Have you ever read a food review and wanted to see how it stacked up against your own tastebuds/sensory organs? Last week I had the perfect opportunity.

review

A friend suggested having a drink at his studio and then going round to his new local. A couple of days later it was reviewed by Larissa Dubecki in the Epicure section of the Age. (Also reviewed briefly in June, Sunday Age.) Hope you booked, I emailed. He had, which was just as well — the power of the food press; or maybe the frailty of the food fashion victim. Anyway, review in hand and aperitifs under the belt, we sauntered down the street into a darkish, noisy (or buzzy, if you like) concrete bunker — Pandora’s Box.

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ENDS MIDNIGHT

Ambience, am beyonce (not)

tile1-2Dubecki writes: ‘It’s important to point out that Pandora’s is a bar-restaurant … For those to whom the word “concrete” conjures a hell of shouted conversations and misheard anecdotes there’s little to say.’

Mulcher & co: Well, we like conversation at dinner, but it wasn’t too loud after all.

Dubecki: ‘The bare concrete walls and ceiling … flirt with austerity but the bar, tiled in white and lush Mediterranean blues, and the restrained addition of red furnishings, makes it a keenly judged style statement.’

Mulcher & co: We were seated in the corner. The banquette along the wall was surfaced, horizontally and vertically, in the blue/white tiles — which nodded to Delft rather than Mediterranean. A little kindness was provided by flat squashy pouffes. The tiles are custom designed and the groove factor high — but there is padded furnishing, and there is cold, hard tile. It wasn’t too bad, but it was sort of like sitting in church. Ask for an extra pillow.

Dubecki: It’s pleasantly dim and a turntable spinning vinyl on the bar plays an unimpeachable lo-fi soundtrack.’

Mulcher & co: Dim, not grim. Down spots for food and menu, of which we approved. The lo-fi spun Sinatra-era retro on our watch. Unimpeachable? But it beats thumping house or rap or top 40.

menu-stair

So, the menu

Sharing plates of course, all the way through. Most interestingly, the top of the menu carried the legend: ‘Wednesday 15th September — Sunday 19th September.’ A menu with a use-by date! (Click image above for legible menu.) The list looked fairly cutting edge standard (is that oxymoronic?); all sounded very encouraging. We ordered to match the review, except for a special:

Scotch Quail Eggs, Salt Cod, one each @$6 ($18)

Fried, Crumbed Pigs’ Ears, Green Mojo (special, not reviewed) $9

Smoked Lambs Tongue, White Port, Golden Raisin [sic, they all are] $16

Crystal Bay Prawns, Kritharaki, Toasted Corn $20

Cuttlefish, Parsley Sauce, Potato & Sofrito $18

Duck Leg Jamon, Pickled Quince $20

‘Gippsland’ Rabbit, Stifado Style, Garlic/Lemon Sprout Tops $30

Warm Spiced Milk Pudding, Rhubarb Caramel $12

Valrhona Chocolate Cornet $8 (gratis, I’ll explain ‘ron)

One of us was wagonning (on the, and driving the); the other two settled for a Pierro ‘LTC’ Sem/Sauv for a sensible $57. The expert says it is ‘a scrumptious dry white’ and we didn’t disagree. The wine list looked very fine, impressively more various than any of us were competent to judge. During the course of the evening we also had two bottles of sparkling water @ $9 ($18).

Service, ball boys and girls

On entry we were warmly greeted by a waiter who knew our friend by face, if not name. We were then seated by a young lass who was our waitperson for the night. She was very good, busy but attentive and prompt. And if she didn’t know something she made it her business to find out and relay it back to us. When she asked us if we had eaten there before and knew how the menu worked, I waved the torn-out review — not a blink. Full marks. The man whom we took (or mistook?) for the maître d’ also dropped by to say hello to the familiar face — this was the personable and intense Lok Thornton, who is, Dubecki notes, the “resident sommelier.” (Indeed, he has erudite things to say about wine.)

eggs

Bread and eggs

Waitperson brought out a dish of bread and butter, house-baked soda- and multi-grainy. First thing, and not an extra: correct behaviour, and to be encouraged. Then the Scotch eggs. Look what’s inside that golden ovoid! Egglike and actual egg, the shell breaks to a molten interior.

Dubecki: … a thing of rare beauty.’

Mulcher & co: ‘Oh it’s quail egg.’ / ‘Mmm …’ / Silence, sounds of cutlery on crockery … / My notes say: Light, unctuous, yellow melting. The salt cod did the business with its fishy tang. (Thumbs up and finger-licked.)

(BTW, if the Mulcher & co comparisons sound less than thorough it’s because we got carried away with pleasure. I had to keep reminding myself to pay attention and take notes.)

ears-tongues

Ears and tongues

Very nose-to-tail, we all looked forward to these items. (But let’s not picture their originary circumstances.)

Dubecki: ‘He also [“also” refers to the duck, below] gets that soft, smoky pink meat just right with a small white plate of smoked lambs’ tongues with the sweetness of raisins rehydrated in white port syrup and the sharpness of cornichons. It’s probably not one of the most popular dishes at a restaurant 50 metres from the Chapel Street drag but with its perfectly balanced simplicity it certainly deserves to be.’

Mulcher & co: The lambs’ tongues: ‘Radish, it’s good with the radish.’ / ‘What’s that sweet taste?’ / ‘It’s raisin … erm, Golden Raisin.’ / ‘Good touch.’ / Notes: Smoky, lightly meaty, sweet raisin contrast.

The pig’s ears: Rich, liquidy, earthy, oily, slightly crunchy. We loved them — all about textural sensations, even the flavours felt textural. The green mojo was a kind of herby sauce, for which my note merely states ‘green sauce.’ It was good, I remember eating a lot of it. (All round approval.)

duck

Signed with a duck

Dubecki: His signature is duck jamon: a single, golden-skinned fat leg, brined and slow-roasted so the ham-pink meat collapses at the first sight of cutlery. Pickled and roasted quince plays support in a simple but totally convincing duet of two simpatico bandmates.’

Mulcher & co: This was quite delicious, and the meat did indeed literally flake to the fork. The juiciness and softness — it was beyond tender — and again, the earthy and smoky notes, glossed with the sweet kick. (Like the duck, we crumbled.)

(The “he” and “him” Dubecki refers to is, of course, the chef. Dubecki: ‘… the late bloomers; the chefs who contentedly toil in the rank-and-file and approach career progression far more soberly. It’s fairly safe to say Matthew Germanchis is the second type of chef.’ The drama is that Germanchis had to take over at the last minute when his predecessor decamped on the verge of the restaurant opening, up to which point he was the sous chef. )

prawn-cuttlefish

Prawn heads and cuttlefish

Dubecki: He might also scare the rent-a-crowd by adding to an otherwise straightforward dish of pan-fried Crystal Bay prawns and orzo, the prawns’ pressed and fried heads and pieces of shell. The beguiling smoky sweetness of toasted corn adds another compelling layer of crunch.

Mulcher & co: Prawns: we liked. Our waitperson kindly explained that the kritharaki is like risoni, and the toasted corn was — embedded, integrated, dissolved — in the kritharaki. We couldn’t pick it. She thoughtfully brought us a little dish of the stuff and we all had a taste and agreed the flavour was in there, if not the “compelling layer of crunch.” As for the “pressed and fried heads and … shell,” I can enjoy this, but I didn’t think they were as pressed or fried as I would have liked — too spiky and bulky for comfort — sort of choking material if you’re not careful. The others steered clear of these. On the whole, rather good, with the yummy kritharaki and very fresh, nicely cooked prawns, which, really, is all you can ask of prawns.

Dubecki: … there are cuttlefish, bite-sized pieces with pop and chew after a stint in the pan, that sprawl across a wicked green blanket of the best parsley sauce, period — although a more pronounced acid element would have lifted the dish further.’

Mulcher & co: We all thought this was an alright dish, but comparatively dull. / Someone: ‘In another restaurant, this might be the standout dish, but not here tonight.’ / It didn’t come across as “the best parsley sauce, period.” I thought it was okay on the side of ordinary, perfectly cooked but rather polite. But that response just indicates the consistently high standard here.

upstairs

Intermission

LokThornton1It was fully booked but the late crowd had yet to arrive. I excused myself and went up the candle-lit staircase to the amenities. It was almost more stylish upstairs. A couple of room-size cages provided storage and the hallway to the loos was papered in a black and white pattern — some indecipherable post-pop funkiness.

Our maître d’ dropped around and chatted, explaining that his name, Lok, was a gift from his mother. Not from the Norse god of mischief, Loki, but from the Chinese, Lok for good luck. I’m guessing that’s Lok as in Fook Lok Sau: the three amigos, the triple desiderata: happiness (etc); prosperity (etc); long life. Inset is Thornton’s picture as (current, as far as I can tell) Wine Director of the Royal Mail, Dunkeld, from the Tourism Victoria website.

Here’s the thing — flagging the restaurant review page, documenting each dish as it arrived and asking questions of the waitperson must have got the crew’s antennae wriggling. Quite discrete, Thornton never asked who we were and what we were doing. Perhaps they guessed: enthusiastic foodies. I suspect they suspected we were food bloggers, with which this city is infested. Or wildly, perhaps I was even confused for that Jess Ho … which would be amusing and fabulous.

rabbit-kale

A sophisticated acidic curve-ball”

rabbit-round1Dubecki: … rabbit stifado, with pickled shallots throwing a sophisticated acidic curve-ball and a rustic side-dish of kale sauteed in butter and garlic lending a welcome sour note.’

Mulcher & co: Notes: Rich fruity sauce, very plump, moist, bitter greens. Stifado is Greek stew traditionally made with wild hare — gotta shoot it yourself. This was farmed rabbit — no one can achieve this kind of tender moistness with those wacky, free-range-for-real Bugs bunnies. Parts were cooked to almost charred, then there were these rounds looking like scallops. I don’t know that the shallots were so acidic, but certainly there was an appreciable edge in the sauce. The greens were not the reviewed kale, but “garlic/lemon sprout tops;” whatever they were, they had a suitable bitterness, not unlike the leaves of Chinese broccoli.

dessert

“Quivers like Christina Hendricks in stilettos”

And so, to one of my three favourite courses, dessert.

Dubecki: … an aged Aussie port is perfection with a Valrhona chocolate cornet dipped into a honeycomb and choc rubble.’

joanhollowayMulcher & co: We didn’t do the port, but we were served a complimentary chocolate cornet. This was thanks to being considered enthusiastic foodies, or suspected food bloogers. (Lovely typo!) Whatever, it was excellent — the rubble dip in the glass is a neat treat, a sly accommodation of the child in us which pops up when the sweets arrive.

Dubecki: Even better is the milk pudding — panna cotta, really, made without the cream — that quivers like Christina Hendricks in stilettos, a voluptuous mound of spicy warmth, coated in the glossy caramel poaching juices from a neighbouring stack of baby rhubarb.’

Mulcher & co: ‘Oh no they don’t!’ we cried. Not Christina Hendriks’ that is. Hendricks, aka Mad Men‘s Joan Holloway, doesn’t quiver. Solid and packed, Hendricks/Holloway swivels, like the bazoomkas on a battleship deck.

‘It has a mammalian warmth.’ / ‘Mm, mammarian warmth.’ / The pudding was riddled with tiny bubbles, a foamy dome barely holding its shape (unlike Hendricks/Holloway). It was extremely delicious, its sweetness complicated by spices, its dairiness playing off the fruity rhubarb. But it was the foaminess — it put in mind the way a restaurant in Malaysia translates creme caramel. ‘Is this steamed?’ I asked our waitperson. ‘I’ll find out,’ she said as she spun round. Back: ‘Chef says, yes, it’s steamed.’

bill

Verdict

Our enjoyment of the evening and the meal seemed to bear out Dubecki’s judgement, allowing for the inevitable (and mostly minor) differences of taste. (Mulcher has previously mentioned Dubecki regarding her own cafe.)

Review-wise I incline towards John Lethlean’s plainer writing (her predecessor on Epicure, of course), but Dubecki has a stylish way with words — thus: “The beguiling smoky sweetness,” sprawl across a wicked green blanket,” coated in the glossy caramel poaching juices from a neighbouring stack of baby rhubarb,” “sophisticated acidic curve-ball” (curveball is a baseball term for a not uncommon technique; is it quite sophisticated? and does it quite fit that phrase?), and “quivers like Christina Hendricks in stilettos” (which while eye-catching is not quite right, and is also a groove-set test of name recognition) — anyway, it’s entertainingly colourful.

Critics love to pick a bone, but which critic wants to be critiqued? I suppose food critics would roll their eyes at this kind of consideration of their efforts by inexpert laypeople. Then again, as Dr Johnson so nicely put it, no man is a hypocrite in his pleasures — and for whom are food critics writing if not people like us, who will take them seriously? (The usually occluded answer, of course, is that they are also writing for, and to, the food industry, in which they have, and can acquire clout.)

The food bill was $161 (inc. water but not alcohol — or the gratis dessert, but we were very well fed in any case). That’s $54 each — considering what, how and where we were served, we reckoned that was well spent and jolly good value for money.

I’ve had quarrels (unbeknownst to them) with food reviewers and bloogers before, but this was an evening of cheerful concurrence. Everyone got what they deserved: for us a fine meal; Dubecki a solid mark; our waiterperson a 15% tip ($32 on a $218 bill); Lok Thornton our regard; and Pandora’s Box and its chef Germanchis our admiration and future loyalty.