Where: Ides, 92 Smith Street Collingwood
What: Fine dining for those who can’t afford Attica
Who: Fine Dining Club – Beer Jenga Master and Gingko Leaf Girl
Bloat score: 4 – If I were lying prostrate on my tummy, it would have looked as though I was levitating
A few happy hour wines deep one Friday night, Beer Jenga Master, Gingko Leaf Girl and I hatched the idea to form a Fine Dining Club. It would be the Fine Dining Club befitting two current arts workers and one former one – affordable enough that it wouldn’t break the bank, but more than we’d ever spend on a meal with our usual cohort of friends, anxious as we all are about stagnating salaries and rising life expectancies.
We decided on Ides for our inaugural Fine Dining Club meet-up. Run by former Attica sous chef Peter Gunn, Ides has the option of a $70 four-course degustation and a $140-full menu degustation; needless to say, we went for the former and, no, we did not get wine pairings.
Ides requires everyone who makes a reservation to pay upfront for their meal, but that doesn’t preclude you from changing your booking – we changed ours twice before we finally sat down to dine there one chilly Wednesday evening in November.
Ides doesn’t take itself too seriously – the waiters aren’t officious and leave you largely to your own devices, and the restaurant itself is a minimalistic, dimly lit grey space. But there is no balancing of multiple plates on a forearm at Ides – three chefs strode up to our table for every course and set our respective dishes down with a noticeable flourish of the arm and a detailed explanation.
Without wine pairings, Beer Jenga Master – who has the uncanny ability to balance at least one alcoholic beverage on her head – and I were left to decide if we wanted to drink at all while we waited for Gingko Leaf Girl to arrive. Perusing the drinks menu struck fear into the heart of someone who had just spent an obscene amount of money on food – no glass of wine on the Ides menu was priced in the single figures (as far as I remember), with the bottles substantially more expensive. Beer Jenga Master went for a gin and tonic, and I went for the second cheapest glass of red on the menu because I was pretending that I wasn’t a cheapskate.
Without us realising, an unobtrusive covered box had been placed on our table before we’d sat down. A covert peek revealed our pre-degustation appetiser – thin spears of lightly grilled asparagus dabbed in white miso. Unsure whether we could start tucking in, we patiently waited for a waiter to essentially give us permission to eat when he came around with an explanation of what lay in our box. We got a spear each, and it was a refreshing precursor to the rich and heavy flavours that came after. (He also asked if any of us had any food intolerances – I stared meaningfully at my dining companies and proceeded to answer with a cheery no.)
Our waiter granted us the option to add Ides’ famous cos lettuce dish (of which we’d never heard of) and an oyster entrée to our four-course menu for an additional $10, and although we recognised the upselling that was going on, we acquiesced.
Set atop a heaped pile of ice, the three long and narrow baby cos lettuce were sprinkled with palm sugar, sea salt and red chilli flakes. It was unlike anything I’d ever tasted. The lettuce was equal parts sweet and savoury, with the crispness and dewiness of the leaves tinged with the faint but noticeable aftertaste of chilli. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Theatrical in its presentation, each of our oysters arrived on a bed of smooth, slippery stones. Cooked in saffron syrup and mandarin oil, the oyster tasted fruity and fragrant in a combination of ingredients I’d never tasted before.
Also on our table between these two pre-degustation entrees were Ides’ famous sesame-encrusted dinner rolls that came with a jar of salty, peanut-infused butter. I am often maligned among my friends for my avowed scepticism of the whole bread thing, but this was bread I could get around. And that was worth the bloats after.
Our degustation hadn’t even started yet, not that I was full after an asparagus spear, a piece of cos lettuce, an oyster and a bread roll, mind you, though I wasn’t as ravenously hungry as I was prior.
Our first course was beetroot roasted in black pepper with smoked herring and horseradish in a dressing of molasses and lime. The beetroot was so well braised it came apart like a tender piece of meat, although of course the only meat to be found in this dish were the pearls of smoked herring that were akin to the consistency of fish roe. The spicy aftertaste of the horseradish was evident in every bite, although it wasn’t so pungent it overwhelmed the dish.
Our second course was my favourite by far. A deceptively small piece of barramundi had been baked with a sweet corn and black garlic crust, and glazed in a red wine and lamb sauce. This dish was comfort food to the hilt; the crust fell apart easily and melted in your mouth, while the relatively minute size of the fish belied how filling it was. Gingko Leaf Girl, whose entire wardrobe would be embroidered with the fan-shaped leaf motif if she could afford it, remarked that the dish was restorative and reminded her of something she’d eat while ill, in the best way possible.
By the time our third course landed on our tables, I was beginning to feel the effects of the bread roll and the black garlic, not that I was going to let this dull my enjoyment of a rare fine dining experience. I’m not a fan of sultanas, but I barely noticed the ones garnishing the beef short rib in our last savoury meal of the night. The presentation of this dish was most ornate, with four ramekins of accompanying ingredients available for us to pair our beef with – chilli cream cheese garnished with crispy kale (which I proceeded to polish off without ingesting a Lacteeze and later regretted), smoked cashew nuts, carrots cooked in duck fat and a chargrilled lime. This dish was Beer Jenga Master’s favourite, as she enjoyed the DIY aspect of pairing each bite of beef with a different flavour. I especially enjoyed the smoked cashew nuts, which were spicy and umami.
After we completed our three savoury courses, the waiter announced the last course would be dessert, and offered us the chance to try an additional dessert for $10. We declined this time – Beer Jenga Master and Gingko Leaf Girl were as full as I was bloated. We had an informal roundtable discussion about our experience so far, and collectively agreed that as much as we’d enjoyed all three dishes, each veered on the sweeter side.
Surprisingly, the dessert wasn’t as sweet as we expected, and it looked stunning. Half a carved out blood orange filled with honey custard and frozen yuzu was as tart as it was creamy. Like the cos lettuce, it too was served on a bed of ice, which I made Beer Jenga Master sample to see if it was flavoured ice that we could eat. It was not.
Edition one of Fine Dining Club was a success, and although I ended up spending an additional $25 on the day (on top of the $70 I’d already paid), I thought Ides was a comparatively affordable way to enjoy fresh produce yielded in unusual and inventive ways. I was bloated after, but I sure as hell wasn’t paying $95 to eat an inferior version of the degustation, even if it would have been the sensible thing to do.
Ides is open every day except Monday from 6pm to 11pm.