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 like any of the restaurants opening in Melbourne right now.
The room is relatively quiet. Generic jazz tootles from the ceiling, as if co-owner Christian McCabe has flicked Spotify to a playlist titled “hip city restaurant”. That’s not a criticism – it’s refreshing to hear an evening built around something other than Biggie’s discography.
This is the first of many signs that McCabe and chef Dave Verheul are ready to send the pendulum swinging back where it came from. For the first time in eight years, we seem to be moving away from noisy, no-bookings, shared-food-only restaurants.
Lesa takes reservations, which Embla never has. The menu is fixed: four courses, with three choices at each step. Apart from bread and salad, nothing is shared.
This might have been different had the building’s electricity been upgraded sooner. McCabe waited a crushing 22 months for the city to wire extra power upstairs. “It’s not the worst thing that this took longer than we wanted,” he tells me. “We’ve been able to consider it a bit and see what’s right.”
Or more accurately, see what’s wrong. Beyond the walls of 122 Russell, McCabe is tired of dining being treated like a competitive sport.
“People are starting to miss the point of what you’re actually going out for,” he says. “The whole point is there’s an intimacy in being around a table with people in a public place that you can’t recreate easily in your own home.”
Lesa – “to gather” in Old Norse – is more than just a pretty name. The reserved but unstuffy room is somewhere to spend unhurried hours with the important people in your life, aided by 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.
“The hardest thing with a new restaurant is that everything is new,” McCabe says. “It’s all nice and shiny, so people are afraid to have a good time there, in case they break something. I really want to get past that stage as early as possible.”
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. “We’re not sommeliers,” McCabe says. “We don’t know all the technical shit, but we do open the wines and drink them in a fun environment.” This practical education was also apparent at McCabe’s acclaimed, now-closed Town Mouse (he flew Kiwi Verheul out to work as head chef), where every server had real opinions about the list.
At $78, the set menu represents outstanding value when you consider some pubs charge upwards of $20 to melt cheese over a schnitzel. Verheul’s artful, minimally plated dishes often take several days to prepare, but in practice, you’re only paying $19.50 for each course.
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.
There’s a dish at Attica called Chewy Carrot, cooked for 15 hours until it approaches the flavour and texture of meat. Verheul performs similar magic in the second course, smoking 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.
I can’t begin to describe the taste. I’m still punch drunk 24 hours later. After my first few bites I tell my wife I’m close to tears because the leeks are that good. “Stop being a wanker,” she fires back. Okay, yes. But if we can cry over music, why not food? (The olfactory system is hardwired to the amygdala, a part of the brain largely responsible for emotions.)
There’s also chicken porridge, a Renaissance-era dish Verheul found and reinvented with Longsong’s Dave Moyle. The historical version saw chicken poached and shredded, then cooked in almond milk, which has apparently existed for centuries. Verheul does all that, but skips the traditional finish of cinnamon sugar (yeah, nah) for a fine grating of fermented black chestnuts (yeah, yeah). If you like congee, you'll love this savoury Gruel by Verheul™.
Mains are more familiar, though no less thoughtful. This is a welcome change of pace – a chance to have that lively conversation Lesa is meant to facilitate, instead of just talking about the food. “If you’re not satisfied with your main course, that’s the whole meal shot,” Verheul says. “We don’t go too crazy with that.”
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.
Put simply, they’ve done it again. Now, we sit back and see just how many other restaurants want to do it this way too.
Level 1, 122 Russell Street, Melbourne
(03) 9654 5923
Wed to Sat 6.30pm–11pm
“When we’re no longer afraid, we’ll add some lunches and pre-theatre options too.”
This article first appeared on Broadsheet on August 10, 2018. Menu items may have changed since publication.