16 May 2010
@ 8 Whiteman St, Level 1, Crown Metropol, Southbank
@ 8 Whiteman St, Level 1, Crown Metropol, Southbank
Perhaps the most anticipated restaurant opening of 2010, Maze was always guaranteed glitz and fanfare. Not only is it associated with Gordon Ramsay, one of the most recognisable celebrity chefs traversing the international media carousel, but its opening coincided with that of its habitat hotel, the Crown Metropol. In many ways, the success of the hotel and the restaurant are inseparably intertwined.
This was our second visit to Maze. The first was during its first week of operation and preceded the official opening at which numerous celebrities and socialites were present. I remember the occasion for the surprisingly excellent food and the nervous energy carried by the staff. It was a good experience.
Maze occupies a large space within Crown Metropol and has a dining room of cavernous proportions. The high ceilings impart a sense of spaciousness and the tables are set far apart. This culminates to provide a very relaxed setting.
Unfortunately however, since the first visit a number of quality issues with the décor have arisen. To its detriment, Maze does not use table cloths. The hardwood tables, pristine on our last visit, are visibly abraded and somewhat unsightly. The highly trafficked lush carpets moult fur under foot. A restaurant this new should not show such signs of age.
The most notable element from our previous visit was the unusual menu structure. In essence, it provides for degustation style a la carte dining. Each diner may select as many or as few items as he or she wishes and there is no requirement for a uniform menu for a table. Given the large number of items on the menu, it must be a logistical nightmare for the kitchen staff. However, on the last occasion, the meals were served with military efficiency.
This time, we visited for lunch and so the menu was condensed to only eight savoury items and three desserts. We selected the seven course chef's menu and modified it to include a selection of dishes from the lunch menu. At $95 per person, it is a relatively inexpensive degustation menu by Melbourne standards.
Our first dish was one of the highlights of our last visit and consisted of marinated pink fir potatoes, smoked eel, sour cream, blackened leeks and shaved foie gras. Although subjectively, the smoked eel seemed drier than on the previous occasion, the dish retained many of the elements that we enjoyed the first time around. The salty smokiness of the eel was complemented nicely by the slight tartness of the sour cream and the subtle sweetness of the potato discs. Try as I might however, I was not able to identify, either by taste or by sight, any of the aforementioned shaved foie gras. This was a minor disappointment to an otherwise excellent dish.
The second dish consisted of seared leg of rabbit, jicama, green olive, almond and brown butter vinaigrette. A myriad of well balanced flavours enveloped the rabbit meat which was well cooked, juicy and tender. It was a rich and complex dish that worked superbly.
Next came pan roasted barramundi, butternut squash, compressed cucumber and pumpkin seeds. While the flavours of the dish were simple, inoffensive and perhaps even slightly boring, the quality of the barramundi was exemplary. The skin of the fish was perfectly seared to be very crisp while the flesh was delicate and moist. It is a wonderfully simple dish that allowed the natural subtle sweetness of the fish to be enjoyed.
The poussin “coq au vin”, savoy cabbage and smoked bacon that followed the barramundi was the lowlight of the meal. Although the baby chicken was well cooked, the breast meat was dry and the flavours were pleasant but ultimately lacklustre.
Somewhat whimsically named, the ox “tongue and cheek” with capers and raisins, carrots and horseradish pomme purée was an excellent homely dish. The ox tongue was very tender while the braised ox cheek fell away easily with the weight of the knife. Coated with the earthy braising sauce, both items were very enjoyable to consume. The accompanying pomme purée was creamy, well seasoned and provided a hint of horseradish. It was perhaps the finest mashed potato I've tasted.
On this occasion, we were fortunate enough to benefit from a mistake on the part of the wait staff. An exotic fruit vacherin with passion fruit and banana sorbet was presented despite not being ordered. On explaining this to the wait staff we were informed that the dish would be complimentary; always a welcomed touch. The dish itself was a good refreshing dessert, with the acidic sharpness of the fruit compote contrasting nicely with the sweetness of the meringue.
Next, we had broken carrot cake with candied walnuts and olive oil gelato; a relatively innovative dish that provided novel but balanced flavours. Finally, there was a chocolate cremeaux with banana bread, salted macadamia nuts and pearl barley ice cream; a decadently rich dessert of chocolate mousse served with a smear of smooth salted caramel. In all, good solid sweet dishes.
While the quality of food had been maintained since our last visit, excellence in service standards had not. Previously, a swarm of nervously eager wait staff would enthusiastically, perhaps overly so, attend our needs. This time however, the service was merely passable at best. It was often difficult to summon wait staff and it seemed an age had passed before we received our, admittedly excellent, bread.
Despite its shortcomings, Maze provides a superb dining experience. It has overcome my initial reservations about it being an establishment with more style than substance and showcases a wide variety of inventive dishes with unique flavours. Combined with the unique menu structure, Maze provides a relatively inexpensive and unparalleled culinary journey. It is a journey I hope to take again soon.