"What restaurants need to be focussing on is their own people, their neighbours, families and friends, and cooking for them simply and beautifully" Tim Hayward
It's my birthday today and last night David took me out to our local fine diner Mercer's for a special birthday meal. So here I am at the start of our beautiful meal, facing our 'amuse bouche' The cigar shaped things contained goat's cheese - which was a delicate, fresh tasting variety, and the mushroom looking things were smoked tomatoes. I can't remember now what the coating was. But in a way this was sort of the star in a very starry meal. It was the star in the sense of the presentation and the complication of the tomatoes, and the originality of it all I suppose. Some would say the fussiness too. They were home-smoked the chef explained to us later. His wife, the lovely Ute, who always does an incredible job of pretending you are a long lost friend, had been amused by this particular offering she said. And this is the sort of thing that makes fine dining something that I think will always exist - I mean you are not going to cook this at home are you?
And here it is in close-up. In a way it epitomises what people like to mock about fine dining, but it is also why we need fine dining opportunities to celebrate the milestones of our lives, or when we just need a lift. Even if it had tasted horrible - which it certainly didn't, it would make you smile.
Well if you are well off I suppose. Let's be fair. Fine dining does not come cheap although this particular fine dining establishment is not as expensive as most. Mind you I do remember once - I think it was at Vue de Monde - speaking to some young woman at a nearby table saying that this is what she spent her 'extra' money on - fine dining. She had a list of desirable eateries and she was ticking them off. For they are all unique and memorable in so many different ways.
Eltham's Mercer's Restaurant may be unique in Melbourne - a real fine dining establishment in the outer suburbs. We could not think of another one. There are others further out in the Yarra Valley and other regional spots, but otherwise you have to go into the city and its immediate suburbs clustered on the edge of the CBD. And that statement at the top of the page about focussing on 'their own people' is exactly what Mercer's does. I suspect that most of their customers are pretty local and regular customers - not on a weekly basis but often enough to ensure their continuation. And as I said, Ute always does a good job in greeting you like an old friend. But it's special food - it's not what you get in even your middle-range restaurants. There is linen on the table, carpet on the floor, and smiling, efficient and knowledgeable service. It's a night out to remember.
"People like the finer things of life, there's a lot of people out there that have a lot more money than me that are only ever eating in fine dining restaurants, they're not interested in going to have a burger or an ice cream, they want a steak, then they want to have a quenelle of their ice cream with some fruit, it's how they like to eat," Peter Gunn - chef
Which actually doesn't sound like very fine dining to me. But it's certainly true that there are plenty of very rich people who dine out like this very often - indeed all the time. And then there's the rest of us who, for whatever reason want a really special night out. I don't think fine dining will die anytime soon. Maybe just decrease a little.
There are lots of people who say that fine dining is dying if not actually dead. They point to some high profile closures - particularly in the time of COVID, and it is certainly true that the fine dining establishments may well have suffered more than other restaurants who have switched to takeaway. As I said, you can't make these things at home, and they can't be put in an ÜberEats bag and delivered to your door. They need to be presented beautifully as well, not eaten out of plastic throwaway tubs.
“Yes, it is expensive and difficult to run a fine diner, and it does mean it is more expensive to eat at them, but people recognise it for what it is — a very special experience. There are still wait lists at the top restaurants around Australia because people are willing to spend on food, probably more now than ever,”" Guillaume Brahimi
Mercer's was one of the first of the fine diners - possibly the first - to actually make the switch - very cleverly - by partially preparing the food, and then leaving you to finish it off and serve it up, with the help of a video to show you how to make it look good. You may remember I did this a couple of times in the long lockdown. It apparently proved to be such a popular thing, that even when we came out of lockdown they continued to do this at the weekends because the customers wanted it. And when we went into lockdown again, they just switched again and increased the number of takeaways. Again it's a local thing - you had to go and collect it yourself - no ÜberEats here. It enabled them to keep going and to be able to retain all their kitchen staff through both lockdowns.
But back to last night's memorable experience. Below are some not terribly good photographs of what we ate. I should preface this by saying that Stephen Mercer has given up the à la carte approach because it leads to too much wastage. It's just not efficient and so you have the option of a four course or six course menu. We went for the four course one. And if you like you can have the chosen accompanying wines for each course - which I did. David was driving and so, hero that he is, he just had a glass of pinot - and several sips from my four wines. The menu changes seasonally, although I suspect it changes more often that that as it was slightly different a few days ago when I booked. The Malaysian dancing prawns though are a signature dish - well the accompaniments vary - as well they should be. They are always wonderful, although David, of course, had to ask them to serve him something else. Which, if you give them notice, they are very happy to do.
So this is what we had - Malaysian dancing prawns on a fried eggplant salad with a mild chilli glaze, Lamb neck, pea and mint risotto - served in a small double walled glass with something frothy and delicious on top. Yum. Beef porterhouse with ox cheek and pine mushroom pithivier and a black pepper sauce (plus a bit of potato gratin) - loved the sauce and mushroom thing. There were greens as well underneath, so a balanced dish. And to end the most delicious and light Sticky date soufflé.
All served at just the right pace and all those softer surfaces, meant that you could hear each other speak.
It was really my birthday present. I have everything that I could possibly need but I don't dine out very often and I certainly don't eat at fine dining establishment often. That's why it's so special. Long may they survive.