Joe Grbac’s amped about asparagus. White asparagus, to be exact. “It’s bloody phenomenal,” he says. “A lot of the growers don't quite understand how to get it, and last year there was no season whatsoever. We get a lot of imported stuff, but there's a grower here who exports in our season and he imports vice versa – and it's amazing.”

Grbac is sitting on a bar stool in the window of Saxe, his new two-storey diner in the legal district of the CBD. There’s a slick rain falling, and it’s about half an hour before the door opens for the restaurant’s debut service. Despite being a mainstay of Melbourne’s dining scene, running kitchens at the Press Club and Saint Crispin (where Grbac was co-owner with Scott Pickett), Saxe is the chef’s first solo venture. “Independence is great,” says Grbac. “With the bigger restaurant groups, there are tunnels. There's two or three or four people you have to run stuff through if you want a spoon. But here, if I don't like the colour of the walls, let's change it.”

At Saxe, Grbac is using that independence to cook with the seasons, using his own backyard garden as a guide. Hence his excitement over the asparagus, which he’s slightly fermenting, serving over a parmesan custard with a white miso gazpacho. “Down, down, down, at heart I'm a big seasonal guy,” he explains. “The biggest thing I do is look in my own garden. ‘Oh, the asparagus are starting to come up, it must be right’. So that has to be the kind of driving force.”

His approach at Saxe isn’t radically different to that at Saint Crispin – Grbac is the kind of chef that quietly refines a dish, drawing from tradition while gently subverting it through his own sensibility.

“I don't go down for those food fad kind of things. I stay away from that shit. I've never cooked a taco,” he says. “I still do like to push myself, though. After 20 years of cooking you develop a repertoire of dishes, and some of them get tweaked.”

So it’s not surprising there’s something refreshingly old-school about Saxe. Downstairs, it’s a snacks-and-cocktails arrangement, with scrambled duck egg and spanner crab, Clair de Lune oysters and Louis Roederer at all hours of the day. Upstairs, where the service is more formal, plates are presented one-per-person rather than designed to share. Diners can order a la carte, in a classic three-course format. It even takes bookings. “At heart it's French cooking,” he says. “All of those heavy classic sauces and butters and that, they're not there, but there's still that methodology in the background.”

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Don’t be fooled by the word “classic”, though – Grbac’s dishes are idiosyncratic. The quail breast dish draws in Lebanon and India as readily as France, dressing Puy lentils with pomegranate vinaigrette and crisp green curry leaves. A pan-fried bass grouper tastes, deceptively, of chorizo, and is accompanied by unexpectedly tender Robe octopus and vinegary Verdale olives. One dessert features ingredients traditionally unfamiliar in that section – potato, cumin.

Alongside Grbac’s menu is a wine list designed by Catalan sommelier Marc Esteve Matteau, whose career includes The Royal Mail and the Press Club, which is where the two struck up a friendship. His line-up includes about 100 wines, most of which come in at under $90 and highlight the best of France, Italy, Australia and Greece.

Samantha Eades – whose previous credits include Chin Chin, Nomada and Pana Chocolate – is responsible for the pared-back white stone, American oak and blue velvet fit-out. It all feels effortless and relaxed, an environment that doesn’t intrude on the important stuff: Grbac’s food. We recommend the asparagus.

211 Queen Street, Melbourne
(03) 9089 6699

Mon to Fri 12pm–3pm, 6pm–late

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