Friday, April 15, 2011

Fine dining identity crisis?

Venue: Marquee Restaurant Bar
Style: Modern European
Address: Trak Centre, 445 Toorak Road, Toorak [Google Maps]
Phone: (03) 9827 7938
Hours: Tue 5:00pm-11:30pm, Wed-Sat 5:00pm-11:00pm
Prices: E $11-25, M $16-39, D $12-25
Bookings: Yes, telephone

Caustic restaurant critic A.A. Gill observed that people are not compelled to eat out because they are hungry; a diner is driven by a number of unconscious considerations, "hospitality, atmosphere, a feeling of largess and a sense of comfort, to be with friends, to have a mise-en-place that reflects on them."

Irrespective of the style and quality of the food being served, a new restaurant may find itself hamstrung from the get-go by positioning itself inappropriately. Of course, there is the exception to the rule: Shannon Bennett's Vue de Monde first opened its doors in a small space in Carlton that was described by one reviewer as resembling a toilet block. Bennett however is just that - an exception; where he is about to take Vue de Monde to the top of the Rialto, other venues that opened with greater fanfare but no vision are now missing from the pages of Melbourne's surplus food guides.

If this already sounds as though I am recommending that Marquee Restaurant slash Bar be avoided, that is not the case. However, the name of the venue was obviously not meant to be whimsical so much as literal. The restaurant is housed beneath a sprawling, cream marquee, with delicate pendant lights suspended from the striking, black, iron frame. Glossy timbers, marble and black and brown leather seating make for a very warm, inviting environment. Clearly a lot of money went into the fit-out, in an attempt to make the diner forget that Marquee is housed within Toorak's tiredest shopping centre, where my grandmother used to take me to chat to the girls at the hair salon and waste coins on the gumball machine.

Marquee interior

It's incongruous with where Marquee is pitching itself, with its Parisian looks, premium offerings and a head chef whose CV sets the bar high (Cecconi's, Vin Cellar, Il Solito Posto and Gordon Ramsay's Maze in London).

The surest way to forget that you are dining in a shopping centre is to try the wagyu and quail egg burger. Wagyu burgers are so ubiquitous nowadays that it is noteworthy that Marquee's was so memorable, served miniaturised and finished with beetroot, for a rich mouthful of succulent beef and gooey yolk.

Battered prawns are fine but such things can just as easily be acquired from a fish 'n chip shop (though you'd have to settle for mayonnaise rather than aioli). More exciting are the oysters with champagne sabayon, although I end up downing four of the suckers because these are some unusually small molluscs.

Dom and I puzzled over Marquee's business card, featuring a bull clothed in a cape. What could it mean? Delving into the menu, we found a rooster in military garb and therein, each facing page featured some creature dressed to the nines. This is telling in its apparent disconnectedness from what Marquee is doing.

The whole venture seems confused to me, because while the food is good, it is unrelated to the environment (Parisian), the local area (fashionable Toorak) and the head chef's background.

Years ago, a family friend opened a restaurant in the city, with the intention of offering a classic fine dining experience. Prior to this, she'd operated a respectable restaurant in Frankston that was focused on comfort food. On the evening we dined at the new venue, it was also playing host to a bachelor party. As dessert arrived, so did the stripper. She didn't waste any time, because not a moment after coffee was served, the proprietor's husband emerged from upstairs, clutching his forehead and exclaiming, "What a body!"

The problem was that this friend was far better at serving hearty European fare than she was fussing over jus and loin of rabbit (and her husband could always be relied on to annihilate a civilised atmosphere).

Presently, Marquee is a very warm, attractive space where diners can expect confident, flavourful food. It is also worth mentioning that staff members were delightful and attentive. I maintain that the location is a mistake and there's little rhyme or reason behind the menu, but the proprietors may yet tweak the formula and establish a firmer identity.

Indeed, the strength of the food alone can elevate a restaurateur from humble beginnings, from a toilet block to the heavens.

Marquee Restaurant on Urbanspoon

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