High Street Armadale isn’t exactly the most exciting street when it comes to the fine dining scene of Melbourne yet Clinton McIver is certainly working hard to change that fact. Once a Vue de Monde chef, McIver has taken his first steps in making his own mark in the fine dining scene after an unexpected stint in the Claytons Bowl Club. I must confess I was completely unaware of Amaru until my last visit to Lume, where several front of house members spoke very highly of their food. I didn’t need any other excuse to make a reservation.
I was rather surprised to find an ample and generous dining room with only eight tables and six counter seats holding a maximum capacity of up to 30 people. The textured render on the wall, the natural wood tables and minimal decoration echoed the minimalist Scandinavian theme that continued through the beautifully handcrafted ceramicware. The service by the front of house was friendly and personal, although it did take a while before our aperitif order was taken and served. The choice of the menu was simple. There was one tasting menu option priced at 95 AUD for lunch and a more extensive 120 AUD tasting menu for dinner. As the 120 AUD option was not offered we assumed that there was no possibility to upgrade our menu so agreed with the shorter menu. We also opted for a matching wine option which was extremely flexible. This was very welcome as one of my dining companion asked only for red wine to be matched.We had the best table of the dining room with a perfect view over the kitchen and the pass. Personally I thought it offered a better view over the kitchen than the ‘chef’s table’ which was technically seats at the counter of the bar.Course 1: Activated Nuts and Seeds – A moist savoury biscuit with a distinct flavour of sesame that reminded me of Japanese black sesame rice crackers, and Course 2: Walnut Leaves / Compressed Pear – served with a smoked eel mousse and shavings of jerusalem artichoke; served together over a bed of empty walnut shells.
Course 3: Eel / Onion / Pickle – Served over a typical Finnish bread (one of the three chefs was Finnish which explained the Nordic flavours). This was our favourite snack course with a good balance of the rich eel mousse against the pickled onion and dill. Course 4: Swede / Natural yeast / Pork Sausage – A surprise course which wasn’t on our menu which drew a close to the amuse bouche segment. The warm deep fried Swede was a perfect canvas to take on the flavour of the crumbled salty pork sausage. Not a bad start.Course 5: Tuna Belly / Shaved Radish / Sweet Ginger / Granny Smith apple / Horseradish oil – The dish was completed at the table with the cold pressed Granny Smith Apple juice and horseradish oil.
Matched wine: 2014 Le Grand Cros, Rose, Cote de Provence, Provence, France
Under the thin slithers of the fatty tuna belly was a bed of tuna loin tartare. The larger salt crystals enhanced the flavours of what was rather a subtle and delicate dish. There was a weak but definite present apple juice flavour that surprisingly worked well. It wasn’t personally my favourite dish as I felt the tuna belly could have been used better but I admired the courage to try something different.
For our next course we were offered the option of adding some shavings of Manjimup Truffle, sourced from Western Australia for 20 AUD per person. I wasn’t initially sure about spending 20 AUD for a truffle I’ve previously found to be bland but I was certainly glad to have opted for it in hindsight (and that’s the beauty of hindsight!).Course 6: Organic Hen Egg / Celeriac / Sea Butter / Truffle – A generous portion of black truffle was consistently given to each of us on our table to go with our course.
Matched wine: 2014 Tissot ‘Patchwork’, Chardonnay, Jura, France
Whilst the earthy black truffle was a triumphant addition to the gooey poached egg yolk, the true star of this dish was the celeriac. The celeriac had been salt baked before being sliced into wafer thin slithers and served over the egg yolk. The slightly charred edges gave it a distinct smokey flavour which melded beautifully with the truffle and egg.We were thoughtfully provided with a slice of toasted home baked sourdough to mop up the rich egg yolk and tiny morsels of black truffle. My only complaint was that it was slightly burnt on the edges which detracted slightly from the dish.Course 7: Dry Aged Duck / Liquorice / Kombu Butter / Leek – I personally do like my duck on the pinker side but this bird could have done with another thirty seconds on the heat. The liquorice used to season the duck was a novelty which contrasted well against the bitter charred leek. The meat, however, due to its rareness was slightly difficult to cut through despite the crispy skin.
Matched wine: 2012 Saint Prefert Chateauneuf de Pape, Rhone, France
Course 8: Emu Egg / Toasted Hay / Unfiltered Olive Oil / Vinegar – Equally impressive as the celeriac dish was this rich and creamy hay-infused ice cream that had been made from emu egg. The unfiltered olive oil and apple vinegar reduction added a combination of both sweet and savoury flavours to the ice cream. The smooth texture, richness and complex flavours – this dish had it all.
Matched sake: 2013 Emishiki ‘Monsoon’ Yamadanishiki, Saga Prefecture, Japan
Course 9: Roasted Artichoke / Fuji Apple / Verbena – It was difficult to shine after the previous ice cream dish. While this dish wasn’t bad at all, and you could distinctly pick out the flavour of the apple and hints of verbena, it was nowhere near as memorable as the ice cream. This closed the main part of the tasting menu.
Matched wine: 2010 Burklin-Wolf Auslese ‘Ruppertsberger’ Riesling, Pfalz, Germany
Course 10: A Taste of Gin & Tonic – The first of the two petit fours was a sphere of gin and tonic jelly. It was a good palate cleanser but I found it more alcoholic than anything else.Course 11: Chocolate Shiso Ganache / Crystallised Pumpkin Seed – To finish off was a dense bitter chocolate ganache ball infused with shiso flavour.
Overall, at circa 200 AUD a head I thought this was good value for money particularly given the extra black truffle course. The meal was mostly good, although the simple mistakes on the toast and the preparation of the duck was surprising. This was particularly due to the two outstanding dishes which showed promise of what other great things we could expect from McIver. A word of warning however for those who are contemplating on skipping breakfast or lunch before coming here with an appetite; I left slightly hungry. It could have been the shorter lunch menu or the absence of the usual serving of bread on the side, but you have been warned.