Ôter is challenging. L’oeuf de poule, for instance, is a jar full of coddled egg with tender chicken heart and liver floating in a cloud of mushroom foam and black truffle, a basket of hot oat wafers served on the side. Many diners won’t make it past the word “offals” in the menu description, and those who do may well freak out when they see the gelatinous egg. But the thing about challenges is that they’re often rewarding. That’s true of Ôter – in spades.
The restaurant is by Coda and Tonka’s Kate and Mykal Bartholomew; first-time restaurateur and front-of-house star Tom Hunter; and Florent Gerardin, a chef who learned his craft under culinary giants – Joël Robuchon and Alain Ducasse. Gerardin has also worked under some of the finest chefs in Australia, including Shannon Bennett (Vue de Monde) and Mark Best (Pei Modern). Though nominally a French restaurant, Ôter reflects Gerardin’s journey – its heart is as much in Tokyo, Singapore and Melbourne as it is in La Rochelle or Strasbourg. “I wanted to bring my view of French cooking, and that involves my 20 years of travelling, and 20 years of working with the best chefs,” he says. “My vision of French food has been altered by that. That’s me.”
So it’s not surprising when steak tartare, onion soup or snails don’t feature. “Those are the expectations, they’re the cliches we’ve been living with for the last 30 years,” Gerardin says. “And they’re the cliches I’m working hard to go against.”
What arrives instead is an alloy of homey and haute cuisine. Each meal begins with a plate of warm bread, fragrant house-made butter, salt flakes and radishes. It’s a dish you’d eat at home in France, but one that would rarely make it onto a restaurant’s menu. Next you might have an impeccably fresh dollop of urchin roe served on a crunchy puff of beef tendon, and given a subtle bass note by a cashew cream. An incredibly large Clarence River prawn arrives – shipped fresh, not snap-frozen – cooked over coals and tasting cleanly of the sea.
There are rewards for those who decide to wander into uncharted territory. Tete du Veau – whole veal head – is highly prized in regional France, but has been mostly unavailable here. Gerardin worked out a deal with supplier Vic Meats specifically for this dish. He brines the head for two days, then braises it in consommé. The cheeks, sweetbread, brains and tongue are picked, then pressed into a terrine. It’s sliced to serve, then finished on the teppanyaki grill. Though it comes with a small bowl of sauce gribiche (a cold mayonnaise-style sauce), it doesn’t need it – there’s more texture and flavour in this unpopular cut than 20 tenderloins.
Hunter, who leads front of house, and sommelier Jordan Marr (ex-Dinner by Heston) have compiled an interesting wine list – the majority of the bottles are from small French producers. A by-the-glass list ranges from $12–$25, and includes some bottles with a bit of age. A Mouvedre Grenache blend from the Agly Valley is a standout, as is a 2009 Chardonnay Savagnin from the Jura. Hunter is also keen to pull out the Corovin (a gadget that lets you pour wine without removing the cork), giving wine geeks (and staff) the chance to try some top-end wine.
Ôter won’t be to everyone’s taste. Its rich dishes and classical techniques aren't exactly fashionable. By rethinking whatever “French cuisine” means to Melbourne in 2016, Gerardin, Hunter and the Bartholomews will frustrate plenty of expectations. At the same time, it’s not a project that sets out to slaughter any sacred cows – it’s an attempt by a team of restaurateurs to do something truly personal.
Tue to Sat 5.30pm–10pm