Vue De Monde, take 3

What is it?

Shannon Bennett’s fine dining restaurant, Vue De Monde, that reopened last month in its new location: the 55th floor of the Rialto tower.

Visiting for dinner on Friday night, the experience began at ground level, where we were greeted by hosts who took our name and guided us to the dedicated elevator, decked out in dark mirrored surfaces sliced by the glow of bright LEDs dripping from the ceiling. Our ears popped slightly during the ascent, a gentle reminder of how high our destination was. Our reservation was for 7.30pm and, ordering the menu gastronome, we didn’t leave until well after midnight. The experience continued however into the next morning, when we awoke and prepared the gourmet breakfast items handed to the ladies in our group upon departure the night before.

What did we think?

To say Bennett has simply relocated his fine dining restaurant would be to undersell the accomplishment of the third iteration of Vue De Monde. This was no ordinary meal, it was a fully immersive experience of 15 courses, 5 bottles of wine and 1 spectacular view that transported us away from the everyday into a world refashioned in Bennett’s own image.

From the moment we entered the restaurant, it was clear to us that in rethinking his restaurant, Bennett has deconstructed each and every moment of the dining experience and rebuilt it from scratch. He greeted us himself as we walked past the open kitchen, his quietly-spoken, “Welcome to Vue De Monde,” somehow both thrilling and delightfully modest at the same time. There were no tablecloths on the darkly-glistening timber tables, just a collection of pebbles and twigs that were progressively utilised during the meal – some turned out to be hiding salt and pepper while others were used to support various items of cutlery. Our favourites were the rocks into which our Laguiole steak knives were housed – sliding them out at the start of a meat course made us all feel like the culinary equivalents of King Arthur. Though the bathrooms were equipped with the obligatory bottles of Aesop soap, we were encouraged not to use them. The water itself, collected in rainwater tanks on the rooftop, heavily salted and electrolysed to become mildly alkaline, did the soaps job for us.

Then there was the food… Oh, the food.

The Breakfast of Champions was an egg yolk stripped of its whites and cooked at 62 degrees for 34 minutes until perfectly molten. Placed on a bed of turnip mash, the yolk was reunited with its “whites” again. Ranged around the plate were tiny onion rings cooked in various ways – deep fried and crispy, crumbled and crunchy, roasted and sweet. Finally, Bennett arrived with a dark truffle that he shaved generously onto our plates. Eccentric yet somehow still homely.

The palette cleanser between entree and fish courses arrived as a small mortar filled with fresh herbs and leaves. A quick splash of liquid nitrogen was poured over the leaves, after which we each attacked them with a wooden pestle – the now brittle leaves crumbled quickly into dust. Finally, a dollop of cucumber sorbet was scooped into the mortar. Fresh, enlivening, playful.

The king of the meat courses comprised chunks of David Blackmore 9-score Wagyu beef accompanied by slivers of brilliant chestnut, radish and small piles of green garlic foam. The meat was impeccably cooked, seared around the edges and almost raw at the centre. But even those who were squeamish about such things sighed in pleasure – such high quality meat was not chewed, it melted of its own accord. Of note was the 2006 Vietti Castiglione Barolo that we ordered with it. A knockout wine to support a knockout dish.

Of the four dessert courses, the toffee apple was the most fun. Apple sorbet covered in soft toffee was a surprise to bite into, expecting as were a sickly sweet, crunchy outer shell and room-temparature apple heart. Accompanying it was a tall shot glass of homemade lemonade bubbling away with a cube of dry ice in the bottom and dustings of popping candy. Cue immediate transportation back to our collective childhoods.

What did we learn?

We have now had the pleasure of dining 3 times at Vue De Monde, once at each of its incarnations: at the unassuming, dramatic and theatrical Faraday Street address; at the Little Collins Street location that swapped bistro for lounge, timber chairs for leather couches and theatre for efficiency; and now here, at the very top of the Rialto Building. What was most enjoyable about this third experience was the bevy of contrasts that, despite their inherent contradictions, were balanced expertly at every turn.

The venue for the restaurant speaks of both Melbourne’s history and Bennett’s visionary approach to cuisine. The grandness of the view and the occasion are offset however by his modesty – quietly spoken, surprisingly humble, keenly interested in the impact he has on the environment. His maturity as a chef and restaurateur sit easily with a playful approach to eating that reveals itself in both process and flavours. The food itself combines remarkable complexity and delightful simplicity, so despite the obvious effort dedicated to each dish, their presentation appears loose, even casual.

The experience was impressive, indulgent, exquisite and immeasurably memorable. Such a masterful restaurant is without doubt possible only because of Bennett’s courage and vision. Perched at 236.1m above sea level, atop one of Melbourne’s tallest and most famous skyscrapers, the restaurant is aptly named. That said, it is hard to choose between such an extraordinary view of the world and an equally magnificent one inwards – towards the kitchen of Vue De Monde, take 3, and a culinary genius at work. This is Bennett’s best effort yet, five stars.

Melbourne Open House – Speaker Series #2

What is it?

The second of two free lectures organised by Melbourne Open House held on Tuesday night that explored recent Melbourne architecture across seven different typologies – residential, multi-residential, commercial, retail, education, landscape and heritage restoration. Presenters included Andrew Simpson, Robert Blackhouse of HASSELL, Roger Nelson of NH ArchitectureJohn WardlePerry Lethlean and Jeff Turnbull.

As with the first Speaker Series, discussed in a previous post here, presenters were asked to conclude their discussion by nominating their favourite Melbourne building. Included on the list this time around were ICI House (Simpson), Melbourne Concert Hall interiors (Blackhouse), Webb Bridge (Lethlean), Storey Hall (Turnbull) and, making its second appearance, Newman College (Nelson).

What did we think?

The presentations were generally eloquent, insightful and entertaining, with all projects worthy examples of the sophisticated architecture for which Melbourne has become recognised.

HASSELL’s ANZ Headquarters in Docklands is an extraordinary technical achievement, successfully overlaying both urban and human scales onto a vast workspace for 7,000 employees. Taylor Cullity Lethlean’s Cranbourne Botanical Gardens is considered and evocative, reinvigorating the traditional approach to the botanical garden with a uniquely Australian identity. John Wardle’s sublime Nigel Peck Centre for Learning and Leadership combines a slick urban presence with immaculate detailing and subtle contextual references. This project, together with Peter Elliott‘s equally good works on campus, make Melbourne Grammar School hands down winner as patrons of quality architecture.

Lastly, Andrew Simpson’s House Number 7 for himself is a smart experiment in open family living, balancing the shifting demands of growing children with strong ties to site and climate. Simpson gets an added nod for demonstrating the value of residential architecture against the markedly bigger and publicly relevant buildings of his fellow presenters.

What did we learn?

Victoria Thornton, the London-based inventor of the Open House format, explained the broader picture of this annual event that began in 1992 with 25 buildings and has grown to 750 buildings across 11 cities attended by over 1.5 million people last year. Through design presentations, school workshops and the Open House weekends themselves, she hopes to give citizens of a city “permission” to exchange views on their built environment, leaving lasting bridges between city, citizens and building professionals.

The collection of architects and projects in this Speaker Series were masterful evidence of a city interested in good architecture. It is no wonder that Melbourne is part of the Open House family – we hope to see you, together with tens of thousands of other citizens of this great city on the streets this weekend for Melbourne Open House 2011.

On permanence

The oak tree is large and solid. It has a deep tap root, a massive trunk and heavy branches. It lives for many years and spreads its branches across a far-reaching crown. It entrenches itself so firmly into the soil that over time its water-seeking roots can crack concrete slabs and rip up paving stones. It grows slowly and densely.

Bamboo is fine and slender. It is in constant motion, its leaves and stems swaying and whispering in the slightest breeze. It grows quickly, as much as 1m a day, and to its full height in its first growing season. It is light, its nodes hollow, and it lives for only a short while before decomposing and returning to the land.

The oak and bamboo strike me as particularly suited to describing the contrast in European and Japanese attitudes towards permanence.

Europe is the oak. It builds heavily and in materials that withstand the ravages of time. It employs stone so that its buildings may endure for centuries, even millennia, unchanged. It builds tall and wide – cathedrals and castles that dominate the body and overwhelm the spirit. The European mind seeks to leave an immortal imprint on the land that will far outlast its own short lifespan.

Japan is bamboo. It builds lightly and in materials that fade and weather. It employs timber so that its buildings last mere decades, with sliding screens that permit the entry of rain, wind and snow. It builds long and low – pavilions and temples that wrap around both landscape and body. The Japanese mind does not seek a permanent mark on the land, but a process to stand the test of time. The building itself may not endure, but the process of decay and renewal gives new life with each turn of the cycle.

The Parthenon, St. Peter’s Basilica, La Sagrada Familia and Warwick Castle. Ise Shrine, Katsura Imperial Villa and Ryoanji Temple. Stone and timber. Permanent building and permanent tradition.

Mihaly Slocombe: Website active

Hill House, 2006

The website for our architectural practice, Mihaly Slocombe, is now active. Check it out here.

“We are dedicated to inventive, timeless and environmentally sustainable design. We believe that every project has the inherent potential to change the built environment for the better. Be it a new house on a vineyard or an office fitout for a charitable organisation, we are passionate about unique solutions that not only meet our clients’ needs, but inspire them, challenge them and bring them closer to the land.”

The electric Rolls-Royce

What is it?

Currently a one-off prototype, the 102EX Experimental Electric is making the rounds of stronghold Rolls-Royce markets to determine potential customer interest in the car. Based on the top-of-the-range Phantom, it does away with a thirsty 6.75 litre V12 petrol engine in favour of a bank of 96 batteries under the bonnet and 2 electric motors where the fuel tank used to be. The 102EX runs emissions free and cost the car maker a cool AU$3m to build.

First seen on The Age online, here.

What do we think?

While the rest of the world is still bickering over how much pollution we are prepared to accept, car manufacturers have already sensed the change in the wind. In an impressive effort at self-preservation, the entire automotive industry is clamouring to develop energy efficient hybrid and electric cars. Many of the hybrids are already in production and at almost every price point possible – all the way from the BMW 7 series down to the car that started it all, the Toyota Prius.

Unfortunately, the market is still at a point where new energy efficient technologies cost a lot to produce: one of the common impediments to buyer uptake of hybrid cars is their price increase over similar combustion engine models. The Toyota Prius starts at AU$35,000 while the similarly-sized Corolla starts at AU$23,000. Rolls Royce is by definition already a step ahead in this regard – their buyers care less about astronomical cost than they do impeccable quality.

To this end, the 102EX is equipped with a bevy of features that extend beyond its environmental credentials and will hopefully encourage potential customers to reach for their chequebooks (or possibly no-limit credit cards). Our favourites of these include the 18-coat paint job whose ceramic nano particles are said to be 8,000 times smaller than the thickness of a hair, or the instantly recognisable Spirit of Ecstasy bonnet emblem that is bathed in a sci-fi blue glow. Without doubt though, the best is Rolls Royce’s solution to overcome the “undignified” act of recharging the car’s batteries: an induction pad is mounted to the underside of the car and receives a wireless transfer of energy from a loop embedded into the owner’s garage floor.

Automotive perfection or compromise? You can join the debate here.

The many disguises of the film trilogy

After recently seeing, and thoroughly enjoying, the third Transformers film, Dark of the Moon, it came to our mind that not all film trilogies are created equal. Some are imagined with great creativity and care, are built to endure. Others cut corners wherever possible, chasing a quick box-office buck at the cost of quality. Here follows a discussion of the many disguises of the film trilogy.

1 > 3 > 2: There are the walk-up flats, those trilogies with essentially strong bones that somehow fall victim to the fickleness of fashion. The first film is high quality and extremely popular, but then the second looses it a little – its yellow bricks and shared parking are now thought to be ugly, so it is left to the students / artists / elderly whose youth allowance / dole / pension can’t afford better. But as time goes by and fashions revisit past eras, the third film benefits from a lick of paint and some minor upgrades, and suddenly gains a whole new lease on life. Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future and Michael Bay’s Transformers trilogies are both examples.

1 > 2 > 3: There are the commission houses, those trilogies that start with zeal and grand dreams, but ultimately fail to deliver. The first film is good, magnificent even, but the second already exhibits early signs of decay – the tenants move out and the drug dealers move in, leaving only broken lifts and empty hallways. By the time the third film is released, the whole precinct has been condemned, the wrecking crews already booked to remove the sad reminder of what could have been. The Wachowski brothers’ The Matrix and Sam Raimi’s Spiderman trilogies are both examples.

1, 2, 3 + 4: There are the heritage conversions, those trilogies that belonged to another era but have since been renovated and modernised. Indeed, they cannot truthfully even be called trilogies anymore, now that a fourth film has been tacked onto the end of the original three. Sometimes, the fourth is good, respecting the original building’s character at the same time as appealing to modern needs and tastes. Other times, the fourth is terrible, delivering an uninhabitable conversion while also wrecking our memories of the original. The Die Hard trilogy is an example of the former – the fourth instalment is so good, it almost matches the original. Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones trilogy is an example of the latter – the fourth is confusing and loosely scripted, leagues behind the excellent Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

1 = 2 = 3: Most rare are the architectural masterpieces, those trilogies that are great every step of the way. The first film is exceptional, already ahead of its time. The second builds on the sturdy foundations of the first as well as avoiding the many potential stumbling blocks of the avant-garde – its roof doesn’t leak, its planning makes sense and it receives only critical acclaim. Then the third ascends to previously unimaginable heights, entering the hallowed realm of the timeless classic, all the while delivering new surprises and delight. Pixar’s Toy Story trilogy is one such example – see our previous post on the subject here.

What are your thoughts on the matter? Into which category do the original Star Wars films fall, or the follow up trilogy? What of Lord of the Rings, Ace Ventura or Mad Max? The Millenium series, Blade, RoboCop or the Ocean’s trilogy?

What comes after the shuttle era?

What is it?

Running since 1981, NASA‘s shuttle program will come to an end in just 12 days. On the 21st of July, space shuttle Atlantis will return from its 135th and final mission to the international space station and the United States of America will lose its ability to send men and women into orbit.

What do we think?

Of all the negative news items clamouring for our attention, we feel oddly most saddened by this one. The American space shuttle program has been a visceral symbol of hope during the second half of the 20th Century – after looking for millennia towards the night sky with a powerful sense of wonder, here was our opportunity to actually travel there. The end of the shuttle program suggests we are turning our backs on the universe, retreating to the (dubious) safety of our tiny little planet.

This sense of retreat is only compounded by the recent cancellation of the SETI@home program, an ingenious distributed network of personal computers around the world all sifting data received from radio telescopes listening in on possible extra-terrestial communications.

But looking deeper into the story, we have discovered that all is not as bleak as it seems. Dr. Andrew Thomas, the Adelaide-born astronaut working with NASA, supports the closure of the shuttle program, stating, “It’s time to move on… It’s the right thing to do and it’s time we looked at new methods of getting into space and build on the legacy of the shuttle to do that.”

Importantly, Barack Obama has committed the US$4 billion it has spent annually on the shuttle program to the research and development of new craft that will again take us to the moon, and possibly even beyond. NASA’s Orion capsule, together with craft from private outfits like SpaceX and Boeing are such examples. We hope these efforts realise results, and soon.

We look forward to the day that sees us once more setting out for the stars.