I’m reading about the Australians who fought for, and defended, Villers-Bretonneux in France, at the end of World War I, as I write on this Day of Remembrance*. These important moments in our early history have an impact on Australian culture today, and there are elements that equally impact the way we dine.
The whole idea of describing something as “modern Australian” is often used for restaurants that don’t fit into a particular genre. It has replaced the concept of “fusion”, which once was a popular term. If combining cuisines and using local ingredients is the backbone of modern Australian dining, there are a handful of restaurants that can make a case for being the trend setters.
My opinion is that Lume is what modern Australian has become, or at least, what the expression should mean. Intelligent use of native and locally produced ingredients, seemingly no cultural restraint (though I would say Japanese was more pronounced in certain dishes), and beautiful presentation, are the themes you see. Sure, there are not many everyday restaurants doing this, but just wait a few years. Cafes are going to have pig face on every dish requiring something green, seasoned macadamias will cover the bar, and salt bush with mountain pepper will be a snack you pick up at the local store. I’m not completely joking.
The cultural characteristics I read of those incredible and brave Aussies in WWI still resonate in how we carry ourselves today. Our collective pride in farmer’s battling the conditions to grow quality produce; the quiet confidence of astute waitstaff that can do their job extremely well, but relax and make a joke at the same time; and the willingness to go that extra yard to improve an experience without any notion of it being for a tip. When you think about it, modern Australian dining has as much to do with our inclusive and laid back (but hard working) culture as it does with the food. It is something refreshing when you are not used to it, or comforting when you travel back home.
My wife Catherine is pregnant (very exciting!) and naturally careful about what she eats. We had made the usual early warning call, and the chefs had constructed her menu to be very similar to mine, with some changes to ensure the usual suspects were not there. The waitstaff were easily approachable when Catherine wanted some further comfort. More than that, there are some great friendly people working at Lume and the whole experience from that service aspect was almost perfect.
There is an experimental nature to the food. We were doing the Incitation tasting menu of around seven courses, with some extras thrown in. After the seasoned macadamias we had two snack sized courses. The first was “sea corn taco” which had a good amount of crab, but a textural trick with the baby corn being in a custard form. While I enjoyed it, the second snack of “Darwinian egg” was the tastier dish. The egg shell was actually crispy chicken skin, and the filling was another beautiful custard-like concoction, this time of potato puree.
One of the signatures of Lume came next with “Pearl on the ocean floor”. This is an immaculately presented collection of raw seafood, with textures, and foams, that you mix together once you’ve enjoyed a good look. I appreciated the dish, but it wasn’t my favourite of the night, with some of the more subtle seafood a little lost for me.
Shortly after a favourite dish arrived. The nukazuke (pickled) broccoli and lemon myrtle, calamari gravy and finger lime is a revelation. I’m a broccoli lover, and thought the dish was outstanding with the diversity of techniques, combination with the texture of calamari, and the pop from the finger lime, all making their mark. From here we were presented with the artichoke sourdough, served with smoked eel butter and sour corn honey, that was very enjoyable as we prepared for the main.
The last savoury dish had the impact that often is missing in the main protein. The pork has one of the most gorgeous crispy skins I’ve tasted and is cooked perfectly, with berries (they may have been quandongs), beetroot and an exquisite sauce. Even the radicchio with togarashi pepper and blood lime is sensational!
Moving on to dessert, the first is more of a refresher. Playfully presented, the ice cold fermented passionfruit atop rhubarb formed into musk sticks, with Geraldton wax, is delightful. More seriously, the second dessert provides some more sweetness, though in balance, with an olive oil and mandarin peel ice cream, fennel and absinthe. I’ve always been a fan of olive oil based ice cream and this one is no exception to the rule.
Throughout, the sommelier had helped match a couple of glasses of wine (and a dessert wine) to adjacent courses in the tasting menu, without doing a full matching. Don’t tell Catherine, but they were all terrific, with the Leirana Albarino my favourite in the early courses. I find this Spanish variety is one of the most versatile wines for subtle seafood dishes, with enough backbone to foil more pronounced flavours, but not necessarily the meatier dishes.
Lume is going to change markedly in the new year. All trends take time to set, and there is little doubting why there is a serious following of this restaurant, the way Lume has been over the past few years. In an awkward location of South Melbourne it will need to stay special and relevant to keep up, let alone continue to set the agenda. I’m glad we had a chance to dine here as one door closed, and another opened. Good luck in the next chapter.
* Note this was written some time ago! There has been significant change at Lume and in 2019 there will be a new more casual chapter, as the executive chef (Shaun Quade) travels to L.A. to open up a new restaurant. I had such a good meal I had to write about it, even if there will only be themes of the old restaurant in the new format.