Saturday, 23 August 2014

The 5th Element - back for a return visit

Wow, it seems like ages since I've sat down to think about and write about food...  I guess getting the flu puts a little bit of a dampener on things and I went over a week without a restaurant meal and didn't have the energy to write!

I'd decided that I would revisit one of the restaurants I had been to last year where I had a pretty ordinary experience, in fact, it was a terrible experience.  I'm talking about my visit to The 5th Element (see post here) from September last year, one that created quite a bit of a response at the time.  It was such a bad experience that you might be wondering why I decided to give it another go, which is a great question.

It was actually during a visit to one of my favourite restaurants that the idea came to me.  I'd been chatting to Jake Nicolson, head chef of Black Bird who'd mentioned that he was taking an active interest in the menu and kitchen at the 5th Element.  While Jake is the Executive Chef at Black Bird, he actually works for the Ghanem Group which owns Byblos in Brisbane and Melbourne as well as the 5th Element at South Bank.  Knowing the exacting standards of Jake, I was hoping that the 5th Element had found a new groove, but there was only one way to find out.

The 5th Element is a bar and a restaurant, so there was no doubt that we'd be heading to dinner with our usual dinner buds and perennial cocktail groupie TB and CI.  I'd actually had a little bit of trouble convincing CI that he should come along, he'd been the previous month and had not had a great experience.  There was no such complication with TI, the cocktail menu at the 5th Element has always been pretty good.  After some assurances that it would be much better than our previous visits, CI agreed to come along for a Saturday night dinner.

We arranged for a 7pm dinner and given it's proximity to the CBD, SC and I left about half an hour before our reservation time for a gentle walk to South Bank and Little Stanley Street.  As we walked up to the 'wait here' sign at the restaurant, our maitre d looked a little nervous about our approach and once I'd indicated we had a reservation, gave a sigh and commented that she was thankful that we were not another walk in.  It seemed as if she'd been turning away a lot of walk ups on the night, which was a pretty clear indicator that it was going to be a full house.  A good sign.

As is normally the case, we'd arrived well before CITB and had the opportunity to look over the menu while we waited.  There had been quite a bit of change at the 5th Element in the twelve months since my disastrous visit which had included numerous changes of direction with the menu and an almost complete overhaul of the staff, managers and chefs.  For a while, the restaurant had moved away from its origins of tapas style cuisine to a more contemporary a la carte menu, but I could see that they'd moved back to their roots with the current version.  There looked to be some classic 5th Element items back on the menu and there was even the addition of 'adult shakes' - or alcohol based shakes.

Once our dining companions arrived and TB had her first cocktail of the night ordered, we set about deciding on what we'd have to eat and even though it was a tapas menu, we decided that sharing was not on the agenda for the evening.  Unusually, even I went for an alcoholic beverage to kick off the meal, selecting one of the adult smoothies and for once, I picked a winner with the 'a strawberry story' - essentially vodka, strawberries and Chantilly cream.

I have to admit to being a little wary of our food selections, with a number of our combined choices for the evening mirroring some of the disaster choices from our last visit.  CI and TB both kicked off the meal with the Hervey Bay scallops in the half shell with miso butter and  young ginger, which were perfectly cooked in the half shell.  CI kindly shared one of his scallops with me and I have to say it was pretty delicious, with the miso butter being lovely and sweet and a subtle flavour of ginger shining through and in no way over powering the dish.  

SC's starter of grilled chicken skewers with peanut satay and pineapple caramel was a bit of a mixed bag, on one hand, the satay sauce with pineapple caramel was a genius combination.  It was sweet and sticky from the pineapple, with an earth flavour and crunchy texture from the peanuts in the satay sauce and worked well with the chicken.  The main issue was one of the chicken pieces was well over cooked and quite dry, but the other was perfectly cooked and completely moist.  If both pieces of chicken had been cooked well, this would have been a superb dish.

My last attempt at the wild mushroom risotto at the 5th Element had been an unmitigated disaster, it was literally inedible but I persevered and ordered a starter size of the wild mushroom risotto with truffled pecorino.  My first impression was that it was a generous size for an entree sized risotto, quickly followed with a thought that it was perhaps a little 'wet'. I could see more liquid that I could individual rice pieces.  Even though the risotto looked 'wet', the flavour was perfect, with a lovely mushroom flavour coming through, which was enhanced with the truffle infused cheese.  I'd given CI a mouthful of my risotto and his initial response was a resounding "YUM" and he dug in for a few more mouthfuls.  It was a great risotto that could have been perfect with just a little less of that liquid(y) texture.

We were off to a reasonable start with our starters and it was time for our mains.  SC had ordered the 5th Element double smoked bacon cheese burger for her main and we were delighted with the presentation and approach to bringing out the burger.  It actually came in a brown paper bag, just like a take away but with the idea that you rip the bag away and dig into the burger. 

Once the paper bag was disposed of, a plump and juicy looking burger was left behind, with a really thick meat patty and a big streak of bacon falling out!

The ratio of bun to meat patty was just about perfect but we thought there could have been just a little bit more salad in the burger, with the lone lettuce leaf looking a little out of place in the burger.  It was quite a large burger too and SC struggled to eat the lot, but what she did munch into, she really enjoyed. I had a taste of the meat patty and thought that it had an unusual flavour to it that I couldn't quite put my finger on.

CI took a different approach for his main and went with a couple of tapas options, kicking off with the rice cracker crusted calamari with  fresh lime and seaweed butter.  It was an interesting attempt at doing calamari slightly differently to anyone else and fell a little flat.  CI didn't enjoy the rice cracker coating and I have to admit to thinking it was a little odd.  The calamari itself had just a little bit of texture that signifies that it's well cooked.

The next tapas for CI to crack into was the spicy lamb and pork meatballs with braised tomato sauce, coriander and mint yoghurt.  This was another danger dish, with my last meatball experience from the 5th Element providing another inedible dish.  The four lamb meatballs were presented nicely on the plate and were actually perfectly cooked, lovely and moist with a hint of heat that was cooled down with the rich tomato sauce.  I was lucky enough to snag one of the meatballs so I could compare to my last memory, which was thankfully erased with the latest version. 

SC had ordered the BBQ Sweetcorn with smoked paprika butter and salted ricotta to come out as an entree, but it didn't arrive until the mains.  It was a very simple dish with the well cooked sweet corn presented simply with the paprika butter and ricotta sitting atop of the kernels.  It was a little messy to eat but it was a great example of putting some simple ingredients together and letting them compliment each other.

TB and I had both declared that the confit duck leg with caramelized witlof, cherry and a walnut vinaigrette would be the only way to go for mains.  As soon as my confit leg was placed in front of me, I suspected that it was going to be under cooked, especially with the over caramelised top of the leg and the very 'blonde' underside.  To be fair, it was not far off being cooked well, but it was definitely undercooked and a little stringy off the bone.  I quite enjoyed the flavour of the duck and the walnut vinaigrette, especially when combined with the cherry pieces, but the texture of the duck was just not right and detracted somewhat from my overall enjoyment of the dish.  When I checked in with TB as to the state of her duck, she thought that her version was fine, so maybe an inconsistency problem with the cooking process.

It was dessert time and three of us decided that we'd have dessert and TB went with her customary decaf espresso martini instead.  With fond memories of his last cake in the South Bank precinct, CI chose a very similar dessert in the caramelized pineapple with almond cake and lime mascarpone.  This was a dessert in two pieces, the almond cake which was nice and the pineapple, which was not.  The cake was quite moist and had a decent flavour to it but you couldn't mix it with the caramelised pineapple of the pineapple sauce on the plate, both of which were really unpalatable.  In fact, the sauce on the plate was so powerful, a tiny little dollop on your finger would have been enough to clear the sinuses for a week.

SC had a similar mixed experience with her muscat panna cotta with honey poached quince and oatmeal crumble, which sounded like a good mix - right up to the point where she had to eat it.  It was a case of the first mouthful being good, the second being a bit over powering and the last being just too much.  Muscat as a drink is a superb way to end a meal but mixed in with a panna cotta, it was just too sweet and sickly.

I definitely had the pick of the desserts with my 'death by chocolate' which was a trio of desserts including a hot fondant, a delice and milk chocolate ice-cream with chocolate tuile.  I really loved my fondant, which was my first dessert to crack into.  The centre was gooey and oozed out all over the plate and overall was delicious.  I cracked into the delice second, which was a chocolate and rum mousse with double chocolate cream on top.  It was creamy and very rich, so rich that I could only eat about half of it before it became a little too intense.  I'd saved the ice cream for last, which was probably a bad idea as it had melted a bit, but it was quite refreshing after the two very rich chocolate hit's I'd had before.  The dish was indeed 'death by chocolate', it was perhaps just a tad too much chocolate for my liking, but I got what I asked for!

It had been a relatively successful evening with lots of positives and a million miles separated from my previous experience at the 5th Element, but there were still some areas left for improvement.  Lots of the flavour combinations throughout the meal were pretty good but there were some instances where the combos went a step to far, especially with the desserts.  Overall, the quality of the cooking was a pretty consistent standard, but again, there were just a couple of minor issues.

Another area that really stood out from the visit was the service, which had been first rate throughout the night.  Where last time we felt lost and ignored, this time we were constantly checked in with and never once felt abandoned.  Each of the staff members we dealt with were friendly and really looked as if they wanted to be there.  That was the feeling that we'd had every time we've visited Black Bird, so that seems to be a constant with the Ghanem Group.

Look, the 5th Element is probably never going to be my favourite restaurant, especially when Black Bird is right across the street from my house, but I saw enough in our visit to think they are on the right track.  It is a very cool spot to hang out and the bar has a spectacular range of drinks available, which is what you'd expect from a bar & restaurant.  I really hope the team at the 5th Element can keep improving and striving to reach the standards that Jake sets over at Black Bird.  The world needs more great restaurants!!

Lots of chocolate - maybe just a little vanilla cream to offset the richness would have helped 
It was a cold night, so not a heap of people outside
The restaurant area and seats near the heater were in full demand

5th Element on Urbanspoon5th Element Bar & Dining

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