The Atlantic @ Crown Entertainment Complex, Southbank
15 March 2011
The opening of The Atlantic, the massive 300 seat seafood restaurant in the Crown Entertainment Complex, marks the return of Donovan Cooke to the Melbourne dining scene. Having Donovan Cooke as executive chef is, for me, The Atlantic's foremost drawcard.
Donovan Cooke is renowned in Melbourne for being the executive chef of two previous Best New Restaurant winners - est est est and Ondine, each of which, although closing within a few years of establishment, received considerable critical acclaim including three hats from the Good Food Guide. Cooke's training prior to opening est est est and Ondine is particularly impressive. After a lengthy stint with the legendary Michel Roux, Cooke was, at age 23, appointed head chef at Harvey's by Marco Pierre White - the very same Marco Pierre White that was, at one time, the youngest chef to win three Michelin Stars and the very same Marco Pierre White whose tutelage a young Gordon Ramsay famously abandoned on account of "the rages and the bullying and violence". Suffice it to say, Cooke’s credentials in classical French gastronomy are impeccable.
The Atlantic occupies a mammoth space left behind by Waterfront and Cafe Greco. Its dining room decor is designed around a naval ship theme, with partly isolated rooms draped with seafaring accessories and given whimsical ship-related names. The dining room structure is somewhat unique and provides diners with both a sense of exclusiveness and a feeling of spaciousness. It is an inviting space, one that allows diners to observe the operation of the dining room and the bustling kitchen.
Our adventure commenced with a $29 scallop tartare served with Tasmanian truffles, green apples, celeriac remoulade and hazelnut tuille. The diced raw scallops were superbly fresh with the gentle sweetness of the scallops effortlessly infusing each bite. That, in itself, was no small feat given the rich accompanying remoulade and the smatterings of pungent fresh black truffle. While the truffle delightfully dominated the dish, each element of the entree was allowed to participate in the flavoursome symphony to good effect. The Atlantic was off to a very good start.
Next arrived a seafood cocktail consisting of prawns, yabbies, scallop, langoustine, rockmelon and apple. Aside from the bowl, if it can be called that, in which the cocktail was served – which was visually impressive but a little impractical to eat from – it was clearly the most depressing dish that I have sampled this year. Drab pieces of seafood were neither inherently flavoursome nor ably supported by accompanying sauces or ingredients – the limp pieces of rockmelon and apple added neither sweetness nor acidity. The prawns were perhaps the main culprits - seemingly poached to oblivion, they were soft and texturally lifeless and had seemingly yielded what taste they had to their poaching broth. Perhaps in an effort to revive the textures of the dish, like a last gasp application of a malfunctioning gastronomic defibrillator, several extraneous prawn shells were included. At $32 and as a dish to have survived Donovan Cooke's pass, the seafood cocktail was appalling.
The first of the main courses was a $36 gourmet fish - beer battered King George whiting - and chips. The fish was exceedingly average – it had retained its characteristic delicate texture but the expected sweetness and juiciness from the flesh was virtually non-existent. The batter, while moderately crisp, was relatively dense and floury by comparison to the excellent batter produced by St Peter's. The chips were an abomination - an oily, soggy mess of potato which compressed and oozed fat when stabbed with a fork. Aside from the relatively good homemade tartare sauce, my neighbourhood fish and chip shop does a resoundingly better job for appreciably less money.
At least the dish of iron bark smoked, steamed wild barramundi with sautéed snow peas and celeriac, champagne and oscietra caviar to follow was passable – a significant improvement on the fish and chips. The barramundi was well cooked and had a pleasant, subtle smoky flavour but was partially undermined by a slightly mushy texture. The sprinkling of oscietra caviar indulgently seasoned the dish and, as far as I could tell, provided the only justification for the exorbitant $55 price tag. In all, it was an enjoyable but unexceptional main course.
The desserts were a minor improvement on the preceding dishes but were nevertheless disappointing. We had a rum and raisin sandwich with chewy chocolate cookie and Valrhona moose, and a mango and vanilla ice cream bar with lime meringue and fresh mango salad. The ice cream in the sandwich was unremarkable and the encasing cookie was crumbly rather than chewy. The ice cream in the bar on the other hand had an unpleasant slightly granular texture. At least the meringue was excellent – superbly light and not overly sweet – although the promised lime was imperceptible.
For a new restaurant, service is an area where teething problems are to be expected. However, on the evidence of this visit, The Atlantic needs to make considerable progress to meet even the general Melbourne fine dining service standard, which can be described as lazy at best. Basic inattentiveness, lengthy wait times between courses and mistakes in taking orders were exhibited throughout the evening. Further, while staff at new restaurants are usually rabidly enthusiastic, most of the waiters were, during our visit, jarringly aloof. Time will tell whether The Atlantic's performance in the dining room can be salvaged.
Two days into service, The Atlantic offered a dismal dining experience. The service standards were severely impaired and the cuisine was bitterly disappointing. We were informed by a waiter at the start of the evening that "the food is very good at [The Atlantic]". Now, on reflection, I shudder to think of the control samples from the grim experiment that led to that particular conclusion. So, while The Atlantic's service standards can be expected to improve with time, there were, for my tastes and given the relatively expensive prices, insufficient commendable qualities in its food to warrant a future revisit.