Like a terrarium, it is an untrespassable world, albeit with extraordinary desserts.
Those who lived their childhood in the last decade of the millennium will have been weaned on the fantastical magic conjured by authors of Harry Potter, Eragon and the never-dying stream of vampiric beings. For others, Herge’s intrepid Tintin, Roal Dahl’s wit, Enid Blyton’s faraway trees, and Beatrix Potter’s talking animals would be more familiar. Located amid the surrounding bleak glass and steel office buildings of Melbourne’s business-centric Collins Street, across from the Stock Exchange building and under the Rialto, once you push and elbow your way through a 35+-year-old something crowd that seems to be perpetually affixed to the frontage, descending underground into Hare & Grace is like stepping into the pages of a Beatrix Potter tale. Divided into two areas, the decor is farmyard chic. Chairs are upholstered in a scratchy moss green and vintage white fabric. Generously-spaced tables are configured from varnished wood slats that could have come from packing crates. They are laid with tea towels as napkins and topaz-tinted water glasses. Murals of pigs and cows are stencilled brown on painted cream walls, and black cages hang from dark exposed foundation beams. But it is the ceiling that sears Hare & Grace’s decor into one’s memory — shafts of halogen light intermittently penetrate through a ceiling of hacked branches in the same way as sunlight pepping through a forest canpy. It’s a strangely beautiful, other-worldly dining setting.
Since its opening in late 2010, MoMo & Coco have visited Hare & Grace on a handful of occasions for after-work nibbles, dinner and desserts-only. The front dining area is a bar area, offering the type of hearty fare that one comes to expect from a watering hole, but dressed up here a little. Think the likes of a juicy burger, cheesy schnitzel, huge chunky braised beef and a very good chicken-pomegranate-grain salad for around $20-$25. One would be well advised to skip the overpriced canned-fish-on-bread options. Further in, the other dining area is more formal, offering a Modern Australian 3-course-style a la carte menu, divided into “composites, principals, charcoal grill, accompaniments” and finishing with desserts of the aptly-named “sweet, guilty, vanity” type. The same dessert menu may be sampled in the bar area also. Over the several times that we have dined in this formal section, MoMo & Coco have partaken in several highly complex culinary creations swept up in dramatic flights of fancy. All very pretty, very clever, if a little perhaps too contrived and too high-falutin for people such as us who have no background in the culinary/hospitality world to truly appreciate for all its techniques. So while we could describe the savouries that we have eaten at Hare & Grace, we will not.
It is in MoMo & Coco’s good opinion that sweet irresistibles at Hare & Grace eclipse its savoury offerings. If desserts are the sins listed in Hare & Grace’s menu as “sweet, guilty, vanity,” then MoMo & Coco has happily committed all sins by sampling all of the desserts available at Hare & Grace from its Autumn/Winter 2011 to its Spring/Summer 2012 menu. 🙂 The one dessert that we have not sampled is a “Gorgonzola and White Peach” irresistible that at the date of writing, still has yet to be sent out by the kitchen. Also, we note that there was a “Gucci Pear” dessert from the A/W 2011 collection that no longer features on the present dessert menu, and because we failed to photograph on our first sampling, it is sadly not featured in this blog documentation. Let’s turn to Hare & Grace’s irresistibles now. The first irresistible of five available, The “Chocolate Bar” ($16) is, or shall we say, was, superb. A very rich 78% dark chocolate mousse bar sat on a chocolate soil, paired with a globe of sorbet flickering with cinnamon and cloves, and set alight by stunning amber jewels of pedro ximenez jelly. At the most recent sampling, the new Spring/Summer 2012 re-interpretation featured peppers in place of the jelly = no, no, no!!!
The dessert option that is the most traditional of the desserts on offer at Hare & Grace, the “Lemon Tart” ($16) is no ubiquitous lemon citron tart. It is MoMo & Coco’s long-standing favourite Hare & Grace dessert. Perfect for the not-so-sweet-tooth as well, it embraced its sour tangy agenda in full force via its audacious lemon filling and additional droplets of lemon curd. Its usual pastry base was not used to surround the lemon filling, instead merely crumbled into a biscuity soil. We are not sure why this sweet irresistible has a label of “broken promises,” because it more than fulfilled its promise on each and every repeated sampling. It’s so very very very good. Do try it.
A step towards Hare & Grace’s more whimsical pursuit is the “Braised Banana” ($18), featuring on both the A/W 2011 and S/S 2012 dessert menu. Importing a smooth gliding mouthfeel, a small banana was gloved in a coffee glaze, stroked by a finger of lime, redolent on a chocolate biscuit bed, and decorated with violets perched on droplets of an unidentified opaque substance. By itself, it was perfect, derailed somewhat by the strong, strange-tasting herbally juniper ice cream. MoMo & Coco think that a lime or perhaps a coffee or honey icecream would have been a better bedfellow.
The new S/S 2012 dessert of the “Parsley Icecream” ($18) could very easily have been an utter failure. It was therefore a most pleasant and exciting surprise that it proved to be one of the most sublime dessert experiences that MoMo & Coco have ever had the pleasure in partaking. Presented in a charming flower-shaped bowl, as though emerging from a snowy winter’s worth of hibernation, a large mound of parsley ice cream injected with an unmistakeable vegetal taste peeked out of a thick lacy granita shawl of coconut. The latter sang a sweet harmony to the slightly chalkier coconut milk pool in which it all sat. Textural contrast was provided by the unexpected inclusion of fried shallots and jelly cubes. The other component of blueberries seemed unnecessary though, barely out of their freezer hibernation and somewhat clashing with the other flavours.
Presented in a similar beautiful flower-shaped bowl, the “Alphabet Soup” ($17) was another dessert carried over from Hare & Grace’s A/W 2011 to S/S 2012 dessert menu, much to MoMo & Coco’s delight on our most recent re-visit. Perhaps the least complicated of Hare & Grace’s sweet irresistibles, it was a sweet and simple concoction of strawberries, currants, raspberries and blueberries thrown together with 3-4 pieces of musk-flavoured alphabet-shaped marshmallows, topped by a sorbet quenelle that softly echoed with sour milk, and dramatised by the wait staff pouring a flask of so-called geranium juice, more a red sugary water than anything else. Simple but lovely.
Over MoMo & Coco’s several visits to Hare & Grace since its late 2010 opening, service at Hare & Grace has been unfortunately, highly variable. In the formal dining area, service generally operated at a child-like pace, often requiring more than one reminder regarding the whereabouts of our order. They were not rude or condescending, they were just very very slow, particularly more worrying when the formal dining area was usually barely half-full on a typical Friday night. Service was at times, also childishly annoying, not being able to take “no” for an answer, persistently repeating if we were sure we had ordered enough, and on two occasions, almost ordering us to order more. On other occasions, it was close to perfect — discreet, knowledgeable and efficient. By contrast, the bar staff were consistently far more efficient and less demanding.
Beatrix Potter succeeded in translating farm animal talk into prose that could be comprehended by ordinary people, bringing alive an imagined world of hares, ducks, echidnas in a country wilderness. By contrast, Hare & Grace’s story is sometimes difficult to translate let alone comprehend. There’s clearly an extraordinary mind/s behind Hare & Grace — the culinary creativity is evident and arguably, unsurpassed in Melbourne. But, Hare & Grace seems like a terrarium. A compact, visually-beautiful space that brings the outside world in, but is simultaneously, a closed, untrespassable world of its own. Hare & Grace can be understood by those who live within this bubble-world — the professional food critic or the hospitality worker — but for the ordinary diner, it speaks too different a language for the latter to fully appreciate its pursuit of an other-worldly culinary dream. The inconsistent service certainly doesn’t assist in guiding such lesser persons across that glass terrarium wall of Hare & Grace’s highly refined, highly creative, sometimes almost molecular gastronomy. That said, where the rest seems lost, Hare & Grace’s desserts succeeds, striking that balance between aspiration and inspiration. Extraordinary. The more casual food at the front dining area isn’t that bad either, but can’t be said to be entirely memorable. It is in MoMo & Coco’s good opinion that it would be surely something very very good if the front dining area was converted into a permanent dessert bar…Melbourne’s first, perhaps. Now that would be a beautiful beautiful fairy tale.
Dessert adventure checklist
- ☑ Dessert destination: Hare & Grace Restaurant and Bar, 525 Collins Street, Melbourne CBD, Vic 3000.
- ☑ Budget: $$$-$$$$.
- ☑ Sweet irresistibles: Restaurant dessert. Modern Australian.
- ☑ Must-eat: Every dessert that you can fit in, but especially the “Broken Promises.”
- ☑ The short and sweet story: Like a terrarium, it is an untrespassable world, albeit with extraordinary desserts.