Parcs, Melbourne

Where: Parcs, 198 Little Collins Street

What: Zero waste, maximum flavour and the best riff on cacio e pepe you’ll taste

Who: White Russian, Plant Whisperer

Bloat score: 3 – I could have balanced a glass of wine on my bloated stomach

You know that feeling when you chance upon a new restaurant – without first having read about it on Broadsheet or whatever – and you just know it’s going to be good? I was lining up outside the Victoria Hotel to watch Sam Campbell at the comedy festival and this cosy, dimly lit restaurant immediately caught my eye. Googling furiously, I found out it was Parcs (scrap spelt backwards), a zero-waste restaurant from the same team behind Aru and Sunda with a menu designed by chef Dennis Yong, the same guy at the helm of fermentation operation Furrmien. I interviewed Yong a few months ago for a profile in frankie, and couldn’t wait to see how condiments as ingenious as avokaya, bread miso and orange peel yuzu koshō – fermented wholly from food scraps – had been incorporated into dishes. Parcs has since been broadshat and good food-ed and if the full 25-seater restaurant was anything to go by when we visited, show up early because Parcs doesn’t take bookings.

Just like its food, fashioned out of ingredients that would’ve otherwise gone to waste, not a corner of the restaurant is underutilised, from its economical bathroom (only one, of course) to the adequately spaced tables and seats by the bar. Lighting is suitably dim and it’s approaching winter, so please forgive these dull food photos which belie the quality of the food.

I visited with White Russian and Plant Whisperer (both of whom made their debut in this review of Chef David) after attending a mid-afternoon book launch, which meant we were seated at the wholly weird hour of 4.40pm – too early for dinner, too late for lunch. White Russian had a dinner at 8pm so figured she’d snack on the odd thing or two, while Plant Whisperer and I were more determined to try a representative cross-section of the menu for our nana dinner.

Our waitstaff was this wry, mordant man – extremely knowledgeable about the menu it must be said – whose dry demeanour wasn’t ruffled by an increasingly inebriated White Russian informing him that I was a food blogger who wrote for Broadsheet (it’s actually Time Out lmao), to which he said the restaurant didn’t care about such things. Which, fair, but I hope it gave him some insight into why I was furiously typing into my phone whenever he came around with immaculate five-minute long rundowns of each dish.   

Wry waitstaff man informed us that we had to have two oysters ($6 each) to taste the five different elements in them – according to him, you needed two bits to enjoy the expanse of flavours, and one oyster is only equivalent to one bite. As with every dish we tasted at Parcs, the flavours underpinning the simply presented oysters were multi-faceted, complex and, in many cases, simply impossible to pinpoint due to the plurality of ingredients and preparation methods.

These exceedingly fresh Pacific oysters from Coffin Bay came with a mango kombucha red onion vinegar sauce made from overripe Queen Vic Market mangoes that were consigned for the bin. Each bite was an explosion of flavours, owing to the bitterness of the mango skin oil in the sauce, the sweetness of the candied scoby which garnished each oyster – which reminded Plant Whisperer of taro jelly – and the saltiness of the oyster itself. Definitely get two. The beeswax which the vinegar sauce was fermented in was fashioned into a pretty base for the oysters to perch on. No waste!!

At a restaurant where everything is fermented, we had to get the pickles and ferments ($9), which our waitstaff informed us was actually the most experimental thing on the menu – a huge call in what is equivalent to a culinary laboratory. I’ll be hard-pressed to remember the five different things on the small plate we got and I foolishly forgot to photograph them but as I recall, there were slices of starfruit, golden zucchini, brusselkraut, beetroot leaves and golden beetroot – all fermented in novel, interesting ways. I love starfruit owing to my Malaysian upbringing – which is Yong’s background too, so it makes sense this lesser-known fruit in an Australian context made it on to the menu. Starfruit is typically soft and slightly rubbery, but this had a crunch to it – from what, I could not tell you. The shredded brusselkraut – sauerkraut with brussel sprouts instead of cabbage – was a standout and had a strong, yeasty vegemite flavour for those who like the iconic spread. The golden zucchini, if I remember correctly, was too strong for me – it must’ve been fermented in an alcohol of some sort because it tasted like a shot in vegetable form, while the others found it almost dessert-like in its sweetness.

One of the highlight dishes for me – and something we only ordered because White Russian had given up on snacking and was simply eating dinner with us because everything was so good – were the mussels escabeche with kimcar and salted cucumber. Escabeche is a Spanish dish where poached or fried fish or meat is marinated in an acidic sauce – typically vinegar – and served cold. In Parcs’ version, the mussels escabeche had been pickled in Maggi seasoning and acar awak – a Malaysian dish of spicy and sour fermented vegetables – the same acar which had also been used in Parcs’ own creation ‘kimcar’ (they love a portmanteau here) where cabbage is marinated in acar juice instead of the fish sauce, salted shrimp and gochugaru of a traditional kimchi. Cucumber peels from down the road – I can’t remember exactly where – were salted in the oven and used as the garnish for this dish. You could say this of nearly every dish on Parcs’ menu, but the mussels were incredibly umami – almost meat-like in their texture. White Russian and I especially enjoyed this dish.

One dish I was especially looking forward to were the Chinese donuts with moromi za’atar and smoked sunflower marrow ($8 each). Unfamiliar with the ‘Chinese donuts’ moniker that’s used to describe the deep-fried, leavened dough sticks known as youtiao, White Russian was disappointed there wasn’t an actual donut, but I knew what to expect and I loved it. The Chinese donuts were topped with a spread of baked sunflower puree, moromi (the fermenting mixture that’s left over once soy sauce is filtered) and za’atar, with a double injection of sunflower in the seeds sprinkled atop. The thick savoury spread coupled with the deep-fried crunch of the Chinese donuts was rich and lustrous.

Our unanimous favourite dish of the night was the umami e pepe ($18). As soon as the unassuming dish referred to affectionately by White Russian as the ‘brown noodles’ was served to us, she pinched her nose in an unimpressed manner. As wry waitstaff man expounded its virtues, however, she curiously picked up the plate and inhaled the deeply savoury smells emanating from the noodles and was converted. The pasta of cacio e pepe had been swapped out with springy, al dente Hokkien noodles, cooked with a rye bread miso and no cheese. The noodles had a lovely velvety texture that coated our mouths and the abundance of pepper used gave it a heat that underlined each bite, but in a gentle way. I could’ve inhaled an entire plate of this myself.   

We couldn’t not order dessert, especially when it sounded as promising as the brioche miso ice-cream with ginger syrup-poached pear, crystallised cacao husk and walnut ($18). Wry waitstaff man called this a camembert ice-cream but it was more akin to a blue cheese ice-cream to me. I found it quite pungent and like the pairing of blue cheese with quince, had to eat mouthfuls of the ice-cream alongside the poached pear to extinguish any taste of blue cheese (I’m not a big fan, as you may have been able to tell). For blue cheese aficionado White Russian, however, the ice-cream was mellow, soft and sweet.

If White Russian hadn’t had a dinner to go to afterwards and we hadn’t snacked immediately beforehand, we would’ve tried almost all of the 11 dishes on the menu – which is what wry waitstaff man had recommended if we were particularly hungry – so I’m keen to visit again, particularly for dishes like the golden fried rice and kangaroo in treacle sauce. If I was still histamine-intolerant, I would’ve said the fermentation in everything had set my tummy off, but I don’t really know what I’m intolerant to these day, except every now and then, I’ll get bloated without knowing why.

Parcs isn’t inventive for inventiveness sake, but it’s certainly a plus that every ingredient that goes into its carefully curated, immensely delicious dishes would’ve met a fate worse than being on your plate.

Parcs is open Tuesday to Saturday from 4pm to 11pm.

Author: Sonia Nair

Sonia Nair is a Melbourne-based food writer who persists with her love of everything deep fried and spicy, despite being diagnosed with a histamine intolerance and lactose intolerance after incorrectly thinking she was fructose-intolerant for several years.

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