From the moment you book the full seasonal tasting experience on Amaru’s website, you know you’re in for an odyssey. It’s the restaurant’s most extravagant offering, after all – with five snacks, seven courses and petit fours, plus optional drink pairings. Skipping brekky isn’t a bad idea, but that’s not to say the food at Amaru will be dense or cumbersome – the progression of light to heavier dishes is carefully designed, a thoughtful pacing that allows you to take as long as you please in comfort.
Situated on a leafy boutique strip in Armadale amidst bridal shops and delis, the 34-seat venue is surprisingly low-key inside. Behind the sheer curtains concealing it from the outside world, you’re met with a starkly understated dining room accented with natural timber, earthy textiles, brushed grey walls and a statement vase of native flowers. The tables are widely spaced apart, offering a private sanctuary for languid, leisurely dining – which you’ll certainly need to fully immerse yourself in every bite that comes your way. Despite being a fine diner, there’s a mostly relaxed feel to Amaru, only interrupted when you sense a brief rush or moment of tension in the kitchen.
Curious about the housemade and fermented drinks that feature in the non-alcoholic program, I’ve opted to go booze-free today. The waiter encourages a sly glance at the wine list, and I sneak in a glass of sprightly cider from Normandy as an aperitif. It’s with equal parts trepidation and excitement that I’ve taken my seat at the chef’s table, an intimate, up-close experience where one can peer into the open kitchen and get the run-down on each dish personally. Chef Clinton McIvey, who opened Amaru in 2016, also runs one of Melbourne’s most consistently impressive wine bars, Auterra, so there’s no doubt I’m in fantastic hands. The service is congenial and efficient. The chefs operate together like clockwork.
The tasting starts with a sequence of snacks framed by the beautifully aesthetic plates they rest on: a tiny carrot, marigold and finger lime bite in a bowl of inedible pebbles, another raw appetiser on ice. It’s artful stuff, molecular gastronomy at its most attractive. The first drink is kombucha-like, made from bergamot shrub and Champagne vinegar, and topped with a gentle sparkling alcohol-free wine. It’s complex and sophisticated, enough to make going off the grog more often at restaurants an appealing idea.
Fresh Portarlington mussels come wrapped in purple-hued discs with abalone in a bowl of rich, savoury kangaroo tail stock. It’s remarkably tasty, proving the kitchen’s talents lie far beyond plating aesthetics. Tiny dried bursts of citrus may seem like just a mere garnish, but they also serve to twist the gamey dish into a brave new world.
There’s serious artistry here, a chef daring to execute the full range of his creative expression. Each idea lands on the plate, fascinating and bewitching. Dishes to follow include a mud crab with a flawless egg custard, textured a bit like silken tofu, and a chestnut mousse so light and angelic it could have been heaven sent. Succulent King George whiting comes in a bright green pool of sea herb emulsion, served with a beverage of sharp yuzu skin elixir to cut through. The house sourdough melts in your mouth with its accompanying honey mead butter. The Western Australian marron is the standout though, sweet, delicate and popping with the dazzling brightness of sturgeon caviar.
Amaru believes in a no-waste approach, using the whole animal instead of just parts. A dry-aged duck comes in three portions: a buttery sauce-glazed breast, a kind of jerky made from the heart and a puffed grain-speckled meatball showcasing the leg. The latter is served in a claypot full of smoky leaves you can smell from the kitchen while it’s being prepared. Meat is where Amaru particularly shines, every bite being deeply savoury, seasoned just right and cooked to perfection. A juicy feijoa tea perfumed with blackcurrant leaves makes for a novel pairing.
Dessert is an elaborate and visually arresting three-part affair. The surface of the first dish looks a bit like an egg, ivory white with a yellow circle in the middle. But in fact, it’s a lid of bees wax on top of a frothy mousse made from camel’s milk. In the centre, there’s a scoop of Victorian blood orange sorbet. It’s an interesting harmony of earthy, creamy, fruity and sour notes, not too sweet and somewhat wholesome in its own way, like eating a pudding. It’s served with a refreshing Sodastream infusion of blood orange and jasmine flowers.
Next is a leafy explosion of saltbush, corn shards and Davidson plum sorbet, snowed under a drizzle of white chocolate sauce. It’s difficult to tell exactly what’s what, and I find that the bursts of salt on the tongue slightly overpower the brightness of the fruit. Despite this, it’s a brilliant showcase of native Australian flavours and the textures are exciting. The Japanese umeshu-inspired quince drink it’s served with is yet another non-alcoholic knockout.
It’s a journey. A proper journey. And the drink pairings are precisely coordinated. Each tea and fermented infusion plays an integral character to the storyline as they wash down the last bite, readying one for the next surprise.
By the end of the meal, my belly’s bulging at the sides, but the final trio of sweets is too eye-catching not to taste: a salt-encrusted rhubarb and rosella jelly, a native lychee-infused chocolate that looks like a freshly cut gem, and a shiitake and black truffle fudge – parting gifts for what’s been one of the most thrilling contemporary culinary experiences money can buy in Melbourne.
The creative sense of precision at Amaru borders on insanity, and sometimes it has the tendency to feel like too much all at once, but the sense of whimsy and novelty manages to ground itself in the restaurant’s leverage of whole local ingredients. If you’re in the mood, in the present and prepared to pace yourself throughout the experience, it’s one that’s unforgettable.