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A taste of fine dining

I’m sure we enjoy experiences more intensely if we have to wait for them.

I haven’t, over half a century of life, had much experience of ‘fine dining’. Unless you count the hundreds of family meals we have had, complete with gorgeous food from all sorts of different countries, accompanied by great wines and good conversation. And I do, count those I mean. They are my very favourite kind of meal.

This week, however, I experienced a different kind when our older son and his girlfriend shouted my husband and me to dinner at a legendary Melbourne eating establishment to thank us for letting her live at our place. We felt that we were the ones to benefit from this living arrangement, but we accepted with enthusiasm, including their stipulation that we had to have three courses and wine.

I was expecting something a little starchy, the bowing and scraping of wait staff, stiff linen on the tables and heavy silver cutlery. What we got was very different. An industrial type of space, crammed with tables, arty light fittings, and cutlery none of which matched.

Obsequious staff would have made me a bit uncomfortable. Here, they were anything but – they were courteous, so knowledgeable about the myriad dishes we consumed that I wondered if they had whipped them up themselves, and provided just the right amount of attentiveness. They took our wine bottle away between refills (the convenience of not having to juggle around full bottles on a small table!) and appeared at our elbows, as if by magic, every time our glasses looked as though they might need a top up. They were there when we wanted them, actually just before we realised we wanted them, and not there when we wanted privacy.

It didn’t feel snobby and exclusive; I felt spoiled and comfortable. They provided a hospitality style that seems to me uniquely Australian – helpful and polite with just a hint of cheek. It wasn’t about poshness; it was all about the food.

Something I have wanted to do before I die is to sample a degustation menu (although I have problems with this word, which is too close to ‘disgusting’ for my liking) at a really good restaurant. I decided this was the night, and we both went for the menu selection where you get a dozen or so tiny courses – several appetizers, a few entrees, two or three mains, a couple of desserts.

I wish I could remember enough about the dishes to do them justice. There were flavours and textures I had never dreamed of. Something that looked like a delicate, white prawn cracker and tasted of parmesan cheese. Pumpkin seeds with a sweet and salty crust, in a tiny silver dish. Warm abalone soup with frozen sweet corn. The most miniscule slice of Mandarin duck, perfectly pink and succulent. A small nugget of Wagyu beef. Baby beet salad. Rhubarb and strawberry sorbet on sheep’s milk yoghurt. A rich chocolate Grenache with violet ice-cream and clove meringue.

For all they were so little, each dish had four or five different components. And the spacing of the many offerings was just right – plenty of time between to chat and to savour the flavours.

We were there for four hours. We had an absolute ball. We were like a couple of kids in a candy shop, and our lovely waitress wasn’t at all snooty or condescending about our excitement; she seemed to take pleasure in it.

We were intrigued, however, by the clientele. One, they were young. Really young. What were they doing there – how could twenty-somethings possibly have saved up enough money in their short lives to go to such a place? There must be a lot of young adults around with plenty of disposable income.

Two, they didn’t look as excited as we felt. The two young women at the table next to us looked positively bored and spent the entire evening texting on their mobile phones.

There was no part of me that envied them. At the risk of sounding like a complete old sour puss, if they eat at a place like this now, what have these young people to look forward to? I positively glowed all next day and will never forget our big night out. And later in the week when we went to one of our local cheapies (cheap eating establishment in Brunswick, tautology, I know) to celebrate our younger daughter’s birthday, I had just as much fun. And at the end of a long day, my bowl of rice and dal at home gives me almost as much enjoyment as the Wagyu beef.

I wonder if people who are so loaded they can have anything, the minute they fancy it, really enjoy it? When our kids were little and we did a lot of camping, my husband had a line that he would deliver when we were sleeping under the stars or swimming under a waterfall. ‘Bill Gates eat your heart out’. He has a point.


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Reader Comments (2)

lovely post clare, how i miss melbourne (and brunswick - esp warwick thai!)

November 16, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterdanger.c

Hi Clare,
I now feasted on reading your last stories and feel so good about it! Hope a new book will be on the way soon... (knowing that you did not plan one - but just to be able to indulge in this warmness of sharing the same values and finding them expressed with such normal-appearing but actually extra-ordinaryly told stories.)
Sorry, the rest has nothing to do with the stories (even though I would like to write much more, but our flight to Germany is going soon!)...
I can not find my address book with the address of Ally in it - may I send my letter to her to your place and you kindly forward it to her? Thank you!!
And, one last asking for a favour for this year: Maria will have her 19th birthday on the 31st December and will be at our house with two German friends. If you are around, could you maybe send her some kind of Indian greeting, just as you welcomed us with a bunch of flowers when we first arrived?
Have a wonderful holiday and I will get in touch with you at the end of January - let's have another crepes-night with German/Indian ingredients!
Love Eva

December 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterEva

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