunk my spoon in. My head spun with the sweet, creamy intensity of the contents and then I snapped into the wafer. Oh my! This glassy disc of colourless mastic toffee encircled by a crescent of honey cardamon tuille truly took my breath away.

In this sweet I had the memory of George Calombaris’ spoon of mastic toffee that is served at the end of his Press Club Symposium degustation - as a much needed digestif. But Greg’s was the sophisticated version, tricky, but not made in a theatrical way, just serving exactly the same purpose in an adult manner and providing a textural foil to the feast.

I set the wafer and toffee aside for last and waded into the final dessert of poached stone fruit, fresh and dried figs which had become lacquered by the melting prickly pear sorbet. Three pale orange quenelles of sorbet crowned the fruit, a soft pastel palette of autumn that complemented the maple leaf shaped baklava I had just devoured. The plush feel of the fruit yeilding in my mouth sat in semi erotic contrast to the other desserts.

A glass of Heggies Sticky served alongside dessert made me feel light headed with sweetness, and ready for a cup of peppermint tea. A number of tea blends are offered, along with Turkish coffee. The Sahara mint blend was perfectly fragrant without being overly pungent and arrived with six petit fours. Perhaps overkill, but joyous to the sweet tooth's at the table who chose neither tea, nor coffee but were quick to savour the rest of these morsels after I chose a dark chocolate oozing with profoundly piquant raspberry filling.

For the first time ever I did not feel overstuffed and exhausted like a teary toddler after one of Greg’s meals. I felt elated as always and still sated. The meal was as much food for thought and rumination, as for the obvious. Straggling, our party were the last to leave the restaurant, seen off to the lift by a procession of weary staff, glad no doubt to see the end of their working day. I applaud their efforts.

If there was one thing that marred my experience of Momo, it was the thudding doof-doof of a sub woofer coming from the adjoining Spice Market Bar - Mezze & cocktail lounge. I felt it vibrate our table like a passing hoon on Sydney Road and the rhythmic thud felt at odds with the mood of the restaurant. The contorted faces of Spice Market patrons pressed up against the windows looking into Momo evoked the feeling that I was a Shrink looking on to an asylum. Perhaps, by the time I have saved enough shekels to pay another visit, this will have changed?


Grand Hyatt Melbourne
Lower Plaza - entry via lift opposite bar Ru Co
123 Collins Street, Melbourne, Australia

ph. +61(3) 9650 0660

Momo Restaurant on Urbanspoon