202 Normanby Road
See the map
|Opening hours||Dinner Wed-Sun|
|Features||Views, Accepts Reservations, License, Bar|
|Prices||Expensive (mains over $40)|
Strato is a restaurant straight out of Cast Central. You know the deal: everything is black and shiny, the benches are in velvet, the curtains in sheer, the techno-jazz soft. And the view is a killer.
This view, from the 40th floor of the Oakwood Premier Melbourne hotel in Southbank, is the main selling point of Strato and sister venue Skybar, the cocktail bar at the other end of the same floor (both run by Yarra Hotel Group). Strato has the advantage of facing the CBD: the view overlooks the Palace of Congresses and Exhibitions and the casino and over the Yarra towards the towers of the city.
It’s something to sit here and sip a Sky High martini ($28), made with oyster shell gin, grappa and manzanilla sherry, and watch the twinkling lights. The cocktails, a collaboration between Proof & Company consultant Charlie Ainsbury and Sky Bar manager Josh Dowling, are a highlight.
The chef is Gagan Sharma, born and trained in India before spending time at an upscale hotel chain in Dubai and then the Taj Palace in New Delhi. His experience in Australia has been mostly at various Hyatt hotels and his menu at Strato is, according to the infuriatingly obtuse website, inspired by the five elements: atmosphere, hydrosphere, cryosphere, lithosphere and biosphere. I have no idea what that means: the food comes from the Earth, I guess.
While Strato has all the trappings of opulence, things start to fall apart when it comes to execution. A foie gras terrine ($39) was rich and velvety, made with chicken livers and canned foie gras (the only type available in Australia). But it was a terrine in shape only, its consistency was more like a loose mousse. I have no idea how they got it on the plate, or why they only offered two crispy rolls on the side. It’s not like it’s solid enough to eat with a fork.
Much of what’s served here reminded me of the hotel cuisine of 20 or even 30 years ago: precooking lobster, then barely reheating it to order; stick foam on top and a splash of an unidentifiable liquid on the plate; then charge an arm and a leg for it ($42 entry).
Soak a Jerusalem artichoke soup ($36) with so much truffle oil that the sweet vegetable is barely noticeable, and pay more attention to the presentation of pouring it into a pretty container than to the fact that this – on a cold plate – makes everything lukewarm. (Temperature is an issue across the board.)
All of this is frustrating because Sharma obviously knows how to cook. The steaks ($75-$105 and mostly wagyu, of course) are sous vide, then cooked to order and the results are impressive.
This soup, without the truffle oil, would have been a lovely classic velouté, its consistency thick and creamy in a way that a lesser chef couldn’t handle.
The skin of the duck is crispy, the inside pink…but do I think two big slices of breast breast on a plate should cost $49? Not really. Do I think lavender, with all its fragrant excess, is the right flavor to go with duck? No. It reminded me of the sachets in my grandmother’s tissue drawer.
But it is undeniable that there is talent in this kitchen. I just don’t think it’s used in a useful way.
Speaking of value, what could make a dessert worth $33? I admit I chose the most expensive option (except for the cheese plate, which is $45), a dark chocolate mousse thing swirled with an overly sweet blackberry coulis, then garnished thin sheets of ice cream brulee cone -tasting cookie. That said, the cheapest options — including the sorbet — are $29, so I’m not particularly extravagant.
One night when my table of two ordered four appetizers and a main course to share, almost everything came out at once, leaving our server standing and staring at us as if we had to figure out where to put plates that just wouldn’t fit on the table. We were 20 minutes into our experience and hadn’t finished our cocktails, but most of our food was already delivered. Did no one – the waiter, the chef – think of pacing? Despite a busy, suave-looking butler, no one was really overseeing the guest experience.
Why do we tend to get so wrong about hotel restaurants in this country? New York and London and many other cities have wonderful hotel restaurants that fit into the scenes around them. I know it’s Southbank and what surrounds this particular place is basically a casino; even so, Melburnians aren’t naïve enough to accept good views and Krug’s availability on the wine list ($1,635) as enough to declare a win.
What about this restaurant that is unique? What does it have to do with this city, apart from its very beautiful view of its skyline? The answer, unfortunately, is nothing.
Vibe: LA-swank, like filming a movie where Ryan Gosling teaches a schlub how to be a schmick
Essential dish: Lavender Glazed Roasted Duck Breast ($49)
Drinks : Very good cocktails. A medium-length wine list, made up of Australian and European selections, which gives pride of place to great reds
Cost: Around $250 for two, excluding drinks
This review was originally published in Have a nice week end magazine