When Julia Child famously said, "If cooking is evanescent, so is the ballet", she lifted cookery to the status of creativity. Her passion wasn't one of just housekeeping — no ma'am — it was one of craft and she proved it doesn't matter if it enjoys the same length of tangibility as a painting or a pirouette. Further cementing that food is art, The Olsen — the flagship hotel of the Art Series Hotel Group — combines culinary culture with local art at its adjoining restaurant, Spoonbill.
Drawing inspiration from landscape artist John Olsen, after whom the hotel is named, Spoonbill doesn't falter on design or aesthetic. The matching of rustic timber with black and grey tones means that the interior is sleek, but not uncomfortable. The rounded bar and woven ceiling pieces create character in the open space, and the arrangement of tables gives intimacy in close proximity. Located on a busy Chapel Street corner, the restaurant acts as a refuge from the weekend hustle — there's something comforting in watching the outside world blow along from behind glass, the hubbub replaced with the sound of clinking wine glasses.
It lacked atmosphere on a Saturday afternoon, but, being a hotel venue, would be sure to seat more guests and locals come evening. With few diners present, however, you'll be sure to receive personal recommendations and service from waitstaff. The menu is designed for a snacking, drinking or a full dining experience. Choose items from an a la carte menu, or go with the Laurent-Perrier Sharing Menu — your choice of any six, nine or twelve ($65-105 per person) dishes spanning entrees, mains and desserts.
Origins are an important part of the menu, which relies heavily on seasonal, regional produce. If you're feeling peckish try the Cloudy Bay oysters delivered daily by Mike ($4 each) or the Gamekeepers Sausage — a finely blended sausage of Otway Ranges pork, fennel and chilli served with grilled scamorza, relish and pine mushrooms ($18). The soft tacos ($6.80 each), however, were off the mark: the soft shell crab was moreish but missing some spice and the pastrami with lettuce and cheese was more lunchbox sandwich than lavish.
The main fare covers all the bases you'd expect, from duck to slow-cooked beef cheek and a 100-day aged Gippsland porterhouse. On the day of dining the seafood option was a piece of decidedly melt-in-your-mouth barramundi on a bed of risotto ($35), and was a standout dish. John Olsen's Famous Paella ($33 for one) — a house specialty — featured a generous spattering of good, fresh seafood, but lacked the crispy top layer and spectrum of flavours of traditional paellas.
However, it is dessert that is the work of art. A passionfruit creme is fresh, not too heavy and a perfect way to cleanse the palette, and the cinnamon poached pear with ginger spiced crumble, honey brittle and burnt honey ice cream (both $16) is presented breathtakingly on the plate. If you're feeling rather full and want to bypass dessert, coffee is by St Ali and dessert cocktails, wines and port round out the wine list.
The Olsen endeavours to create art within its walls, and Spoonbill is no different. From its John Olsen artwork and clean structural design to its regional Australian menu, it's clear that it is an aesthetic experience as much as it is a culinary one.