Now that I'm an old lady with grown-up problems, fine dining experiences are for special occasions only. The thing is though, Marc and I are so settled into our home and have really brewed our laziness and comfort to a whole new level, we end up just doing home cooked meals or takeaway feasts for special occasions anyway. Because of this I can see from my own blog that my last fancy meal was April 2013 at Esquire.
Imagine my excitement when a couple of girls from work decided to arrange a joint birthday dinner at Urbane. I had it penned in my diary weeks in advance and found myself counting down to that weekend. Arguably even more eager than the birthday girls, I periodically looked up the Urbane website just to read the seasonal menu. I know I was obsessive because the menu actually changed at least once in the time that I was repeatedly looking it up.
I've been to two other establishments that are part of the Urbane group: The Euro and The Laneway. Both leant very positive experiences so I had high hopes for their namesake restaurant.
Urbane is located right next to The Euro, in fact I nearly walked through the wrong door. The restaurant is smaller than I expected but I've decided I like that because it felt more intimate. Do be prepared for potentially loud and boisterous guests. I'm not one for the hush hush style of romantic dim lighted dining so that suited me fine but if you are sensitive to that kind of thing I guess it comes down to the luck of the draw.
The menu looks cryptic but it's easy to deal with. By that I mean you don't need to make many decisions. Firstly, 5 or 8 courses? Secondly, meat-containing or vegetarian? I knew beforehand that Urbane had a dedicated vegetarian degustation option. I discovered that when I was researching restaurant recommendations for vegetarian friends and I think that's a fabulous idea. They ask for dietary restrictions at start of the meal and one of the ladies in our group was able to swap out the lamb course for the mushroom equivalent from the vegetarian degustation without issue. The rest of us went for the omnivore 8 course.
The first item brought out to us was the house brewed kombucha (fermented sweetened black tea). It was scented with cinnamon and chai and had a sweet and syrupy consistency. The cinnamon aftertaste was quite strong. These little shots of tea were accompanied by some hand towels.
Mushroom winter broth with escargot
Next came a series of small courses lightly referred to as 'snacks' on the menu. One was a winter broth with shimeji mushroom, a tortellini and traditional crumbed escarcot. I never understood the deal with escargot although the shell was pretty. I loved the broth. I'm a self-confessed soup girl and a well made broth such as this can make my soul sing. The tortellini was full of earthy mushroom filling which was a nice burst of flavor amidst the delicate broth.
Mussels with kim chi
We were then presented some mussels in kim chi sauce and an egg yolk emulsion. I neither love or hate kim chi but I will say that when it is presented as a side at a Korean restaurant (which is always) I will just leave it alone. However if it's part of the dish I'm eating, I won't pick it out. I liked that the kim chi sauce in these mussels was mild but I can imagine a huge kim chi fan wanting more bang.
The next dish looked like powdered egg inside tiny little bowls. The description was 'sweetcorn' and for those who heard the 'sweet' part of that and was expecting dessert-like flavours, this was actually a very savoury corn dish. It was cold like snow but it did have a distinct corn flavour. I was reminded of the corn icecream I would get from the cornerstore near my grandparents house in Shanghai (yup, there is such a thing as packaged corn icecream) but this was much saltier.
Tofu, avocado salsa on quinoa crackers
The last of our snack courses was some tofu in a broth, plus quinoa crackers with an avocado salsa. Again, the elements here were presented in a petite and attractive way. Each bite-sized portion had all these intricate bits and pieces that came together nicely.
Close-up of tofu
Look at those adorable cubes of tofu! I don't know what the crackly stuff sprinkled on top was (popped grain?) but it made the tofu interesting. The quinoa crackers were very nice; so thin and crispy. The topping included some actual quinoa and had a nice flavour.
House bread and butter
At this stage we were surprised to learn that our official courses hadn't even started. Some housebaked wattleseed and banya nut bread was brought out but we gauged our stomach capacity to prepare for the food ahead. I, of course, ignored this logic and dove into the bread. Just cracking it apart with my fingers released this gloriously rich aroma. It invoked a sense of chocolatiness that I can't explain.
Close-up of butter
Paired with the butter, the bread was delicious. Birthday girl Jenny suggested I include this photo of the butter to show just how cute it is in a pile! It was almost (and the key here being 'almost') too good to eat.
Scallop, cucumber, apple
The first of our 8 courses was titled 'scallop' on the menu. It was served with a mini dollop of organic caviar, a coconut and lime sauce and pickled pink lady and cucumber. I didn't like the sound of coconut and lime for the sauce because to me, those are pure Thai flavours and Thai dishes tend to be strong. However, in this case the sauce managed to taste distinctly of coconut and lime but was also very light and didn't overpower the scallop.
Onion, smoked beurre blanc, dill
The main component of our next course was 'onion'. As plain as that sounds, this ended up being one of the most impressionable dishes to me. There were 3 petals of beer-picked onion, pretty as a picture, filled with a mix of tapioca pearl and macadamia. This was a fascinating textural combination with the gel-like smoothness of the tapioca played off but crunchy nut pieces. The smoked butter sauce was yummy too.
Pork tail, parsnip, bone marrow
The following course was a crispy pork tail with golden shallot and pork tail crumble. It also contained a small amount of bone marrow, thin parnip slices and a decorative leaf (can't remember what it was called). The pork tail itself was indeed nice and crispy with a gelatinous center. I'd never tried pork tail before, and the idea of it slightly freaks me out, but it was tasty. I can imagine a whole plate of these as beer snacks (is that too morbid?)
Octopus, jerusalem artichoke, finger lime
We progressed to the grilled octopus next. At the time of eating, I just thought 'oh yup, octopus'. I don't really get the fuss with this protein and always find it fairly uninteresting. I watched this week's MasterChef episode where Maggie Beer provided a mystery box with a whole octopus in it. Seeing everyone's struggle (literally none of the octopus tasted was cooked well) made me realise that perhaps I wasn't giving Urbane enough credit for even making the octopus edible at all. We discussed the squid ink sauce at length. I've always liked the drama of squid ink colouring but it works for me because it also has a distinct flavour that I enjoy.
Sweetbread, watercress, cauliflower
Next was our sweetbread course. Jenny was on the verge of panic, thinking she heard 'sweetmeat' (which is chef term for testicals) but luckily we didn't have to face that. I've had very meh experiences with sweetbread before. Most recently, I recall trying to stomach the stuff at Vue De Monde. I always thought I'm someone who can eat ANYTHING but sweetbread definitely tests the limits. I don't know what it is about the taste but it has such a strong gaminess to it and the curry flavouring in this dish, however mild, didn't help. I finished it but only because the serving was blessedly small.
Lamb, mushroom, preserved lemon
The last of our savoury courses was the lamb belly with mushroom. It was good but definitely not one of my favourite courses. There was nothing wrong with any of the elements but if I want to eat lamb, I like a large portion with generous sides and gravy. When I'm at a creative fine dining restaurant that presents everything small and prettily, I find that it is the obscure ingredients like 'onion' that stand out the most. Lamb belly here was perfectly adequate but in my opinion, not something that showcased what Urbane was about.
At this point, our bellies were more than content and we were transitioned onto dessert. An interim course termed 'predessert' was presented to cleanse our palates. It was a mojito poached pear with Murray river pink salt and a special kind of mint (that it was also serve ontop of). I didn't catch the type of mint but can reveal that it's a very slow-growing variety. Apparently the bed of mint you see in my photo takes 2 years or something to achieve. Obviously, we couldn't resist tearing off a little bit to try. That is some potent mint! It has a strong savoury tone that brings rocket to mind and the aftertaste sticks around. The pear itself was different to what I expected because it was quite firm. It was ok, not remarkable.
Pink lady apple, lemongrass, ginger
I was very keen on our dessert courses because something about the combination of curried sweetbread followed by fatty lamb belly was way too much savoury for me. I needed something cool and sweet. The pink lady apple dessert was everything that I could hope for. Being the ice-cream lover that I am, I dove straight into the sorbet. I'll admit that at any gelato or ice-cream store, I never, every, ever choose a sorbet. And I think that people who do are weirdos. I might just have to retract that opinion entirely because this sorbet was perfection. It was refreshingly apple-like and icy, icy cold with a fine granulation. Most importantly for me, it was sweet but not too sweet. The other components on the plate were also great, including a marshmallow that wasn't anything like the packet marshmallows but the standout for me was definitely the sorbet.
With such a previous high note, I didn't expect the next course to best it, especially when the presentation reminded me of scrambled eggs. This course was not dissimilar in looks to the sweetcorn snack course we had, only it was spread across a plate rather than in a bowl. Our waiter explained that this was a frozen mandarin parfait with honeycomb and fresh pomelo throughout. There was also a garnish of baby bush basil leaves and we were encouraged to get a bit of basil in each bite. Wowsers, my first bite blew my socks off and escalated this dish to my hero of the night. The parfait itself was creamier than expected and had a gorgeous, light, snow-like texture that had the girls debating how it was acheived. The unexpected pops of fresh pomelo added little zings of tartness and the basil... it seems like a strange combination but this is a perfect example of the whole exceeding the sum of the parts. The basil worked to bring the flavours in this deceptively simple dessert to a new level. I love sweet and savoury working together. I love cold desserts. I love unexpected textures and unconventional combinations that work. This dessert was right up my alley and to me, personifies what this style of cooking is all about: new age techniques and methods, fresh ingredients, innovation and deliverance of taste.
Native fruit infusion with a special, personalised message
ALAS, we were not done yet. Our final treat of the night was a native fruit infusion tea. What surprised us is that our initial waiter of the night (we ended up having food delivered by a few) picked up one of the girls saying 'Happy birthday' to another and surmised this was a birthday celebration. It so happens that we had 2 birthday girls at our table but nonetheless, I found this to be lovely and attentive. Our tea was served with a portion of fruit that was described as a cross between banana and pineapple. I thought it tasted exactly like it was described and yes, it's as strange as it sounds. The tea itself was like the kombucha at the start of the evening, but chilled rather than warm. Thus our fantastic evening was brought to a full circle.
Urbane really brought back to me everything I love about fine dining. I've heard of (and been guilty of) people whinging that there's no point in paying premiums at a restaurant when equally delicious food can be had at home. The point is, it's not just about flavour or even belly satisfaction, it is about the whole experience. From the onset, the staff are professional, polished, polite and friendly. The service standards are impeccable. Even the bathroom gives one a pampered feeling. The menu is not just full of 'yum that sounds good' but is intriguing and exciting. The dishes are beautiful and carry a certain amount of theatre. I don't deny that 'tasting good' is a prerequisite for any restaurant that I review but Urbane managed this and more. My favourite courses of the evening were the mushroom broth, the onion, the pig tail and of course the mandarin parfait. We were there close to 4 hours and I felt like the time just flew by. Degustations are best attended with top company and I'm lucky to have had such a wonderful group of ladies with me to keep the conversation flowing.