Update: This venue is now part of Estelle Bistro
We’re not in Northcote anymore, Toto. Well, we are in Northcote – deep in the heart of High Street, actually – but so far removed from the recycled aesthetic of this hipster ‘burb it’s downright disconcerting. There’s more than a touch of Hollywood glamour to ESP: the name’s swirling letters projected onto the entrance, the swirling Christopher Boots light fitting that looks like infinity personified, the dark hues, the deep Philippe Starck chairs and the well-spaced tables. And then there’s the kitchen. The kitchen that takes up half the room and has diners perched at the ringside seats plotting to make off with the covetable collection of copper pans.
Welcome to Scott Pickett’s dream restaurant. Twenty years in the making, ESP (Estelle by Scott Pickett) is the new kid on the block but it’s most definitely the big sibling to his next-door Estelle Bistro and Saint Crispin down on Smith Street.
A mighty fine job of it he has done, too. When the rest of the restaurant world has gone to kiddie-land with its cafeteria fit-outs and its finger food, ESP has the guts to be a proper, grown-up restaurant with all the trimmings, including servers who apologise if they obscure your line of vision by five degrees. If it feels a little like it should be in the CBD or southside – well, Northcote can do glamour too, OK?
There are rules of engagement. You’re looking at a seven-course degustation-only menu at $130 a head. It’s certainly no small beer, although the unheralded extras, including the bread – a cheesy bacon roll with overtones of Bakers Delight or a pretzel-y one, all salty-dark caramel crust – and a smokin’ blood orange juice with a warming dash of horseradish used as a pre-dessert, are designed to soften the blow.
Pickett is a master of the snackage. Three of them appear as a warm-up act, including translucent, vinegary Jerusalem artichoke chips bedecked with saltbush, and little golden puffs channeling taramasalata with its pommes mousseline filling topped with a faux-caviar of squid ink spheres. It’s the kind of stuff he’s been doing brilliantly at Saint Crispin, although further on the ESP program reveals it’s more spiritually aligned with the years he and head chef Josh Pelham spent at Michelin-luvvie London restaurant The Square. It’s luxe, and refined, and classical, with no hint of the hair-shirt ascetic currently dominating world gastronomy; totally approachable flavour-wise while masking its old-school values with beautiful presentation and the odd modern sleight of hand.
To wit: the glossy squid ink sheet crowning a beautiful tranche of kingfish with yellow blobs of lemon curd dotted here and there amid a flurry of flowers and leaves and squid ink sauce and leek ash. It’s on the busy side – the minced salted turnip might be overkill – but it’s otherwise a roiling success story. Ditto the pinkly perfect White Rocks veal with a fat sweetbread, the trademark hand-rolled macaroni, mustard leaves, truffled celeriac puree, creamed silverbeet and a crowning curl of dehydrated celeriac. Brought together with a proper glossy veal stock reduction, it’s as comforting as high-end cooking gets.
Other highlights? An umamified bowl of something like a Japanese idea of French onion soup with truffled custard, and a grand finale of a buttermilk sorbet on milk chocolate parfait playing its modern credentials with theatrically “frozen” choc rocks and mint and little dabs of violet gel punching above their weight.
It’s quite the night out. Sophisticated and theatrical, with service that rises to the occasion. If it’s priced into the realm of “special” night out, then so be it. Quality comes at a price.