We can all breathe a sigh of relief that Melbourne can enjoy Mark Best’s food without needing to head North. Pei Modern is his first Southern venture and it delivers the top-notch service and food that makes his restaurant Marque in Sydney so special, but settling into a much more approachable groove. Where Marque aims for the fine-dining crowd with an adventurous degustation, Pei Modern delivers an all-day bistro-style experience. That is not to say that the food is any less spectacular, but that it’s more accessible and relaxed.
Nestled at the bottom of the Sofitel and named after I. M. Pei, the architect who designed Collins Place, Pei Modern has that Scandinavian aesthetic of pale crisp furnishings. The restaurant moves from a bar area with its own menu, through to the comfortably designed main room (despite my personal dislike of plastic chairs), with a generous outside terrace as well. The service team is led by Ainslie Lubbock, winner of this year’s Good Food Guide service excellence award, and is warm, with a strong attention to detail. The kitchen is run by head chef Matt Germanchis, and the menu features new takes on classic Marque dishes as well as exploring new territory with so-called ‘bistronomy’ dishes. Breakfast has its own menu, while lunch and dinner share most dishes, and while you can order a la carte, the seven course dinner menu for $90 (lunch is four courses for $50) is the best experience.
The food is technically perfect, without being overcomplicated, and lets the simplicity of the produce speak for itself, yet there’s often a twist or a more unusual ingredient that lends an edge to the dishes. The Almond Gazpacho with Blue Swimmer Crab has moved south to become a staple of the menu; this dish is rich and creamy without overpowering the crab, and red grapes add a sweet acidity throughout. Another Marque classic is dutch cream potatoes and luscious bone marrow sunk in a pool of decadent potato foam and dusted with mojama (dried, cured tuna) and coffee. This dish is sinfully delicious and begs to be savoured; perfect proof that a few perfect ingredients can deliver an overwhelming experience.
Dining with someone who tends to avoid offal, the lamb sweetbread dish made them an instant convert. Nuggets of crumbed and fried sweetbread were delicate and well-seasoned, and the simplicity of the tender carrot and sauce were a revelation of how delicious the humble carrot can be. One constant across the menu was the generousity of each plate, with our final savoury course offering lavish tender-pink slices of hanger steak with chargrilled and smoky bullhorn pepper and an aromatic harissa paste.
Smooth mango sorbet with vibrant ginger granita was a perfect combination of flavour; light and delicate with a refreshing zing from the ginger. It sounds very simplistic, which it is, but it was mouth-wateringly delicious. The second dessert didn’t feel as harmonious, with rich chocolate ganache and hazelnut off-set by a lemonade sorbet. While both parts of the dessert were good on their own, the lemonade sorbet tended to cleanse the palate too much, for me, washing away the luxurious chocolate.
Pei Modern delivers the polish and taste of Mark Best’s Marque, but makes the wise choice to make it more of an everyday experience, rather than just for special occasions. The excellent service and simple dishes with an edge are why it was named Best New Restaurant by the Good Food Guide. The highest praise you can give a restaurant is that they delivered such good food that it’s hard to pick a favourite dish, and Pei Modern made it impossible to decide. This is one of the best dining experiences I’ve had all year.