Almost three years after opening Atlas Dining, the South Yarra restaurant that changes cuisine every four months, chef Charlie Carrington still talks about his global research trips with the enthusiasm of a fresh recruit.
Atlas has explored the flavours of France, Brazil, Israel, Thailand and Peru. This time, it’s China’s turn. Carrington’s latest trip took him to Beijing and Chengdu, the capital of China’s Sichuan province, where he dined on Mongolian lamb and more than his fair share of eye-watering Sichuan soups.
“They really blow your head off,” he says. “Eating that for six days straight was crazy. There are just so many levels of heat.”
But unlike the numbing hotpots of Chengdu, there’s little in the way of heat on the new menu at Atlas. Carrington instead focuses on flavours that surprised him during his trip, to highlight the subtlety, clarity and diversity of flavours found in Chinese cuisine.
“In Australia we're so lucky to have such a large Chinese population, so you think you know what Chinese food is, and then you get there, and it’s really different to what you’re expecting,” he says. “The quality of produce is exceptional, and the eating customs are really interesting, too. Like you can tell who is paying for a meal based on where they sit at the table.”
First come wafer-thin slices of Mooloolaba yellowfin tuna with thick, chewy biang biang noodles that Carrington and his staff hand pull. A bed of ground walnuts and mustard seeds provides bite; a nod to the numbing effect of Sichuan peppercorns without the ferocious chilli hit that typically comes with it.
Next, pine mushrooms on a bed of nutty barley paste with thin strands of fried shiitake. Carrington was impressed by the diversity of China’s mushrooms, some of which were so exotic and sponge-like he barely recognised them, but he’s been unable to track them all down in Melbourne. For now, he’s foraging the pine mushrooms in Woodend. They appear again in dumplings, a powerful umami hit softened by puffed barley.
Roasted lamb neck tips its hat to the Mongolian influence Carrington found in Beijing. The meat is slow-cooked in the woodfired oven with tamari and nashi pear, and is served with roasted shiitake and sesame paste, cumin seeds, sesame, goji berries, and jujube (Chinese dates). It’s rich, wholesome and aromatic.
Carrington saves the most interesting mix of ingredients for dessert. Green olives are dried and ground into a paste that’s mixed with a pear and persimmon compote. That’s topped with yuba (crunchy tofu skin) and served with jasmine ice-cream and hot jasmine tea. It’s a dish that typifies Carrington’s exploratory approach.
Choose from a 90-minute four-course set menu or a six-course version free from time constraints. But you’ve only got until September, when Atlas will transform again.
133 Commercial Road, South Yarra
(03) 9826 2621
Tue to Sat 6pm–11pm
Fri & Sat 5.30pm–11pm