Being a huge fan of Sydney's Marque, I was extremely pleased that Mark Best's venture into upmarket bistros was going to be open in time for visit south of Albury Wodonga.
There have been a fair few examples of fine dining chefs launching fancy bistro style joints (and a few more said to be in the works) and all have been quite enjoyable, generally filled with super produce that isn't overly fussed over. They're all kind of the same though: similar vibes to the menu, similar prices, similar levels of service. I was looking for a differetiator at Pei.
I was expecting a fairly quick, 3 course meal with a nice bottle of wine and to be hit with fine dining prices. I got basically none of that.
While you can do the 3 courses and you can get a really nice bottle from the slightly obscure, naturally focused wine list and you can pay around $45 for mains, they also offer a set menu of 6 courses plus cheese plus dessert with matching wines by the glass.
With no immediate plans to return to Melbourne, the camel inside tells me that I should eat as many different things as possible and store it up for the next time.
Not that it's a hard choice. At only $90, the set menu (you get 5 of the entrees, a main, cheese and a dessert, all of which they choose) is stupidly good value for this level of cooking.
But that can wait. I pick up the enthusiasm when a martini was offered is start off and run with that. Made with 50 Pound gin, it's bloody good and feels like the right drink to start on in this dark and lively dining room.
Before the set menu starts, there was also a special appetiser of the day of scallop sashimi, tomato and pear that I couldn't pass up. The sommelier comes over and matches it with a fairly unique sauvignon blanc grown near Chablis. All of the wines that followed would be similarly interesting, packed with a lot of character.
And what of the scallop? Beautiful, simple, clean, fresh.
Interestingly, they don't clear the knife from the table. It stays with you for the duration of your savoury meal and you can't help but build an attachment to it, in a sort of Full Metal Jacket this-is-my-knife-there-are-many-like-it-but-this-one-is-mine way.
With pre-dinner out of the way, we commence the menu proper. Crab in an almond gaspacho with grape and parsley. So good. Like a more relaxed version of the dish at Marque that always seems to be on the menu. It's simple, but with so much class. The almond gaspacho is rich, but less so with the grape. The crab is there to add texture, sweetness and, of course, flavour, and the parsley gives a nice hum of earthiness. It's matched perfectly to a cava that has been given no added sugar dosage, but with sherry added in.
Bread (sourdough made with the same 14 year old starter as at Marque) arrives in a sack, without a side bread plate. I like it. It feels more organic and saves precious real estate with the absence of individual bread plates.
Star of the show has to be the humble potato dish. Dutch cream potatoes get tossed with bone marrow and sit under a blanket of creamy potato foam, with some added coffee and mojama. I could eat this dish all.day.long. So rich, so satisfying. Thankfully, our trusty somm comes out of left field with a sparkling rose which tames the richness and convinces you that you can eat more. and more.
Ox heart (I think it was an ox) comes with a roasted capsicum. It's the sort of low-rent dish that makes this place (and these prices) possible. Oh, and it's delicious, filled with big smokey, steaky flavours.
The main that comes with the set menu is pork jowl with raddichio, burnt raddichio puree and meyer lemon puree. Full disclosure: I don't have a lot of time for the intense bitterness of raddichio. Here though, I'm enjoying it. The bitterness is a good match to the rich, sweetness of the pork and the intensely sour meyer lemon puree adds a middle flavour to bind the two extremes.
The cheese course is an excellently simple affair of some big pieces of lavosh, topped with big shavings of the cheese of choice (I forget the name, it was a semi-hard sheep's cheese) and rounds of pear. the young sauternes that comes with it beefs up the pear flavour, but gives the fairly subtle cheese plenty of room to work.
Dessert isn't overly complicated either, and it benefits greatly by it. Milk meringue, vanilla ice cream and whole raspberries. Really clear, pure flavours. Delicious. It gets matched to the Friends of Punch noble riesling, which has a fascinating story behind it. Importantly, it also compliments the dish by having an excellent gap in the mid-palate that leaves you feeling swamped with raspberries.
The wines have all been sensational, matched to every dish with a generous glass, chosen and poured by a sommelier with stacks of enthusiasm for what he does. You'd easily be up for $100 at any other restaurant. Here, only $60. Yep.
But the sommelier is only one member of a team that is already kicking big goals in the service stakes, when logic tells you that it should be anarchy with only two weeks open under their belt.
I really don't know what else to say about this place. The value is outstanding, the food uncomplicatedly great, the wine great, the service excellent, the room is packed with happy diners.
I just hope that Mark Best brings this concept to Sydney.