Good fortune is the only way to describe finding out about Igni opening up in Geelong not long ago. With dinner plans for the Thursday night before Easter still not set, this seemed a must visit.
Aaron Turner, head chef and part owner of Igni, closed Loam only a few years ago just as it was getting to the top of my regional list of places to try. Hearing about the new venture propelled it immediately. The street Igni is on is very quiet, and not overly attractive, but as the maitre’d opened the door for us, we enter a world far away. There is a wide dark walled rectangular room with polished concrete, a long wave curtain shutting off the outside, and soft wooden tables on the floor, with a good space to eat on the bar, some right around the chefs. It is beautiful and strongly reminds me of Penfolds Magill Estate.
There is no menu and so the main option is for five or eight courses. After going through eight courses the night before we opt for the five courses and are assured it is a good representation of the talents of the chefs, and a good amount of food too. I try the wine matching and Catherine goes by the glass tonight. As we sip our aperitif gin (from the Adelaide Hills) and tonic we see the restaurant filling up to capacity.
Fluffy rolls baked locally on Pakington Street are served from a basket, and we spread hay smoked butter and sprinkle sea salt, finishing it quickly like an addict needing a fix. Five snacks are brought out that give a good indication of the quality to come. As a whole the snacks are outstanding with great flavour in the Hopkins River beef jerky when you have a nice big chewy bite. There is a punch from the salty chicken skin (incidentally Aaron is a founder of Belle’s) softened by the dill cream, and the mussel works perfectly within the zucchini flower. There is also a great take on salt and vinegar chips using the salt bush, which is as addictive as the bread and butter.
Our first course is the southern calamari which is eaten like pasta or noodles with fork and spoon for a playful and inventive beginning. The broth features deeply reduced seafood (from memory it may have included mussel shells) and together the texture is great, but the serving was enough. In the end the very lightly cooked calamari is firm and a little chewy and is best in this type of quantity.
Similarly the marron was extremely lightly cooked and mainly seared on the shell side. It is served in a glutinous pil pil sauce that is apparently claimed by both Portugal and Spain and consists of olive oil, garlic and chilli. There is a theme here of deep flavours, and like so many elements through the night this is no exception. The pickled cucumber adds a nice touch. Interestingly when you combine all the ingredients in one mouthful, you eat through the cucumber first, leaving the marron to shine, but adorned with the flavour of the pickle.
The next dish of a mustard leaf covered disk of beetroot, sitting in whey, tasted so incredible I couldn’t see it being surpassed. This seemingly vegetarian dish is enhanced by the use of duck fat when cooking the beetroot which is absolutely sublime. The firm texture perfectly contrasts with the soft whey sauce, which again highlights the skill of the chefs with sauces and purees.
It was hard to believe, but the beetroot ensemble was eclipsed by last main. While the dish is lamb rump, parsnip and radicchio, these ingredients could be reordered in terms of importance. The parsnip puree is one of the best things made out of a vegetable I can remember eating in years. The lamb is cooked perfectly, capturing the extra flavour from sparing pockets of fat, and between the lamb and the radicchio there is a honeyed sweetness that works perfectly. As much as I love to try new things I hope on a future visit they offer this dish again.
For dessert, the seasonal berries were great in themselves, but it was time for something sweeter after a near perfect savoury experience. Technique is shown in the various elements, including little frozen balls of goodness, but I would have liked something sweeter.
The wines were obviously chosen looking for points of difference. To explain, the first was an organic red made in the Languedoc by Pierre Rousse called the Dithyrambe, consisting of merlot, cabernet franc, and cabernet sauvignon, which is served cold. It is not unpleasant on its own, but was much better with the calamari dish, making a very interesting and inventive match. There was a semillon by CLO Tink that is fermented with its skin on for seven days to add texture, and is preservative free. It worked well with the marron, but I still was thinking about how a traditional slightly aged semillion would go. The Spinifex Papillon grenache and cinsault was delicious but the beetroot and whey could not be bettered; and the 2014 Josh Cooper Doug’s Vineyard pinot noir was gorgeous, but again, the lamb and parsnip puree was so brilliant that the pinot played a support role.
The madeleine, and grilled pineapple, for petit fours were up there with the rest of the food from start to finish. Catherine’s peppermint tea was high quality, but my filter coffee left a bit to be desired. I understand Igni is very new, but I hope they get a decent coffee machine for espresso in the future, as a meal like this deserves it.
Throughout this experience service had been excellent, although there are two of the floorstaff who are also part-owners, and it is clear they are more experienced and knowledgable, than a couple of others who were also waiting on our table. The less experienced floorstaff were still friendly and polite but will certainly grow under the tutelage of the owners. In particular, the maitre’d and part-owner was extremely articulate about not just the wines, but the ingredients and techniques the chefs were using, to the point where she mentioned the parsnips were from her parents’ garden!
Reading up on the exploits of Aaron Turner is an intriguing study. He and the chefs he is working with have some extraordinary talents and ideas. I only hope that Igni is here for many years to come because it feels like it could become a special place and give Geelong a destination restaurant to be very proud of.