The performance begins before you get inside. On the street, a personable young Briton in a Mia Wallace wig hustles passers-by, whether they’re coming in or not. Pascale Bar & Grill is no shrinking violet.
This brasserie is the flagship restaurant in QT Melbourne, an ambitious boutique hotel chain from the people who brought you Rydges Hotels and a string of cinemas in Australia and Germany.
The new QT is housed in the shell of the former Greater Union on Russell Street. It’s fitting because the hotel’s ethos is infused with the glow of the silver screen.
Staff members not only have uniforms by costume designer Janet Hine, they’re also each made-up by a stylist before their shift. A full-time music consultant from the States maps the BPM to the hour of the day.
“A hotel should be theatrical,” says managing director David Seargeant. “People talk about it. The more detail they absorb, the more likely they are to tell their friends.”
Taking its cues from the so-called “Paris End”, Pascale is kitted out with a broadly French theme. Some of the design comes off without a hitch – interior designer Nic Graham’s use of space is immensely baroque, heavy on black-framed glass, polished concrete, chequerboard and leather. The dining room could have been designed by Christian Lacroix for a shoot with David Lachapelle. It’s loud, but that’s okay – Melbourne’s had enough Scando restraint to last a lifetime.
Other decisions might be off-putting to some. The men’s toilet, for instance, is a collage of disembodied boobs and statues. Some of the seats have a cartoonish sexy-lady face made from cut-out eyes and lips. Some will inevitably read this as arty or playful. Others will feel distinctly uncomfortable eating alongside this overt objectification.
The food is a lot easier to love. Aside from Crown, there aren’t many hotels in Melbourne with these kinds of ambitions for dining. Unapologetically French, Pascale is overseen by creative food director Robert Marchetti (formerly of Icebergs in Bondi) and executive chef Paul Easson (previously at QT’s Gowings Bar & Grill in Sydney). There’s a breakfast menu as sophisticated and switched-on as most new Melbourne cafes have, but the main event is lunch and dinner.
Standouts are classics with an element of risk. The age-old fricassee (French stew) of rare-breed Sommerlad chicken comes with a cone of masala dosa on top. A perfectly done bavette-skirt steak is rich and livery, and balanced simply with lemon and shallots.
Pascale aims to please, and does.
“I’m a pretty simple cook,” says Easson. “I’m 30 years in the kitchen now, I really don’t want to be messing around with chemicals or foams unless it’s going to add something to the dish. I find them pretty blank and boring, really.”
That said, there are some pretty frou-frou touches. A wok-fried grouper is paired with chanterelle mushrooms and kaiserfleisch (cured pork). The flounder floats in champagne. A Wagyu tomahawk, cooked in the Josper oven, can only be carried home in the stomachs of four people – at $95 a head.
The restaurant not only has a full-time forager, but a rooftop garden producing herbs and honey. “Pulling herbs off the roof makes a huge amount of difference, especially with flavor,” says Easson. “They’re incredibly fresh.”
While Easson’s savoury dishes are mainly uncomplicated, dessert is a showstopper. Pastry chef Youssef Aderdour has an impeccable resume. He’s trained under Alain Ducasse and Joël Robuchon before a stint at One&Only Hayman Island. His Napoleon Blanky raspberry millefeuille has layers of dark, granular puff pastry under a scarlet blanket of raspberry set with agar-agar. It’s visually striking, rewardingly complex and not heavy-handedly sweet.
If only everything in Pascale were in such good taste. Seargeant acknowledges the line between quirky and crass is a fine one to walk. “Novelty is a very difficult thing to balance,” he says. “You want a bit of surprise, but you’ve got to control that very carefully, where it can have the opposite impact where it becomes gimmicky.”
In some ways QT Melbourne feels like a portal into Sydney, where all-inclusive pleasure palaces are just part of the social fabric – and maybe we could do with a few of our own. Ambitious, fun and a bit brash, Pascale sets the standard for hotel restaurants in Melbourne as a legitimate experience, not just an overpriced convenience.
Pascale Bar & Grill
QT Melbourne, 133 Russell Street, Melbourne
(03) 8636 8808
Mon to Fri 6.30am–2.30pm, 6pm–11pm
Sat & Sun 6pm–11pm
The bar is open daily from 12pm–12am.