27th February 2019
1/122 Russell St
Melbourne, VIC 3000
Don’t tell Sydney I said this, but I think the food in Sydney is way less interesting than what Melbourne has to offer. To be fair, I’ll be the first to admit that coming into my foodie-hood in Melbourne has spoilt me rotten, as Melbourne has grown to be one of the most exciting dining destinations in the world (or if not that, then at least the most exciting in Australia) over the last few years. Even though, I was still a little disappointed at the prospect of having my annual Christmas-birthday-anniversary meal in Sydney, when I know there’s so much more in Melbourne I’d rather eat. Thankfully, things lined up just right, and Chris and I ended up being able to spend a couple weeks in Melbourne in December, and I got to eat at one of the new restaurants I was most excited about – Lesa.
So what makes Lesa so exciting? Ever since my inaugural visit to Embla, I have been borderline obsessed with it. So when they announced that they were going to open a more formal dining experience – Lesa – upstairs, I needed nothing else. And after much too long in the works, Lesa opened earlier this year with little fanfare, but much anticipation.
Lesa and Embla are like two peas in a pod; the similarities were so noticeable that I probably would’ve guessed they were siblings even if I hadn’t known it. From the warm, dark, and ostentatiously European interior, to the surprisingly laid-back and unpretentious vibe, Lesa is basically Embla in restaurant form. Yet there are subtle differences. The service is a little more restrained, the atmosphere is a little less boisterous, and the menu leans more towards fine-dining than the more casual, woodfired goodness of Embla.
I asked the sommelier to recommend me a good vermouth as an aperitif, and ended with the excellent Cocchi Americano ($16). Despite a base of white wine, the flavour was surprisingly rich and fruity, with a stiff undercurrent of bitter botanicals. It’s exactly what you want to start off a big meal.
The menu was a four-course affair at $85pp, where there was a choice between 3 dishes – meat, veggies, or seafood – for each savoury course, followed by dessert. There were also a couple sides you could add to your meal should you so choose. I had heard phenomenal things about the Fermented Potato Flatbread, Shiitake and Macadamia ($8), and wow, this stole the show before it even started. The potato-based flatbread was addictively smoky and savoury, the crunchy exterior giving way to a warm, pillowy centre. The accompanying dip was a stunning concoction of silky-smooth macadamia cream with shiitake-infused balsamic vinegar. It was buttery and umami, with just a hint of tang to counterbalance the richness. It is by far the most noteworthy and delicious bread I’ve had since Cutler and Co in 2014.
The first course of Heirloom Beetroot, Red Onion, Olive and Salted Elderberry was perhaps the most visually startling dish I’ve ever come across. The remarkable presentation was achieved with layering parchment-thin slices of heirloom beetroot into a beautiful gradient, before pressing it into the shape of a brick. The layers gave the dish the illusion of melting in the mouth, despite being barely cooked in order to retain the rich sweet earthiness of the root vegetable.
In comparison, the Raw Flounder, Peas, Unripe Plum and Blackcurrant Leaf appeared distinctively underwhelming, barely any more remarkable than a pile of leaves and bracken.
Gently push the greenery aside however, and you’ll find the most delicate parcel of sweet flounder wrapped in a blackcurrant leaf, floating in a clear consommé with raw peas. It tasted so fresh, clean, and unspoiled – just like Spring on a plate.
The Arrow Squid, Parsley, Clam and Pistachio was one of the dishes I was most excited to try, having seen its delicate prettiness on every review for Lesa. Gently poached in clam broth, this squid was unlike anything I’ve ever had before. Silky smooth yet retaining its characteristic bite, it’s almost reminiscent of freshly hand-made dumpling skins. The ethereal flavour and texture of the seafood was tethered to the earth by a braise of coarse parsley stalks, and sprigs of asparagus in pistachio cream. This really is something rather special.
Comparatively speaking, the Spring Chicken, Ricotta, Shiitake, Wattleseed was the least remarkable dish so far. Although well-cooked over woodfire, resulting in juicy flesh and crispy skin that’s been rendered of all fat, it’s pretty much what it says on the packet – nothing more, nothing less.
The Lamb Rump, Hijiki Seaweed, Freekeh and Green Tea turned things back around again. Despite the unassuming ingredient list, the contrast between the fatty, almost gamy lamb and the intense seaweed brininess that had been infused into the freekeh was startling. It was a surprisingly rich and complex dish, and definitely one of the most interesting things I’ve eaten in a while.
Ever since trying it at Movida Next Door, hapuka has been one of my favourite fish, and I always order it when I can. The Hapuka, Purple Basil, Tomato and Red Orach didn’t disappoint. Each piece of fish was gently baked in a wrapping of purple basil that kept in the moisture and the ripe, summery sweetness of the cherry tomatoes, the buttery texture of the leaves contrasting with the just-cooked, pearly firmness of the fish.
Mum and Dad always go cherry picking in summer, and it takes less than a week to polish off 8kg or so of cherries between the 4 of us. So it was no surprise that I gunned straight for the seasonal dessert of Cherries, Cherries, Cherries. Contrary to the name, this was actually cherries served 4 ways – sparkling, icy crystals of syrup-soaked granita, intensely sweet compote, creamy white chocolate and pickled cherry curd, and of course, the freshest, juiciest cherries I’ve ever come across. This has definitely earned itself a place in my dessert hall of fame.
On the other end of the spectrum was the indulgent Roast Potato Parfait, Chocolate, Sourdough, Lemongrass. The ingredient list may sound odd, but the result was actually a familiar and cohesive one. The indulgently creamy parfait had just a slight hint of earthiness from the potatoes, and the subtle freshness of lemongrass infused into the smooth dark chocolate ganache.
So what’s my verdict on Lesa, and how does it compare to Embla? This is actually a surprisingly difficult question to answer. Whereas Embla specialises in a menu that is rustic yet refined, the menu at Lesa is significantly more experimental. What impressed me the most about Lesa wasn’t so much the flavour of the food (though it was all good!), but the way that every dish had something unique about it that I’ve never experienced anywhere else. It was a joy to see the way the disparate, even obscure ingredient lists on the menu come together as cohesive and innovative dishes. Lesa may not be as much of a crowd-pleaser as Embla, and it certainly won’t be for everyone, but it’s an experience that is entirely unique, and well worth the visit.
Rating: 15.5/20 – one of a kind.
This rating reflects my personal experience at the time of visit.