Thursday, April 10, 2008

Dinner at Donovans

Donovans in St Kilda has long been on my list of restaurants to try. It has consistently received good reviews for many years and long-time chef Robert Castellani received The Age Good Food Guide's 2006 Professional Excellence Award. So, in keeping with my new year's resolution to actually get out and try places, rather than just listing them in my notebook as places to try, we finally dined at Donovans.

Situated on Jacka Boulevard and overlooking the St Kilda foreshore, Donovans' glass windows provide a stunning view over Port Phillip Bay that is equally pleasant in summer or winter. In summer, you can watch dusk and night gently creep in, while in winter the lights from the Spirit of Tasmania and other boats glow like diamonds on the water.

Inside, the restaurant has a cosy charm and it feels like you are in a friend's upmarket beach house. One wall is covered with photographs in frames of varying size and shape, while shelves lining other walls are filled with vintage crockery, such as floral-patterned jugs and coloured-glass cups and bowls.The soft carpet means noise from surrounding diners is kept low and is not intrusive. The wait-staff are impeccably attired, well-spoken, knowledgeable and attentive, but not intrusive.

The lengthy modern Mediterranean menu offers a list of quality produce cooked in interesting ways. Seafood dominates the starters offerings, all of which look tempting. But our eyes are drawn to the dessert menu and we work backwards, deciding we will forego an entree so that we can fit in dessert. A Black Angus T-bone from the Western District, a medallion of salmon, or Queensland leader prawns grilled with chilli and oregano are some of the offerings of the BBQ. But Melbourne is feeling the first chilly hints of the forthcoming winter, so my choice is the old-fashioned chicken pie with mushrooms and a pastry lid. It is elegantly served at the table: a plate with a garnish of vegetables is set in front of me, then the waiter produces the chicken pie with a flourish. The pastry lid is lifted off the pie and onto my plate and the waiter proceeds to ladle out the pie filling onto the pastry. This is a much more pleasant way to eat pie than having to cut through the pastry lid and scrape out mouthfuls. The pie filling is thick and creamy, with a gentle spice rounding out the chicken and mushroom flavours. This is comfort food elevated to an art form.

Adam's old-fashioned beef stew and grilled porterhouse with creamy mash and autumn vegetables looks very different on the plate to how we imagined it. Dark, glossy beef chunks are laid around the edge of the plate, alternating with small, fat bricks of porterhouse, with the vegetables and mash artfully arranged in the centre. The beef chunks are the essence of a slowly simmered stew, while the porterhouse has been lightly seared to bring out the best of its flavour. It is a richly satisfying dish.

The dessert menu is filled with tempting dishes: apple, rhubarb and raspberry crumble, white chocolate and macadamia tart, lemon gelato with a slosh of grappa or caramelised apple creme brulee. But chocolate on a dessert menu always attracts my attention and I can't go past the hot chocolate souffle with espresso ice-cream. The dark-coloured mound is more like a fondant pudding than an airily light souffle but it is still a fine dessert. It oozes a rich aroma and each mouthful is a dark, bitter hit of the finest chocolate, beautifully offset by the espresso ice-cream. Adam chooses the white chocolate and macadamia tart. Served with butterscotch sauce and double cream, it is far too rich for me but he devours it, declaring it one of the best desserts he's eaten.

Donovans was a wonderful experience and I'm sorry I waited so long to try it. Although its prices mean a visit here will have to be more of a special treat than an everyday experience for us, the quality of food and service is excellent and it offers a quintessential Melbourne dining experience. Donovans feels like a place where "just a night out" becomes a special experience. If I was crafting a dining itinerary for interstate or overseas visitors, Donovans would definitely be on my list.

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