Update: We attended this venue in August 2018 and some details may have altered since then.
There will be no such existential ponderings at his latest move on the Melbourne restaurant chess board. We’re at Domain Road, opposite the Botanic Gardens, a stretch whose time as the home of hotness has come, and gone, and now is apparently coming again with the arrival of Pickett’s Matilda 159.
The fit-out is so luxe you can almost smell the expense. There’s a fire and charcoal-driven kitchen, a botanical-filled glass cabinets and a dining room of rough-edged wooden-topped tables and the fattest, softest leather banquettes that elicit a gasp of surprise from more than one diner (it’s the endlessly entertaining Matilda spectator sport).
Pickett has built his reputation on a jazz-riff approach to Michelin classicism but here he’s notably stepping away from any hint of tweezer action in favour of the visceral attractions of smoke, flame and char. The elemental approach to cooking goes hand in hand with the strictly a la carte menu and a pragmatic wine list that will please both the haves and the have-yachts.
You’ll pay for bread, but don’t get cross: as per the new Melbourne norm there’s value-adding to soften the blow. In fact, Pickett goes above and beyond with his spongy bran-crusted spelt slices, adding sour cultured butter and a pot of smoked chicken thigh rillettes that means all is immediately forgiven. Any diner bold enough could make it the perfect $6 lunch. But they’d be missing out on the Matilda must-order, a happy mix of picked spanner crab, fingerlime and sea succulents scooped from a crab carapace onto charry unleavened bread. It’s a fresh approach to classic flavours served with a designer’s eye. Not rich enough? Just add a smoosh of butter sprinkled with dried prawn dust.
You can be quite sure no cardiologists’ convention will be held within these walls. The bone marrow crust on an innocent Moonlight Flat oyster tastes like liquid barnyard. One will do. It’s gratifying, however, to see the continuing encroachment of Lakes Entrance bycatch onto the smart menus of Melbourne, like the whole charry baby octopus sitting pretty under a bonnet of leaves with the herbal note of bay leaf gently spiking the macadamia puree lurking beneath. Finely shaved celeriac sadistically dusted in its own ash holds up a veg main with the quasi-meatiness of shimeji mushrooms and smoked goats’ curd undercut by the winks of spring onion oil. Lose a point for a 63-degree egg that has been cooked too long.
This kind of kitchen was made for tarte tatin. Matilda’s pink lady apple version is blessed with the trademark excess of caramelised toffee stickiness and topped by smoked yoghurt ice-cream that melts into sauce. It’s a filthy rich end to a filthy rich meal. The very lucky will have to simply stagger upstairs to the 12-room United Places hotel, secure in the knowledge Matilda will be providing their breakfast the next morning. Those unfortunate souls heading home to the laundry monster and hallway dustballs can at least take with them the consolation that the southside dining scene is in good northside hands.