A mys­tery din­ner in Mel­bourne

Australian Traveller - - Contents -

I THOUGHT I KNEW the back streets of Fitzroy well. I’ve walked these Mel­bourne streets count­less times, but tonight I’m tak­ing de­tours and see­ing things I’ve never seen be­fore – all be­cause of a text mes­sage from a stranger. It pinged on my phone at about mid­day, from an un­known num­ber. “Hi Leanne. We’re look­ing for­ward to see­ing you tonight,” it read. This was fol­lowed by a set of pre­cise in­struc­tions de­tail­ing where I needed to be at 6pm and how not to get lost, signed off with a cheeky ‘x’. It’s all feel­ing very blind date-ish. I like it. I’ve booked my­self in to a Pri­vate Din­ing Room (PDR) din­ner, a Mel­bourne culi­nary event se­ries that the web­site de­scribes as an ‘un­der­ground din­ing ad­ven­ture’. What this ac­tu­ally means is that the venue is a pri­vate space (not a restau­rant). The lo­ca­tion is kept se­cret un­til the last minute, as are de­tails of the night’s menu and seat­ing ar­range­ments. Aside from the last-minute text mes­sage, the brief­ing has been scant, which for some peo­ple might be ter­ri­fy­ing, but for me (some­one who eats out for a liv­ing and sees un­o­rig­i­nal culi­nary trends on high ro­ta­tion), it just makes the whole thing all the more in­ter­est­ing. I to­tally get that, for some peo­ple, this might feel like a risky way to part with a chunk of their hard-earned in the hope of a good night out. What will I be eat­ing? What’s the place go­ing to be like? What if the peo­ple are hideous bores? What if the whole thing sucks?! For PDR reg­u­lars, Mau­rice (a writer and some­time co­me­dian) and his wife, Fiona (a lawyer), be­ing obliv­i­ous to the nitty gritty de­tails of a planned night out is all part of the magic. “The first time we went we took peo­ple with us, so it was more like a din­ner party hosted by our friends with some ad­di­tional strangers thrown in,” Fiona ex­plains. In­deed, when I ar­rive at the venue – down a cob­bled laneway, to­ward the warm glow of fairy lights and sounds of con­ver­sa­tion and clink­ing glass­ware – it feels like I’ve ar­rived at a cool friend’s house who’s thrown a big party with a bunch of friends I just haven’t met yet. I’m lov­ing it.

For din­ers, it’s an op­por­tu­nity to ex­pe­ri­ence some se­ri­ously boast-wor­thy, one-off magic.

The evening sky is clear, the air is balmy, and el­e­gantly plated canapés and glasses of sparkling wine weave their way through the well-dressed crowd of around 40 peo­ple. Some ar­rive in pairs, while oth­ers, like me, are on a vir­gin solo ad­ven­ture just tak­ing it all in, break­ing the ice with ques­tions about whether or not it’s our first time and what the gar­nish on the trout was. Ac­cord­ing to Tim O’Don­nell, the en­tre­pre­neur­ial Mel­bourne som­me­lier be­hind PDR, step­ping out of one’s rou­tine to try some­thing com­pletely dif­fer­ent is what peo­ple most love about his events. “I think ‘the un­known’ is the most ex­cit­ing as­pect of it,” he ex­plains. “With PDR, that ex­tends to the venue, the menu, the drinks and the com­pany you’ll keep,” he says. “I guess it’s a lit­tle ad­ven­ture; one that peo­ple are trust­ing us to guide them through.” If you’re into eat­ing out, a quick scout around on the PDR web­site pro­vides plenty of ev­i­dence that Tim is a man with some pretty cool in­dus­try con­tacts. Run­ning monthly, his events have at­tracted chefs from some of Mel­bourne’s finest restau­rants. Typ­i­cally, you’ll see sous chefs (rather than head chefs) from top venues step­ping into the spot­light for the first time, savour­ing the free­dom that comes with be­ing the boss and be­ing able to do their own thing. It’s their chance to flex some cre­ative and culi­nary mus­cle with­out the usual pres­sure or ex­pec­ta­tion of their day jobs, while for din­ers it’s an op­por­tu­nity to ex­pe­ri­ence some se­ri­ously boast-wor­thy, one-off magic. In fact, it was this that at­tracted Mau­rice and Fiona in the first place. “It in­trigued us be­cause it’s a hos­pi­tal­ity in­sider thing that the public wouldn’t nor­mally be privy to,” says Fiona. Fel­low diner, Anna (a hard­core foodie and in­dus­try fol­lower) agrees. “For me, it’s re­ally in­ter­est­ing to see the young up-and-com­ers get a chance to take charge and run their own kitchens for a night,” she says. “It’s pretty cool to see the food they’re com­ing up with.” Sous chef at Colling­wood’s ac­claimed IDES, Zackary Furst did his first PDR event in an Art Deco board­room down a Mel­bourne laneway ear­lier this year. For him, the ex­pe­ri­ence was a rare plea­sure – cre­atively and pro­fes­sion­ally. “As a chef, it’s a great way to push your­self out of your norm and do some­thing you might not usu­ally do,” he says. “It’s a unique priv­i­lege and the re­sult can be pretty amaz­ing. For me, it’s all pos­i­tives when it comes to push­ing din­ers to go in blind with their fin­gers crossed.” For din­ers, the pos­i­tives are am­pli­fied three-fold: you get restau­rant-qual­ity food and wine, cou­pled with the chance to make new con­nec­tions and ex­pe­ri­ence some­thing en­tirely unique – some­thing I reckon would be enough to lure peo­ple away from their on­line dat­ing apps. Ac­cord­ing to Tim, it’s not un­com­mon to see pre­vi­ously un­ac­quainted din­ers ex­chang­ing num­bers and Face­book de­tails by the end of the night, with friend­ships forged over great food and wine and the bond of a shared ex­pe­ri­ence. So what kind of peo­ple come to a PDR event? Tim says the pri­mary com­mon thread is “good food and the peo­ple who love it. The sec­ond thing that our din­ers have in com­mon is a shared ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the whole ex­pe­ri­ence of our events,” he ex­plains. “It’s a pretty big ask get­ting peo­ple to part with their money when you’re giv­ing them lit­tle more than a post­code and the name of a chef,” he ad­mits. By the end of the night, I too am ex­chang­ing num­bers and so­cial me­dia han­dles. I’ve met peo­ple whom I’d per­haps never nor­mally speak to. Sure, I’ve anx­iously filled a few con­ver­sa­tion gaps, but I’ve also laughed and been sur­prised, de­lighted and ex­cep­tion­ally well-fed. “The peo­ple who come don’t get here by chance,” says Tim. “They re­ally want to be here, to ex­pe­ri­ence some­thing dif­fer­ent. They want to go on a jour­ney with us.” Pri­vate Din­ing Room events run monthly in var­i­ous lo­ca­tions around Mel­bourne. pri­vate­din­ingroom.com.au

CLOCK­WISE FROM TOP: Show­bags with a few morn­ing re­cov­ery items in­side; Tar­ragon curd with roasted plum and cherry jam; Baby abalone with a kohlrabi broth; Se­cret city spots lend a fris­son of fun. OP­PO­SITE PAGE: Zackary Furst serves up pork neck ,...

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