“A Closer Look” is a new series in which Broadsheet editor and noted food writer Max Veenhuyzen examines the city’s restaurants with a more critical eye.
“How’s upstairs going?”
It’s the question Embla owners Christian McCabe and Dave Verheul – plus the rest of the staff at Russell Street’s greatest ever wine bar – have been fielding (and dodging) for the past three years.
Following the August opening of Lesa – pronounced “Lisa”, like Homer and Marge’s daughter – team Embla is no longer being interrogated by every second customer. That doesn’t mean the questioning has stopped, though. It’s just moved outside the restaurant, where everyone now seems to be asking, “Have you been to Lesa?” Reservations aren’t especially easy to come by at the 40 seater, but you can book – the first sign that McCabe and Verheul weren’t about to recreate downstairs’ winning formula on the building’s first floor.
Lesa, as its website URL makes obvious, is a restaurant. It’s not a bar. It’s not an extension of Embla. It’s not an acronym for a happening neighbourhood, a la SoHo or WeFo. You get your own table and the only people you have to share it with are the ones you came with. (The bare-brick front room with windows overlooking Russell Street and low banquettes hugging the wall are filled largely with twos, while the back area is home to larger tables and a handful of bar perches offering close-up views of the open kitchen and its lime green splashbacks.) You order your own dishes and are spared the tableside spiel that “everything is designed to be shared”. You can actually hear and talk to the rest of your party. In an era of casual, genre-blurring, all-in dining, it’s something of an anomaly, not least coming from a pair of operators whose past ventures – The Matterhorn (Wellington), Carlton’s much-missed The Town Mouse, the aforementioned Embla – exemplified this anti-restaurant thinking.
While Lesa might be a little more structured than its siblings, chef Dave Verheul continues to cook like an absolute boss. In the five years he’s been cooking in Australia as a head chef, he’s built an enviable oeuvre of signature dishes. From Town Mouse: the lemon and yuzu curd dessert thingie, plus that roasted cauliflower. From Embla: the roast chicken and sauce-on-the-bottom fish crudos. It might be early days for Lesa, but some dishes are already looking like future hall-of-famers.
Dinner is an $85, four-course prix fixe with three options for each stage of the meal. You’ll definitely want to get the arrow squid cut like fat sheets of pasta and poached in a buttery clam broth till silken. The finished dish calls to mind history’s most luxurious seafood rice-noodle rolls (chee cheong fun to all you dim sum fiends). And I won’t be forgetting the flounder tartare in mussel broth in a hurry, as much for the contrast between the raw fish and crunchy sliced peas (sliced peas!) as the dish’s Instagram-friendly arrangement, pea tendrils and all. Our man can also play it (relatively) straighter: a succulent, deftly handled piece of hapuka with spinach and a fermented fennel butter.
Despite these seafood highs, Lesa’s vegetables might be the real stars. Verheul says he wants us to eat more veg, and the conversation-stopping beetroot mille-feuille that gradates from crimson to white doesn’t hurt his cause. Nor does the semi-dried potato cacio e pepe, a glorious coming together of potato noodles, pepper and pecorino that takes the garlicky potato strands we first saw at Geelong restaurant Igni and Romanises them. But best on ground might just be the little ramekin of macadamia cream partially eclipsed by a pool of shiitake oil. It’s good enough to eat as is but teamed with its accompanying still-warm fermented potato bread, it has the potential to topple nations. The only bad thing I could say about it is that it’s not automatically included with the six-course, $120 tasting menu, an oversight I discovered far too late in the piece. Don’t make the same mistake I did.
On the upside, the tasting menu includes one or two dishes not available on the prix fixe, and dinner kicks off with some terrific, predominantly plant-based snacks. There might be a dainty broccoli tart carpeted with precision-cut florets. Or a single slice of cucumber fermented with lemon verbena. You’ll also score an off-menu dessert, a luxe smoked-milk ice-cream with pressure-cooked Brazil nuts, say.
While those Verheul signatures of fire and fermentation are very much in effect, the current menu sees plenty of pressure cooker action. The device makes a memorable cameo via the almonds pressure cooked with thyme, rosemary and chicken jus to create one hell of a white-beans analogue to go with the slowly grilled pork loin (admittedly a good, well-handled bit of swine, but a little too rich and overwhelmingly porky for mine). The chicken porridge features chook slowly braised in almond milk and topped with nutty black chestnut, though, is as comforting as it is surprising (apparently the combination is an Italian classic – those crazy Renaissance kids with their non-dairy fetishes).
Wine, unsurprisingly is a big part of the Lesa experience with the cellar broad enough to include vintage Burgundy alongside the expected organic, lo-fi bottlings. While there’s no faulting the floor team’s enthusiasm for the list, some aspects of the service – specifically, the parts where waiters relay orders to the kitchen and tell one another what stage of the meal each table is at – suggest staff might be misinterpreting the “casual service” brief.
Follow-up venues are hard, doubly so when opening next to – or, indeed, on top of – your existing place. Factor in the minor detail that you’re setting up shop above one of Australia’s most vital wine bars and expectations swell bigger still. It’s inevitable that people will make comparisons between upstairs and downstairs – serious restaurant versus free-wheeling bar; adults table versus kiddies table – but Lesa and Embla should be considered as individual prospects that happen to share a keen interest in good food, good drink and backing producers doing things the right way. They also happen to have the same address. Each should be enjoyed independent of the other, though the prospect of a post-Lesa nightcap at the mothership is tough to turn down.
So how’s upstairs at Embla going? Really, really well. Despite the occasional front-of-house stumble, the premise and promise of Lesa suggests Verheul and McCabe have added yet another winner to their stable.
Level 1, 122 Russell Street, Melbourne
(03) 9654 5923
Wed to Sat 5pm–11pm
Thu & Fri 12pm–3pm