Dan Cooper looks more scientist than head chef, with thick Austin Powers glasses and fully buttoned white collared shirt. The former Garden State Hotel) sous chef seems relaxed, though, as he puts the final touches on a serve of Mediterranean flatbread – not pizza, he stresses – in the sprawling open kitchen at St Kilda’s new Prince Dining Room.
Relaxed but fully buttoned feels like a good place to start when talking about this rebooted institution, which opened last week.
The airy second level restaurant is a revival of the legendary Circa, once a shining jewel inside the Prince of Wales Hotel’s crown that closed early last year – but not before almost 20 years of service, and churning out chefs including Andrew McConnell (Cutler & Co, Marion, Supernormal), Matt Wilkinson (The Pie Shop), David Moyle (Longsong) and Ben Shewry (Attica).
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Hawkins says the initial plan was to run Circa as an event space with fine-dining food, but the decision was eventually made to move away from that model. “If we’re going to do something it can’t just be a makeover.”
Renovations began with a refurb of the accommodation upstairs, and will continue into the Public Bar and Cantina downstairs in 2019. Iva Foschia of IF Architecture, who worked on the design of Attica and Marion, was tasked with a radical overhaul of the latter spaces, and of Prince Dining Room.
Entry to Prince Dining Room is via a set of earthy Australian marble stairs leading to a series of distinct dining spots. Velvety champagne-coloured booths are smartly stitched around a winding S-shaped fibreglass partition (for some long-haul business class-esque intimacy), a 16-seat group table by the kitchen is more exposed (still not economy, mind you), and a terrazzo-floored central courtyard is drenched in natural light. Back inside, black metalware pendant lighting emits a gentle glow over charcoal tiling retained from the original Circa fit-out.
While full of modern flourishes, the new design maintains the charm of the bright Art Deco space, which peaks around late afternoon when light spills in through stately French windows.
Hawkins and Cooper’s lunch and dinner menu is a complete departure from the silver-service Circa days. Expect seafood and vegetable-focused broad-stroke Mediterranean dishes with influences equitably drawn from Europe, the Middle East and northern Africa.
Starting options include fava bean hummus and crisp paprika-coated chickpeas; zesty black kingfish crudo topped with pickled lime, macadamia cream and wild fennel; and blistered – and occasionally blisteringly hot – Padrón peppers served with creamy sunflower-seed puree.
Several mains and a few skewered dishes are cooked over a woodfired barbeque. It’s fuelled with flavour-enhancing wood chips such as hickory or apple wood. For evidence of its charring abilities, go for the decoratively blackened Port Phillip baby snapper served with a punchy Yemeni-Israeli sauce called zhoug.
Cooper proudly brings out a plate of slow-roasted heritage carrots with green harissa. He’s proud because the mismatched, oddly-shaped – yet no less delicious – carrots were going to be thrown out before he procured them from a farm in north-east Victoria.
Hawkins points to one of the restaurant’s bizarre fish-shaped water jugs. “There was a couple in here last night who were talking about it,” he says, “Saying [they] don’t like it. That’s exactly what we want. It challenges the space, challenges the mind. And they’re talking about it.”
Prince Dining Room
2 Acland Street, St Kilda
(03) 9536 1122
This article first appeared on Broadsheet on December 18, 2018. Menu items may have changed since publication.