Walking into Matilda, Scott Pickett's fifth and latest venture, feels as though you've been hugged. It's elegant, yet accessible, cosy, but a treat. Describing Matilda as an ode to Australia might be taking it too far, yet Pickett has created what can only be described as the epitome of contemporary Australian dining.
There's no need to reference New York, Paris or London — it's well and truly Melbourne. Overlooking the Botanic Gardens, the restaurant is adorned with the odd vase of native flowers and botanical installations in glass cabinets along the wall, and has a menu accented with native ingredients.
The wine list is considered, with a range of beautiful wines by the glass as well as an extensive selection of bottles. Once you've ordered your meal, you'll be treated to an amuse bouche. Today's pâte sablée 'boat' is filled with salmon cream and bright orange Yarra Valley salmon caviar. The advice to 'pick it up in the middle and eat it in two bites' is wise.
It's hard to pass up on Rusty Wire oysters ($4.5 each) from Batemans Bay, NSW. The oysters are cooked with a panko and bone marrow crust, which is rich and buttery. Shortbread might not be a flavour that usually springs to mind when eating molluscs, but this is not a normal oyster experience.
Lakes Entrance octopus ($24) is cooked over coals to impart a smokiness and help retain the juices. It comes perched on a puree of macadamias that are soaked then blitzed with burnt bay leaves and a flourish of finger lime.
Whole John Dory ($42) is butterflied and barbecued with the head made into stock and cooked down with mussels, with half the mussels dehydrated and made into a sea 'dust'. The native element of dish is the lemon myrtle sauce.
Commenting on the attention to detail may well be cliché, but it would be remiss not to do so here. Everything from the beautiful wooden table tops to the artfully focused down lights — highlighting what needs to be noticed — create an overall cosiness. The serving dishes are rustic yet sophisticated. The undulating acoustic panels allow the dining room to be full but not noisy.
Neighbouring tables discuss how many times they've already visited Matilda — in the eleven days since opened — and when they're coming next. One diner plans a return trip for the following week. And why not. There's a whole menu of meaty, smoky goodness to be savoured — bavette, ribeye and duck are firm contenders for the follow-up meal, not to mention dessert.
If you can't muster the energy to leave after you finish the meal, you don't have to — the luxurious United Places hotel has just opened next door. Time to plan a staycation.