The only artwork inside Scott Pickett’s new fire- and smoke-focused restaurant, Matilda, comes in the form of a museum-like series of glass cabinets filled with botanical installations, from flowering artichoke plants to fermenting persimmons. The displays will change with the seasons. The dining tables, by furniture-maker Hugh Makin, also fit into the visually pleasing category. Constructed out of two felled trees in the Otways, the wood has been carved into tactile pieces of sculpture that just happen to be tabletops.

This is Pickett’s tribute to Australia, and it hits you from the moment you enter the restaurant in South Yarra. The low-slung ceiling is a procession of perforated red-brown arches – a colour that immediately brings to mind Uluru and the Red Centre. Native wood sits piled beside a long bar overlooking a busy open kitchen. Then there’s the menu, with finger-lime laced spanner crab, John Dory steeped in a native take on French grenobloise, and tarte tatin loaded with pink lady apples.

“I really wanted a contemporary Australian restaurant, that’s … got a sense of place – that doesn't feel like it could be in any other city,” Pickett says. He enlisted Projects of Imagination to bring that concept to fruition, and the design firm has created a fit-out unlike any other in Melbourne. Its sophistication and individuality is of an international standard – it would be an impressive space whether here or in Manhattan – but it’s wholly and instantly Australian.

Pickett, whose kingdom until now has been firmly entrenched on the other side of the Yarra, was also adamant not to transport a north-side restaurant to the south. In fact, he didn’t “want it to feel like a south-side” restaurant either. And though it lives in the heart of South Yarra, opposite the Botanic Gardens, Matilda is here on its own terms, and Pickett’s.

“I know I’m in Australia when I walk in the doors … I feel it and I see it,” he says. “That's also [the case] with the food, where we've brought … native hints of flavour, or spices or ingredients. It's a very fine line between being gimmicky and a bit of overkill trying to embrace our homeland and where we are.”

A whole John Dory, for example, merges Pickett and his chefs’ classical training with a distinctly Australian vernacular. The fish is topped with Matilda’s take on the classic French sauce, grenobloise (typically capers, beurre noisette and lemon), and given “a sense of place” by adding salt bush, desert lime and a little bit of lemon myrtle.

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The same finely drawn approach is true of the team’s use of wood fire, charcoal and smoke.

“There's a life in a fire,” Pickett says. “From the smoke, to when it first starts to go, to the hot coals to the white coals, even to the ashes and the embers. We’re doing different things at different stages of the fire's life.”

The menu shows off this texture. In some plates, flames and coal are obvious in taste and sight: flatbreads with thin, black char lines, or burnt spelt sourdough that instantly tastes of fire. In others, the method provides more delicate assistance, as in the smoked vanilla bean ice-cream (served with a glossy tarte tatin), or a crisp-skinned, dry-aged duck breast that’s cooked in the second chamber of a woodfire oven, allowing smoke from the burning cherry wood to filter through and “almost pot-smoke the duck,” Pickett explains.

“The meat is moist, juicy – it has a soft hint of smoke, which you can’t get in a normal oven … I thought we were pretty good at duck, this has taken it to a 12 rather than 10.”

There are other twelves on this menu.

A generous serving of spanner crab dressed in crème fraiche and studded with finger lime is the right mix of sweet and miniature explosions of sour. It comes with the aforementioned charred, doughy flatbreads and butter dusted with ground-down dehydrated school prawns – pile together/assemble for a decadent DIY sandwich.

Buckwheat crisps are the edible shovels for your kangaroo tartare – perfect little cubes of tender wine-red meat with toasted sunflower, sweet but tart Packham pears soaked in shitake vinegar, garlic puree, wattleseed and fermented red peppers.

The tarte tatin – which Pickett says he tested roughly 600 times before getting it right –comprises hefty boats of apple piled on rough pastry and caramelised until treacly with caster and coffee sugar. Hiding beneath the apple you’ll find perfect little stars of thyme.

ESP head chef Steve Nairn “has been the driving force behind the menu development, and getting us all organised and up to speed,” Pickett says.

“We tried 12 different apples for the tarte tartin. We tried six different ducks; we tried 12 different types of wood; we tried 20 types of beef. Steve Nairn … was at Vue de Monde as head chef, and 11 Madison Park and that’s what he's brought into the company … I'm a perfectionist, but he takes it to the next level.”

Nairn will return to the Northcote fine diner in a few weeks with head chef Tim Young – who recently joined the company after four years at Michelin-starred restaurants in Holland – staying on as Pickett’s “right-hand man”.

Over the years, southsiders have asked Pickett – who was once executive chef at The Point in Albert Park – when he was going to come back. He says South Yarra feels like the right location for his return – like Northcote, where his flagship fine diner and bistro are, this neighbourhood has a village-like feel, and Pickett wants locals to make it a regular stop.

“I don't just want to be destination restaurants – I want us to be somewhere you can go once a week, once a month, and feel like you know us, or you know the staff or it's part of you.”

You’ll come back here again and again because the food is excellent, and it’s sexy and atmospheric, but Matilda is not a casual local like, say, Pickett’s Estelle Bistro. The food at Matilda – named for Pickett's daughter – is as refined and precise as what you’ll find at Saint Crispin – though earthier – with a more boisterous and dramatic persona. Especially up the front, at the bar, with the open kitchen as your live entertainment. If you can finagle a seat here, do so. But Projects of Imagination has created several distinct dining spaces, and its dining room – with those Hugh Makin tabletops and soft leather banquettes and chairs – is cosy, warm and has an energy of its own in the same way a moody, buzzing restaurant in New York or London might.

“I wanted to bring something over but I wanted it to be very different – I didn't just want to replicate Estelle or Saint Crispin. I wanted Matilda to have a identity of its own, a food style of its own.” And Matilda certainly isn’t someone you’ve met before.

Matilda
159 Domain Rd, South Yarra
(03) 9089 6668

Hours:
Mon to Sun 12pm–10pm

matilda159.com