Taking the road less travelled with offal predilections and savoury desserts, Pei Modern is contentious creativity.
American-Chinese architect, I. M. Pei, is as renowned as he is divisive. In many of his projects, he has courted controversy — for example, the glass pyramid of the Louvre Museum in Paris considered both as a national atrocity and an affront to the neighbouring classical architecture, and yet also lauded as a touch of modernity for old Paris; the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong applauded for its striking appearance and yet criticised for its lack of feng shui appreciation. It’s this same philosophy of contentious creativity that has seemingly been translated into Pei Modern, a recent newcomer to Melbourne’s burgeoning refined casual dining scene. Located directly across the driveway of the Sofitel Hotel, Pei Modern offers a circadian experience of breakfast, lunch, after-work drinks and dinner, taken al fresco, at a discretely partitioned bar or in the sit-down dining area. Rejecting Melbourne’s exasperating obsession with industrial blackness and dark furnishings, it’s graced with an unmistakeable modernist-cubist influence. Moody pyramidal lighting profile the retro curves and soft lines of a main dining area. Chairs awashed in an artic-white Nordic palette wrap around tables that are spaced closely and sparsely set with not a bread plate nor linen tablecloth in sight. They afford view of chefs incubating in a partly-opened kitchen and of trucks and taxis unloading cargo and people outside.
Since its opening in the early days of autumn 2012, MoMo & Coco have visited three times, each time for after-work dinners. Pei Modern’s modern Australian-European a la carte menu follows a traditional 3-course structure. However, many a diner appeared to have disregarded this for a share-plate meal, especially given that there was little difference in size (yet significant difference in price) between the entrees and the mains. Dinner began with excellent bread presented in a rough-hewn bag…and no bread plates, a practice that made our dining parties squeamish, leaving us wondering where to place uneaten bread. Of the entrees, the Blue Swimmer Crab ($16) was a timeless dish. Scattered in a soft beige puddle of almond gazpacho, the sharp punctuation of small grape halves were somewhat strange amidst a redolent creaminess. It did require a light counterpoint, but the crisp sweetness of the grapes were not well-matched. Deconstructed into its cellular components, the Onion Tart ($16) was a short stack of flaky pastry topped with a mound of penetrative onion mix, embellished with laser-thin flakes of dehydrated and raw mushrooms. It was a beautiful work of art, and a wonder to eat.
By contrast, the Dutch Cream Potatoes ($12) that came with the most gushing recommendation of the wait staff exemplified why diners should always trust their own instincts. Understated flavours, dear readers, is a euphemism for bland. Folded through a fanciful list of ingredients (potato foam, bone marrow, mojama and coffee), it was little more than mashed potato with the taste of the earth. Most disappointing. Of the mains, Pei Modern showcased an unnerving predilection for offal, reflective of a seemingly crescendo-ing trend in Melbourne restaurants that we shall never comprehend. Intrepid diners might relish the pork jowl, ox cheeks, chicken gizzards etc, but for us, the ominously black logs of Boudin Noir ($28) were sufficient to devastate our senses for the rest of the night. Choking. No, far more edible was that Fish ($32) — a hapuka on one occasion, a grouper variety on another, just crusted on top and sweet flesh underneath. Wafting of autumnal glory, it radiated from a warm gold pool of sea urchin butter and a smothering of a harvest of sweet corn. Just beautiful. There was a slow-cooked Lamb ($35) something on one of our visits that imparted a slight spiced tone, seated alongside four orbs of beautifully seared scallops. Quite good too, but nothing special.
Contentious creativity again abounds in desserts at Pei Modern. Of three on offer on MoMo & Coco’s first visit to five on our most recent, we feature our favourite three desserts in this blog post…in accordance with our blog philosophy. The rest — disparate blobs and plops fuddled up onto a plate — we can happily bypass on future visits. The first sweet irresistible we shall tell you about is the savoury dessert that we anticipate to become Pei Modern’s hallmark – a “Caramelised Tomato” ($15) — a small soft red orb that had been eviscerated and fully stuffed with cubes and granules of twelve spices. Anchored by an ice cream quenelle imparting the characteristic sharp kick of aniseed, it tasted halfway between a spiced cake and a spiced Christmas mince pie. Unforgettable. Beware though — on our first sampling, our wait staff could not elaborate and told us to “guess” the ingredients, and at a second sampling, another wait staff only managed half of the ingredients. Tsk tsk.
The second sweet irresistible from Pei Modern that we love is the “Sauternes Custard” ($15), lacquered with beguiling ombre shades of orange and yellow and imparting slightly sweet tones from the sauternes (a French dessert wine). It was accompanied by crispy curly twigs of excellent crostoli for dipping into a custard. The issue in this dessert was the custard — traditionally, sauternes custard should be a little more silken than the thicker, viscous substance of English custard, and also a little less firm than the creme brulee or creme caramel. But, on one sampling occasion at Pei Modern, the custard erred on a far too watery/runny aspect.
Less special was the “Coffee Sorbet” ($15), an example of the other 3-4 less-considered blobby desserts encountered which we have decided not to feature in this journal-blog review. In this particular sweet irresistible, a swirl of bavarois-like cream of an anodyne taste lay curled under a dull coffee cream-/-icecream dollop. Its accompanying dry rocks of chocolate cake did little to enliven this very sluggish dessert.
With regards to service, MoMo & Coco would note to you two things: firstly, keep one ear open for any annoying timed booking policy that may or may not apply depending on who answers your reservation call. Secondly, take note that the wait staff, especially the maitre d’, will take especial care of your table if it consists of hospitality industry personalities and/or SLR-camera-toting diners. For all others, if any of the prior-mentioned persons dine near you, good luck. Good luck with service that although is generally professional and courteous, can be quite inconsistent, verging on being downright aloof and less than reasonably timely.
Pei Modern is a question mark. Its architecture is pleasing in its elegant bright modernism, the ambience buzzing and date-night ideal, but its culinary offerings are unfortunately, hit and miss — revelatory in flavours and technique in some parts yet devastatingly disappointing in other aspects. The predominance of offal on the menu is most unpalatable. Neolithic-ism in vogue? No thank you! With the exception of the tomato dessert and the sauternes custard, desserts in particular require serious re-consideration. The service standard too is of a protean nature. Pei Modern clearly has no atavistic urge to be like its older sibling in Sydney — the very fine, very beautiful Marque. That’s entirely fine a business proposition in a city more inclined to casual dining, but MoMo & Coco cannot help but feel sad that the opportunity to launch a true fine dining institution has been foregone for something just a bit edgier but barely distinguishable from what is already widely available in Melbourne. Although our past three visits to Pei Modern have been overwhelmingly of disappointed expectations, we do however recognise its potential. Like its namesake architect, Pei Modern is about creativity and contention. It just needs consistency.
Dessert adventure checklist
- ☑ Dessert destination: Pei Modern Restaurant, 45 Collins Street, Melbourne CBD, Vic 3000.
- ☑ Budget: $$$.
- ☑ Sweet irresistibles: Restaurant dessert. Modern Australian/European.
- ☑ Must-eat: The “Caramelised Tomato.”
- ☑ The short and sweet story: Taking the road less travelled with offal predilections and savoury desserts, Pei Modern is contentious creativity.