5 December 2010
Donovans @ 40 Jacka Boulevard, St Kilda
Experience suggests that institutional restaurants should be approached with caution. For every Grossi Florentino that enchants, there is a Jacques Reymond that disappoints and for every Ezard that captivates, there is a Vue de monde that disillusions. Institutions have an unmatched ability to dissatisfy on account of the heightened expectations that they generate. Donovans is one such institution. Having opened over a decade ago, Donovans has forged a reputation as one of Melbourne's pre-eminent culinary destinations, earning, and then maintaining over a prolonged period of time, a two hat status in The Age Good Food Guide. Suffice it to say, Donovans has a history that naturally colours one's pre-conceptions about it.
Donovans occupies a quaint sandstone building that overlooks St Kilda beach. The restaurant was designed to have the "look and feel of one's house" and indeed achieves this. With soft fabric furnishings and exposed natural wood grains and sandstone, the dining room exudes a familial warmth and openness that is unique in Melbourne. The sense of space is further enhanced with the southern, ceiling to floor view of the terrace and ocean. Detracting slightly from the comfortable surrounds however, were the wait staff - professional and efficient but a little distant and impersonal.
Donovans offers simple Australian cuisine. With no degustation or tasting menu available, we opted for a traditional three course menu structure.
Our first entrée was a crayfish consommé with seafood tortellini and chilli oil. The consommé was flavoursome, albeit a little under seasoned and lacking the rich crayfish flavour that characterises the very best. On the other hand, the seafood tortellini was marred by a rubbery texture and a bland flavour that was completely overpowered by the consommé. The chilli oil, which was listed as an ingredient, was completely imperceptible.
The second entrée was an improvement on the first and consisted of house smoked salmon with a homemade blini, salmon caviar and dill sour cream. Despite having a paler colour than most smoked salmon, Donovans' version carried a rich depth of flavour - its subtle smokiness allowing the underlying taste of the salmon to be enjoyed. The blini arrived warm and was light and fluffy with a crisp exterior - it went well with the salmon. The finishing touch of the dill sour cream, a classic accompaniment with smoked salmon, completed the dish.
The first main course to arrive was a "pork platter" with prosciutto-wrapped pork fillet, crisp pork belly, cotechino, homemade chipolata, lentils and a spring salad - it was a solid dish but ultimately conservative and unspectacular. The pork belly was succulent but suffered from having only mildly crisp, somewhat chewy crackling. The pork fillet was similarly juicy and tender, with the encasing prosciutto providing requisite seasoning, but was unremarkable. The other items on the platter continued this theme.
Our final main course was a crusted rack of lamb with nicoise vegetables, creamy mash and a light lamb jus. While the lamb was roasted to a rare perfection and hence was juicy and succulent, the light lamb jus lacked flavour. It was yet another unspectacular dish.
We also ordered sides of house chips and salad consisting of rocket, radicchio and radish with ripe tomatoes and parmesan. The chips were crisp, but not particularly so, and lacked seasoning. Disappointingly, the roasted garlic with which the chips were garnished barely penetrated the chips. The salad was fresh but pedestrian - the "ripe" tomatoes being particularly disappointing with a relatively insipid flavour. It is a damning indictment indeed that a two hat establishment is unable to deliver above average chips and salad.
For desserts, we ordered a melting dark chocolate cake with soft centre and mint ice cream and a tiramisu, served with a coffee cigar - desserts which exceeded the standards set by the preceding courses. The melting dark chocolate cake was, in fact, a simple fondant - relatively well made with a rich billowing chocolate centre and a slightly crisp cake exterior. The mint ice cream which accompanied the fondant matched it well and was refreshingly light and fragrant. The tiramisu was fairly large but was well made, with its flavour heavily dominated by the constituent alcoholic component. It was a simple traditional dessert that was well executed and thoroughly enjoyable.
Our meal totalled $195. Given the simplicity of Donovans' food and the unremarkable standard of execution, it is difficult to identify value. As opposed to the recently reviewed Circa, there is no aspect of Donovans' cuisine, or the overall Donovans' experience, that justifies the premium prices. This, ultimately, is Donovans' primary shortcoming.
Donovans falls into an infuriating middle ground; neither is it particularly good nor is it particularly bad. Its cuisine is simple, conservative and reasonably executed but, at the same time, predictable and boring. For the prices that Donovans charges, there are simply too many superior alternatives in Melbourne for it to be recommendable.