You can hear it the second you ascend the dark internal staircase; Lesa isn’t the same restaurant as Embla, its bubbly downstairs counterpart. Actually, it doesn’t sound (or act) like most contemporary restaurants in Melbourne.
The room is relatively quiet and the playlist is more likely to be inoffensive jazz than Notorious B.I.G. The menu is fixed: four courses, with three choices at each step. Apart from bread and salad, nothing is shared.
Lesa – “to gather” in Old Norse – is more than just a pretty name. This reserved but unstuffy room is a place to slow down with the important people in your life, aided by chef and co-owner Dave Verheul’s beautiful food and a truly idiosyncratic wine list.
The furniture plays a subtle yet important role here. Most of it isn’t new or designer, like you’d expect. By the semi-open kitchen there are properly rustic French kitchen tables built in the 1700s. They’re surrounded by re-upholstered antique chairs. These pieces give Lesa a sense of maturity and downplay the feeling you’re in a restaurant.
There’s some more old stuff in the cool room: selected vintages of burgundy that stretch back to the ’80s; outliers on a list otherwise stacked with young, quirky wines from France, Italy and Australia. Local talent includes Sam Vinciullo, Travis Tausend, Jauma, Lark Hill, Luke Lambert and Good Intentions.
If you’re open-minded, leave the wine up to the staff. Verhuel’s business partner Christian McCabe runs the floor, and keeps staff tasting the stock constantly. As at the Town Mouse (another McCabe restaurant; now closed) this is evident in the service. Every waiter has real, informed opinions about the list.
As at Embla, nearly every plate includes an element cooked over fire, fermented on-site, or both. Start with the two-day potato flatbread, which comes with a yin-yang-look ramekin half filled with macadamia cream and half with smoked shiitake mushrooms transmogrified to a dark, intensely meaty oil.
After that, you might have some beetroot. Purple and chioggia (candy stripe) varieties are sliced into translucent petals, layered with fresh thyme, baked, then pressed into an intricate terrine. It almost seems a shame to take the dainty crimson beauty apart with a fork.
In another dish, the kitchen smokes leeks for two hours over the fire. The collapsing rings show up in a deep earthenware bowl, with slow-cooked sunflower seeds and a flyaway halo of herbs. Just before you dig in, your server drizzles four-week-old fermented goat’s milk over the lot.
Dessert is the fruity, fizzy, ferment-y crescendo you’d expect, whether you opt for preserved nectarines; a cheese tart; or bergamot meringue with koji, a bacterium used to ferment soy sauce and sake.
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