Friday, 11 April 2014

Urbane - there's a reason why it's so good

There are very few restaurants in a city that have the ability to completely challenge the way you think about food. I feel very fortunate to live in a city where there are two restaurants that have proven themselves capable of standing on the world stage and saying 'look-at-me'.  I've been giving a lot of love to Esquire over the last twelve months (see posts here), so I thought it was time to give Brisbane's other degustation-only restaurant a return visit.

I have a semi regular dinner with some work buddies (past and present) who love to come along and share in my food adventures from time to time, and when asked where we should go for our next restaurant, I had no hesitation in choosing Urbane.  One of our recent excursions for a degustation fell a little short of expectations (see post here) and I wanted to ensure that we didn't get a repeat experience.  It was a risky gamble given my last experience at Urbane with the usually impeccable menu having a couple of items that didn't quite hit the heights that I've come to expect (see post here).

Urbane is one of a handful of Two Hat and Two Star restaurants in the country and officially listed as our top ranking restaurant in the Gourmet Travellers top 100 restaurants, currently sitting at #12.  Urbane has always had a reputation for securing the freshest young talent around which stretches all the way back to Ryan Squires (of Esquire fame) and 2012 Good Food Guide chef of the year Kym Machin.  That trend has continued as the fine diner secured the services of Argentinian wonder chef Alejandro Cancino, who has worked in the world's 4th best restaurant, Mugaritz in Spain, and before hitting our shores Alejandro had picked up the UK's Young Chef of the Year in 2008.  Committing to a life in Australia, Alejandro had bought into Urbane and as new co-owner was able to pick up the 2013 Qld GFG chef of the year and Gourmet Travellers best new talent - phew, all before the age of 29.

The interesting fact about Alejandro is that he is a vegan who puts just as much effort into creating vegetarian degustations as he does for us regular meat eaters.  Which was just as well as we had a couple of vegetarians on hand for our eight course degustation.  I'd love to say that I was going to chronicle the vegetarian version of the meal as well as the regular degustation...... But I'm not, suffice to say that the vegetarians at the table loved the fact that it was offered.

A very short while after we'd taken our seats, a plethora of amuse bouche started coming to our table and while the degustation was technically an eight course culinary journey, once these little extras were included, it was many, many more.

We started with a little glass of kombucha mushroom tea with a Chinese plum flavour.  For those of you that are not familiar with kombucha mushroom, it's produced by fermenting a colony of bacteria, yeast or fungi. When I was a child, my mother was completely sold on the health benefits of the kombucha mushroom and would relentlessly feed it to me.  I have to say that my mother's version never tasted so good.  Next along was a nitrogen bombed sweetcorn and coconut milk with a little smokey flavour, which was paired with a quinoa covered avocado with a spicy gazpacho.  No sooner had we munched on these tasty morsels than the very famous duck tongue with a duck consomme came out and was quickly devoured.  The small bites kept coming when a bowl of tofu with ponzu sauce was presented and while I always try to avoid tofu, this was delicious.  I'm a big fan of escargot, so was extremely happy to see the next small bit of escargot with a walnut and carrot puree. Some of our dining companions had never tried snails before and were brave enough to try them, with mixed feelings!

I'd really enjoyed the five amuse bouche so far but the best was left until last with a panko covered abalone with creme fraiche setting a new level for incredible flavours, and which would set a high standard for the rest of the meal.  It was delicious, and seriously so.  The sweet abalone flesh was perfectly cooked and was one of the best examples of abalone that I'd had, rivalling the dish I'd had at 3 Michelin Starred and 19th best restaurant in the world, Daniel of New York (see post here).

After an incredible and generous six amuse bouche, it was time for the first course of the degustation.  The scallop with buttermilk with cucumber chard, pickled cucumber and apple looked beautiful, with some ceviche scallops providing a subtle background to the stronger cucumber and apple flavours.  The black cucumber chard had an intense flavour that worked incredibly well with the fresh cucumber.  It was amazing how the fresh flavour of the scallops remained and even stood out with the stronger flavours on the plate.

We went from a predominantly green plate to a much brighter yellow when the pickled shallot with tapioca and a beurre blanc sauce was presented.  I love beurre blanc, which is an emulsified white wine and butter sauce and which generally tastes amazing.  The Urbane version had a wonderful balance of flavours and was just sweet enough to balance out the slightly bitter pickled shallot.  The tapioca provided some contrasting texture, which danced on the top of the tongue while the flavour of the beurre blanc settled on the palate.  I really loved this dish.

I'd recently tried pork tail when dining at Esquire after their menu had recently changed, so I was really interested to compare the Urbane version.  Alejandro had put together a very tasty little dish that included the pork tail with pickled parsnip and a parsnip puree.  There were some interesting additional textures on the plate with a crumble and some contrasting colour of an edible green leaf.  There was a depth of flavour from the pork but the real star of the show was a wonderfully complex jus that blended nicely with the puree.

The next dish challenged a few of the diners at the table who'd never had squid ink before.  The poached prawn with squid ink and dried Jerusalem artichoke had an intense flavour from the thick and very black squid ink.  The texture was very sticky and would have been a little too gooey if it wasn't for the dried artichoke, which was crunchy and slightly salty.  The main component on the dish was the prawn and it was expertly cooked and still tasted of the sea.

The next dish was always going to polarise the table, with a couple of our companions not at all keen to try the sweetbread with watercress soup and a burnt shallot.  The last time I'd had the sweetbread at Urbane I really did not enjoy it, with the chicken liver just overpowering the dish.  Not so this time, with the delicate flesh of the pancreas being a little sweet and actually quite delicious!  I wasn't too sure what the burnt shallot provided to the dish, which texturally was difficult to eat but from a flavour profile worked nicely with the watercress and creme fraiche.  I wondered if there was another way to get the burnt flavour into the dish but with a more palatable texture?

I'm a big fan of lamb belly, which is very much like pork belly but with much less fat, so was intrigued to see what the lamb belly with eggplant puree, mushroom powder and sautéed mushrooms would taste like.  This was a dish that had the potential to disappoint, mainly because I'm not a fan of eggplant and visually it had a little too much brown for my liking.  The dish definitely packed a punch, with really strong flavours coming from the mushroom powder and mushroom sauce and while it was borderline too strong for my palate, once I combined all of the flavours, it worked.  The lamb belly was cooked perfectly and had a little crunch and a lot of that sweet lamb taste that most Australians love.

The lamb was the last of the savoury dishes and the first of our desserts was presented and the macadamia ice cream with shaved macadamia was beautiful.  The texture was incredibly light for ice cream and it was almost like an aerated and frozen cream than traditional ice cream.  There was also a smokiness emanating from the ice cream that added an extra little dimension to the dessert.  It was good, no......... it was very good.

One of the consistent desserts on the Urbane menu is the flavours of local Pink Lady apple with lemongrass and ginger.  The Pink Lady apple was served as a sorbet, a little dehydrated apple flesh and a soft apple flavoured foam and was then surrounded by an apple and lemongrass sauce.  I'd always thought that the different textures and flavours of apple work well individually, like three little bites of apple but the lemongrass sauce is the glue that binds the trio together.  It's very fresh and combines a sweetness and tartness together which challenges the palate.

We'd thought that we were finished for the evening and a couple of our group actually dropped their cash and left but we weren't done yet.  Another desert found it's way to our table and I have to say it was simply marvellous.  It was a mandarin parfait with mandarin jelly and dehydrated mandarin, sitting atop a heap of wonderful Bee One Third honey.  The combination of flavours and textures just worked with the sweetness of the honey balancing out the slightly tart dehydrated mandarin.  The element that I loved the most though was that mandarin parfait.  It was seriously good.

The surprises weren't over with another unexpected dish, this time a fruit infused tea with a slice of Bee One Third honeycomb.  There was a symmetry that really appealed to me by ending the meal just as it began, with an infused tea.  The tea was very fragrant and quite heavenly but it was elevated to a new level once the honeycomb was placed in my mouth, with an explosion of flavour that was brought out from the combination of the tea and honey.

By the time we had finished what turned out to be a ten course degustation, not including the six amuse bouche, it was pushing 10:30pm, which meant that our dinner had lasted four hours.  It was a long time for a week night, but the meal that been so superb that the passing of time went unnoticed.

We'd been treated wonderfully by the extremely professional wait staff, many of whom had remembered us from our previous visits.  The service is always impeccable at Urbane, which is truly an ultra fine dining experience.  It was also good to see that Alejandro was out of the kitchen and delivering a couple of our desserts, I just love it when the chef of a meal comes out to mingle.

I actually got the opportunity to talk to Alejandro for about half an hour after the meal and was impressed by his passion for life and for food.  I found out from Alejandro that Urbane also has a Bee One Third beehive up on the roof of the restaurant, so it seems as if Jack is spreading the neighbourhood honey movement further afield (see post here).  What struck me most about Alejandro was his desire for perfection and the effort that goes into his menu and his desire to continue to improve each course.  We probably would have talked for a lot longer but SC came in looking for me, wondering why I'd stayed in the restaurant for so long!

It had been another successful dinner with a group of friends that were keen to test their palates and continue to develop a love of exciting new food.  After testing out some of the best restaurants that Brisbane has to offer, it's hard to see how we could top our Urbane dinner but I'm sure we will give it a red hot crack in a few months time!


Fruit infused tea and some Bee One Third Honey
Urbane on UrbanspoonUrbane

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