Herald Sun – Market Force – 15.5/20

IT’S what I imagine a parent feels when their 20-something son, after flirting with sugar-free paleoveganism, comes home from college and announces what he really wants for Sunday lunch is a pork roast and chocolate pud.

That’s the type of relief that overwhelmed me after dinner at Paul Wilson’s new restaurant.

The British chef’s passionate and delicious obsession with the foods of the Americas south of Dallas over the past half dozen years has given way to his true calling: Euro-influenced, precisely executed bistro fare.

It’s a return to fine form for the chef who made The Bot Melbourne’s hottest table in the mid-aughties.

And though he’s been a towering presence on our dining landscape for two decades, from the fine-dining heights of the Park Hyatt’s Radii, through The Bot and a suite of Melbourne Pub Group offerings — Newmarket Hotel, Acland St Cantina, Middle Park Hotel — then as a general Tex Mex gun for hire, this is Wilson’s first time as owner, his vision unencumbered.

His multi-part, multi-year Prahran Market project has finally come to fruition, with the “luxe brasserie” the final piece in the puzzle that started with a coffee window peddling custom-roasted coffee and single origin chocolate cake, followed with the “lifestyle cafe” where sprouted toast with guacamole and smashed pumpkin sits happily next to a proper English fry up for two.

And, along with a bar stocked with local white spirits that come with bespoke condiments plundered from the market’s fruit and veg stalls, comes the hero of the lot.

Come summer, when the roof retracts and the windows open onto the colour of Commercial Rd, the atrium will be a mighty fine spot for those gins and tonic, a dozen pristine oysters and gossiping in the sun. But on this icy cold night the brasserie is as comfortingly warm as the Diana Krall wafting over the room.

While the sharp design of the space has divided opinion, I like it its clean, almost clinical feel. It’s bright by day, but by night the muted palette of charcoal and gunmetal grey by is very Melbourne.

I’m not, however, a fan of the achingly hip art on the walls. I know it’s subjective, but the naked lady reclining with two golden retrievers feels as out of place here as MSG.

But never mind what’s on the walls, for it is what’s on the plate that matters. Far out the food is good.

The admirable “organic”, “biodynamic”, “sustainable” on the extensive menu can feel ever-so born again happy clappy, somewhat overeager for us all to see the chem-free light. But put that produce — which is faultlessly sourced, some of which grown to spec at Transition Farm on the Mornington Peninsula — in Wilson’s hands, well, then you really have something to give thanks for.

Take, for instance, the humble roast chook. There are two on offer — the queen of the birds, a whole Sommerlad from Trentham’s Milking Yard Farm that serves four ($100), or the Milawa we tried served by the half or whole ($28/$48).

It was extraordinary. Brined, smoked and roasted, it’s innocently tender, fleetingly smoky.

Served with a garden of pretty leaves, fat croutons and thick hunks of meaty pancetta, for the cost of a parma in the pub you can get one of the best chicken dinners going in town.

There’s a seafood bar serving up oysters and platters of fruits de mere and all sorts of more refined dishes from the sea.

A puffy seaweed-spiked crepe is the bed for a generous serve of sweet spanner crab ($20), while a thick fillet of excellent, slightly smoked Petuna ocean trout as orange as a sunset comes with a perfect devilled egg and nimbly powerful pickled fennel ($17). It’s another excellent dish.

You could easily make a meal from the extensive veg/salad section, where those lovingly reared veg are equally respected in the kitchen.

A farro number is a riot of savoury sweet textures, studded with chewy barberries, crunchy walnuts, pomegranate pearls, golden beets and soft salted ricotta ($10/$14), while black tahini adds interest to a classic pear and radicchio combo ($10/$14).

While I think the wine list too Euro heavy and a missed opportunity — for all the professed love of the land would an all-Oz list be out of place? — plentiful staff dressed in black add a hint of quiet formality in an area normally associated with sneakers and neck tattoos.

And if there’s a better way to see out winter than Wilson’s two-person apple pie served with cheddar ice cream and muscatel syrup, I’d love to hear about it ($24).

Classic yet modern, big-hearted generous and delicious, it might’ve been a long time coming, but Wilson & Market has most certainly arrived.

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