David Bentley enjoys a revival of the long lunch at a convivial Brisbane venue
WITH the passage of time, good restaurants develop a mellow character that newcomers simply can’t match. It’s not an easy quality to define. Partly it has to do with resilience in a tough industry. Partly, and this is a less tangible factor, it has to do with the human dramas played out in restaurants.
Celebrations, propositions, joyous reunions and sad partings are the stuff of restaurants. There’s a tale to every blemish, scuffed floorboards, worn carpets and all.
Certainly, in the eight years since chef David Pugh and business partner Michael Conrad opened their elegantly austere Restaurant Two in Brisbane’s central business district, the place has warmed immeasurably. While in no way shabby, it now fits like a well-worn shoe, far more approachable than when everything was shiny and new.
At the opening party all those years ago, Conrad said the duo had a 10-year plan. Obviously that plan has worked better than expected, given their decision to launch a new noshery called Three, located cheek by jowl with the recently launched Belle Epoch in Fortitude Valley’s Emporium complex.
To open in November, Three will be a casual steakhouse dressed as a modern bistro. Restaurant Two, meanwhile, continues as the pair’s flagship and one of Brisbane’s more enduring temples to the vanishing art of fine dining. There is no doubt Restaurant Two enjoys a loyal following, particularly on weekends when a la carte diners compete with function bookings for tables.
Customers are fewer early in the week and there are plenty of tables when we arrive for lunch one sunny Tuesday. I have requested a table by the window and that’s what we get, albeit with chairs facing away from the Botanic Gardens across the street (somewhat defeating the purpose of a table with a view).
No one asks if we require pre-lunch drinks: Mrs B, who likes to begin meals with a flute of champagne, is slightly miffed.
In the event, there is a timely flourish of menus and we opt for the nine-course degustation menu with matching wines ($155 a person) as an alternative to the conventional entree, main course and dessert.
It costs little more than an a la carte meal minus the agony of deciding between the dish one truly desires and one that actually suits the budget. The degustation menu also brings communication with sommelier Peter Marchant, a man familiar with the wine cellar and the epicurean offerings.
The meal begins with leek and potato soup with poached quail eggs, slivers of smoked ocean trout and dollops of thick cream, a wellconsidered blend that elevates all of the ingredients. A glass of chilled medium-dry Spanish sherry delivers a nuttiness that complements the flavours of the soup.
Next is a terrine of rabbit, duck, pheasant, guinea fowl, Berkshire pork, foie gras and truffle. It’s a dish Pugh has been making since his 21/ years at London’s Connaught Hotel in
2 the early 1980s. It’s one recipe he refuses to entrust to his kitchen brigade and I can only assume that some arcane knowledge is required in its preparation. Either way, Pugh brings many game flavours into a harmonious confluence and it’s a striking dish.
Marchant’s wine choice is a 2006 Pirie South Estelle riesling, gewurztraminer, pinot gris blend from Tasmania’s Tamar Valley; it’s off-dry, he says, to balance the gaminess.
Pugh’s style is French at core, though resonances of Italy and Asia are never far away. His Port Lincoln bluefin tuna is served as carpaccio (or sushi if you like) and makes the most of the tuna’s raw flavour and natural texture. Mrs B thinks it would have been improved by being chilled rather than served at room temperature, thus offering contrast with the seared tuna which, incidentally, French technique with Oriental ways.
It can’t have been easy to find a single wine to match what in effect is two dishes in one, but a 2006 Bortoluzzi pinot grigio from the Venice region of Italy fits the bill.
Seared Hervey Bay scallops are served on an eggplant base, with butter whipped with smoked tomatoes lending contrast to the sweetness of
mixes the scallops. The 2006 Port Philip Estate Quartier Arneis makes a stunning match.
Chargrilled quail with mougrabi, labna and spicy carrot puree invokes Middle Eastern flavours with mixed success. The quail is unexceptional and the mougrabi, which is a kind of Lebanese couscous, looks like corn but has a rubbery texture.
Labna balls, reminiscent of curd cheese, are easier on the palate, but the spicy carrot puree is a standout, offering piquancy to the labna. A 2005 Heggies Reserve Chardonnay counterbalances the quail flavours.
Next, a breast of corn-fed chicken with truffle tortellini, sweetbreads, sauteed mushrooms, braised lettuce and madeira jus. While there are inspired elements here, the mushrooms and madeira overwhelm the chicken, which is slightly undercooked to my taste. A 2003 Toolangi Pinot Noir from the Yarra Valley in Victoria acquits itself bravely in an unwinnable battle of flavours.
The best is yet to come in the form of seared venison, beetroot and horseradish risotto, juniper and rosemary hollandaise with chocolate sauce. It’s a stunning dish; the venison is tender and the risotto creamy. Rosemary, juniper and chocolate romp in playful juxtaposition with more dominant flavours. A darkly brooding 2004 Wynns Shiraz Cabernet from Coonawarra makes the dish complete.
A cheese course follows, accompanied by 2004 Vasse Felix Cabernet Sauvignon from the Margaret River, then a plate of miniature desserts, with a 2004 Paul Jaboulet muscat from the Rhone Valley in France.
Coffee and petits fours complete the meal. We are the last to leave the high ceilings and plate-glass expanses of Restaurant Two’s heritage-listed premises. For a moment, I’m nostalgic for the era of the long lunch . . . and glad, too, that some things stay the same. All Tables visits are unannounced and meals paid for.
Restaurant Two 2 Edward St, Brisbane. (07) 3210 0600; www.restaurant2.com.au. Open: Lunch, Monday to Friday; dinner, Monday to Saturday. Cost: Set lunch, $42 for two courses; $50 for three courses. Degustation menu of nine courses, $110. Tasting flight of nine wines, $45 (minimum two people).
Lingering aromas: David Pugh checks truffles destined for lucky diners