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Virginia Plain - Epicure

A look behind the scenes at Virginia Plain on Flinders Lane.

PT1M17S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-292rh 620 349

Reader rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars (15 votes)

Score 13/20
Food Contemporary
Where 31 Flinders Lane, city
Phone 9290 0400
Cost Typical entree, $21.50; main, $38; dessert, $13
Licensed
Wine list Eclectic, interesting, adventurous global list with a special mention for eastern Europe
Owners Marco Santucci
Chef Andy Harmer
Vegetarian Two entrees, one main
Dietary GF catered for
Service Good
Value Some yes, some no
Noise In check
Outdoors No
Parking Street or paid
Web virginiaplain.com.au
Cards AE MC V eftpos
Hours Mon-Sat, 11am-late

THE LOWDOWN
The best bit
Rocking soundtrack
The worst bit
Lack of cohesion
Go-to dish
Crab sandwich

Virginia Plain's crab sandwich.

Virginia Plain's crab sandwich. Photo: Eddie Jim

MUGGED BY MASH. THAT WAS my first impression of Virginia Plain. Second, actually, after the sheer scale of the place, which takes up a whole floor above Flinders Lane and requires binoculars to see the kitchen

from the entrance - an act of audacity from a non-household name owner and chef.

But I digress. Back to the mash. Mashed potato is a big deal here. It turns up announced, it turns up unbidden, it turns up appropriately, it turns up weirdly.

Sprawling: Virginia Plain.

Sprawling: Virginia Plain. Photo: Eddie Jim

It doesn't really pay to overthink mash, but here, in this sprawling, ambitious attempt to be one of Melbourne's venues that matter, maybe it's intended as a culinary Third Way - a bridging device for a menu spooling in the opposite directions of retro comfort classics and contemporary adventurousness spiritually aligned with chef Andy Harmer's previous employer Vue de Monde.

Risk-management principles applied to a bold gamble have cast the net of potential customers wide. The bar does a great line in backwards-looking vinyl (the Go-Betweens, Roxy Music) and in forward-thinking wine, the list exercising some nifty avant-garde credentials through the natural-school, low-intervention ''orange'' wines of eastern Europe - scary looking but food-friendly.

Bookings? Yes, although half the tables are reserved for walk-ins. Menu? Again, part old-school - beef Wellington, lobster thermidor - part new-school Eurozone. Meticulously positioned to hit the sweet spot(s) of Melbourne diners, it gives the feeling of swinging wildly at a diverse marketplace.

It's not merely my philosophical problem with linguine carbonara selling its soul to the gods of fusion, or the beef bourguignon - ''comforting and reimagined'', the menu said - that was anything but. There were basic kitchen errors as well: overcooked pigeon and undercooked garlic in two dishes, and a seam of untrimmed sinew ruining a prime piece of rump cap.

The menu hasn't yet reached the heights of cleverness to which it aspires, but a revisit offers signs it's heading in the right direction.

Pig trotter stuffed with blood pudding was certainly the better for being liberated from Virginia Plain's mash fetish. Instead, a parsnip remoulade sliced through the richness of a restrained pud that left the real blood-and-guts depravity to the Spaniards; the scallops were enormous Canadian ones that challenged the sliced trotter and a robust chicken jus for meaty heft. A stunning ''sandwich'' of picked blue swimmer crab between the thinnest of toasts was all vibrant freshness with a modern salad of pickled celery, finger limes, shaved pear, baby witlof and the sweet-earthy counterpoint of walnut puree.

Full points for presentation to the ocean trout cured in raspberry vinegar, but its ruby-red good looks were not matched by taste, which was surprisingly pallid.

Modern ideas are also applied to side dishes - the season's new greens smothered in a ham-hock foam makes good veg go bad in the best possible way - while other dishes rest their virtues on excellent produce. Beef Wellington with wagyu rump, a subtle cep duxelle, the whisper of dijon and a salty layer of serrano leaves its classic credentials well enough alone, although, at $48, you'll pay for it. Red wine-poached barramundi (kingfish on the new menu) is finished with a cheesy crust, with clams, baby calamari, braised spinach and fresh peas in a luscious white wine veloute. It's a great dish bogged down in the incongruous note of … do I need to say it?

Desserts bring the great divide home. A chocolate fondant without gooey innards. Fail. The super-sweetness of a boldly toffeed tarte tatin is a distraction, but the spicing of its velvety creme patissiere - cardamom, cinnamon, star anise, cloves and salt - forgives a lot. Little squares of set mandarin cheesecake with a thick biscuit base are also diabetically sweet and their accompanying mandarin five ways - au naturel, tequila-soaked, a jelly, a foam, a gel - is the sort of thing that never seems to add up to a whole.

What you'll think of Virginia Plain is largely a matter of chance. You could eat three courses and be wowed; a different three dishes could elicit a vow not to return. It's the kind of place that will take the pulse of Melbourne dining. How much slack are diners willing to give a place that is all raging ambition, but isn't quite there yet? Watch and see.

ldubecki@theage.com.au

How we score
Of 20 points, 10 are awarded for food, five for service, three for ambience, two for wow factor.

12 Reasonable 13 Good if not great 14 Solid and enjoyable 15 Very good 16 Capable of greatness 17 Special 18 Exceptional 19 Extraordinary 20 Perfection

Restaurants are reviewed again for The Age Good Food Guide and scores may vary.