We got her. Jacqui Challinor has moved to Melbourne for good (12 months ago, but let’s pretend it just happened). The chef that defined Nomad Sydney likes it here. But also, she’s committed to making Reine the best restaurant it can be.
The grand 140-seat diner opens for lunch on Tuesday August 1, weaving together Australian ease, French food and American go-largery. It’s the group’s most ambitious project to date, by far. The star chef needs to be here.
Like Gimlet and Grill Americano before it, the restaurant brings a bigger-city energy to Melbourne. But even the owners of those debonair rooms must have felt the tiniest bit envious when Nomad owners Al and Rebecca Yazbek snagged the former Melbourne Stock Exchange’s 132-year-old Cathedral Room, at the junction of Collins and Queen. Stained glass windows, Gothic vaulted ceilings, limestone walls, solid granite columns? You can’t build a place like this – only inherit it.
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“I have the most tenacious husband-slash-business-partner,” Rebecca tells Broadsheet. “He saw it about five years ago, before it had been restored [by developer GPT, which owns the tower above].”
At the time, the couple were scouting a location for Nomad Melbourne, which opened on Flinders Lane three years later. They never forgot about the space though. Because how could you? Turning the gorgeous relic into a functional restaurant was a whole ’nother saga. Nothing could be altered irreversibly. No drilling, no cutting, no doing any of the things that typically happen during a renovation.
Dual bars, each occupying a long side of the rectangular room, are Reine’s defining new features. The cocktail bar to the right, made of Italian red marble, is reserved for walk-ins who want Manhattans and Martinis stirred right in front of them. The bookable raw bar to the left, lined with glistening, ice-filled stainless steel gutters, is for people who want Pacific and Sydney rock oysters shucked right in front of them. Both bars live on raised sub-floors built off-site and plonked on the ornate tiled floor sans fixings, with services running underneath.
A million bucks’ worth of acoustic panels variously wrap around banquettes and hang high on the walls. The latter are ingeniously screen-printed to look exactly like the limestone behind them. If you hadn’t read about it here, you mightn’t have noticed them at all – but you’ll hear the difference. Walk through the church-y back doors and you’re in the 40-seat courtyard that connects Reine to eight-seat wine bar La Rue, where the same menu is available.
Mercifully, the kitchen is brand new, built without restrictions. Executive chef Challinor got everything she wanted, including a vast ironbark-burning grill built by Sam “The Brick Chef” Fraraccio. She didn’t bother with an oven, reasoning it’s just as easy to put food on the hearth’s higher shelves and let the radiant, smoky heat do its thing. The biggest challenge was in her head, meeting the brief for a classical French menu.
“I was so daunted … [it’s] so not my wheelhouse,” says the half-Maltese chef. “Nomad’s my food, right? That’s the food I’m comfortable with. That’s the food I grew up eating.”
The opening menu, executed night to night by former Nomad head chef Brendan Katich, is a ritzy one. Besides those oysters, there’s a lobster cocktail; an ever-changing seafood platter for two; and caviar (local salmon roe or Uruguayan oscietra) served with crème fraîche and tempura-battered kombu (seaweed). Hors d’oeuvres like anchovy pissaladière (flatbread), and comté, celeriac and horseradish tarts are handy if you’re just in for a snack.
Mains could be duck-neck-sausage cassoulet, calamari with herby Café de Paris butter or mushroom pithivier with a bechamel-like sauce. But Challinor’s baby, that woodfired grill, is the heart of the kitchen and the menu alike. In addition to whole fish and half ducks, it fires six cuts of steak, the largest weighing in at one kilogram. Naturally, the beef comes from some of Australia’s very best farmers: Rangers Valley, O’Connor and Blackmore. All the classic sauces are on hand for that proper steakhouse experience.
The steakhouse starter pack always includes red wines from the heavyweight division, too. Reine very much has that sorted. Head sommelier Steve Senturk came from Bentley in Sydney, where he oversaw a list of 2000 bottles. Here, he’s starting with 700 drawn mostly from Australia, France and America (that trio again), with a plan to build a “legacy” list that rivals any in town.
While familiar local names like Wine by Farr, Ten Minutes by Tractor and Lethbridge are well represented, Reine is a rare chance to taste America’s west coast in a way that’s rare in Australia – at a price. The list’s 100 American bottles sit mostly at $200 or more, but include acclaimed cabernet sauvignon producers like Mayacamas, Mt Brave, Lokoya and Cardinale. Many of these are poured by the glass, using a Coravin system.
Once you’ve finished your steak, ask for the cheese trolley piled with Maker & Monger’s best stinkers, or return to the menu for a dark chocolate, espresso and caramel tart or salted honey petit choux with quince and white chocolate. Remember: you’re celebrating. Reine’s arrived, and we got Jacqui Challinor with it.
Reine and La Rue
380 Collins Street, Melbourne
(02) 9280 3395
Tue to Sat 12pm–2.30pm & 5pm–9.30pm
Hours (La Rue)
Tue to Sat 4pm–9pm