There’s a special place in hell for Melbourne peak hour traffic, but we’ll brave it for certain things—rooftop beers, justice, and Scott Pickett being my personal Top 3.
It took me 97 minutes to drive from Williamstown to Scott’s revamped Estelle in Northcote, battling angry commuters and 38-degree heat every inch of the way. What kept me going was the news that Scott Pickett is doing a toastie. An honest-to-goodness white bread toastie. There are some things for which you’ll storm the gates of hell with a pitchfork.
Truth is, I would have been curious to check out Estelle, even without Scott slumming in my favourite food group (melted cheese). The doors opened the other week after an extensive renovation, but only hacks and vultures review a restaurant on opening night. It’s good manners to wait a while, give the servers and chefs time to find their groove. You can’t get a good feel for the pulse with all that Grand Opening social media froth.
Well, here’s the good news. If you were a fan of the old Estelle and ESP (Scott’s uber-fancy fine diner next door), you’ll love the new model. It combines the best elements of both venues into something new: a broody black-on-black restaurant that doesn’t take itself too seriously.
The double-sided space was designed by Alexandra Green, one of Scott’s protégé’s from Matilda. The old Estelle bistro is now a wine bar cum waiting room. Somewhere you can munch salt n’ vinegar kale crisps (or a Wagyu Bolognese and kimchi toastie…more on this later) and sink a couple of Pink Lady apple ciders. Next door is Estelle’s nerve centre: the restaurant proper, complete with ESP’s original Christopher Boots feature light, giant open kitchen and raven wing décor. It’s so black and brooding that you might need a torch in the bathroom (legit, the ghost mirror was giving off Bohemian Rhapsody vibes).
Pickett said he wants the Estelle 2.0 to be down to earth, accessible, while still maintaining his personal chef-y standards. No dramas there. Our server didn’t bat an eyelid when I asked for a Wagyu Bolognese toastie in the main dining room (despite only appearing on the Bar Menu). You could easily swing by here for some pre-dinner drinks and nibbles (perhaps $40 a head), or go the whole hog with a five-course tasting menu ($90) complete with matched wines (another $60).
The food is a classic Pickett-ian mash-up. Think dinky di Australiana with a pantry of European staples. You’ve got kangaroo and blood plums sitting next to salty sardines on toast, slathered with rouille and topped with grated bottarga. I had to try the hand-rolled maccheroni ‘cacio e pepe’ with guanciale (a Roman classic, basically emulsified cheese sauce and pork jowl). Pickett gave it an Outback twang with some saltbush, and the whole thing tasted like your mum’s carbonara on ten-speed.
Then there’s the $14 Wagyu Bolognese and kimchi toastie. This thing was worth the 90-minute drive. Two slices of white bread, stuffed meaty ragu, golden cheese and house-made kimchi, given a dusting of parmesan and served on Estelle’s branded paper. I could have done with a smidge more kimchi funk, but I was still licking the plate clean within two minutes.
Other things you should try: a double serve of de-boned fried chicken wings, topped with chicken mousse and wafer-thin shitake. You literally gobble these straight off a wooden skewer; there’s barely need to chew.
A spanner crab with compressed melon and popping fish roe was certainly beautiful (it arrived on black stone, looking somewhere between a flower and a sea urchin), but it was a little too subtle to get my juices flowing. Better was the Ranger Valley lamb rump cap, cooked pink and served on a bed of amped-up kohlrabi. You get a lot of lamb for your $36, which appealed to the miser in me.
To finish, don’t be tempted by the tiramisu (which, our server admitted with a sort of self-deprecating chuckle, comes “deconstructed”). You’ve got to try pastry chef Charlie Watson’s latest creation instead: peaches poached in jasmine kombucha, served with lychees, coconut ice-cream and ‘peach caviar’. It’s fizzy and zippy and so tart that it caused involuntary neck spasms. The perfect palette cleaner after scoffing Bolognese toastie followed by cheese pasta (sometimes I think I’m too immature to be doing this job…)
After opening Matilda to rave reviews eight months ago, you could have forgiven Scott Pickett for taking his foot off the pedal, or at least standing still for five minutes. Instead, he gives Northcote an elegant, un-snobby super bistro. Hats off to the guy. Estelle is back all right—back in black.
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Image credit: Simon Shiff