As part of the Melbourne Winter Masterpieces, National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) brings to life the exhibition – Napoleon: Revolution to Empire. NGV promises it will be a mesmerising event that showcases the finery of French art, culture and life. It sounds like a lot of fun, so I jumped on the website to find out more about it. The first image that I saw is cropped from the painting, Napoleon Crossing the St. Bernard, by Jacques-Louis David.
Napoleon’s very own pretty pony
It depicts Napoleon fashionably dressed in his military finest sitting astride a horse. It is a dead giveaway that he is Napoleon because of his gold-trimmed bicorne hat which looks rather fancy. The second thing you notice is the startled wide-eye expression of the horse. Maybe, someone was clutching the reins a little too tightly with his gloved left hand. The horse also has a nicely combed mane of which some people will be jealous. Some websites let on that the secret of achieving a nice, glossy mane is to use oil, water and vinegar; one even suggested mayonnaise. Who knew that? Given that Napoleon is French, he would probably have used butter instead.
Speaking of butter, NGV is offering different packages where you can dine with the legend on selected dates. You can breakfast with Napoleon, lunch with Napoleon, high-tea with Napoleon or go for broke and enjoy a six-course degustation menu with Napoleon. Napoleon sounds a lot more sociable (and heavier) than history has lead us to believe. Imagine fitting all those meals in and still winning battles. What a guy!
A friend and I had heard of a restaurant called Persimmon at NGV which serves Modern Australian fare. Since both of us had never tried Modern Australian food, we were pretty keen to find out what it was about. Persimmon is located on the ground floor of NGV international. After you enter the building, walk straight ahead and just before you reach the end, turn right and meander down a dimly lit passage way. Turn left and you’ll find yourself at the entrance of the restaurant. In stark contrast to the passage way, Persimmon is illuminated by natural daylight which shines through panels of glass windows and softer lighting on the ceilings. The windows frame the well-maintained greenery of the Grollo Equiset Gardens; and on occasion, the view is enhanced by a few water fowl swimming in the clear waters of the nearby water fountain. The interior of the restaurant has an avant-garde theme about it with bold splashes of black and orange-red furniture that are texturally firm or soft – just like the persimmon fruit itself. The restaurant is itself spacious which means that you will not be cramped or knocking elbows with fellow diners – a bonus given that some popular CBD eateries are often overcrowded.
Our friendly waitress ushered us to our seats before handing out the menus and talking us through the specials of the day. She mentioned that the restaurant’s menu is often reflective of what exhibitions they had on. The NGV is currently showcasing Napoleon, hence the menu adopts a French influence. We agreed that we would share the Diver scallops, toasted panko, wakame seaweed, smoked bell pepper aioli, Coq au vin, buttered mash potato, pine mushrooms, onions & bacon, and finish with the Dark chocolate fondant, croissant ice-cream, chocolate pop rocks for dessert. Don’t you love friends with similar tastes in food? It makes ordering so much easier and quicker. After approximately ten minutes, our waitress came back to take our orders. In exchange, she left us a small selection of bread and butter presented on a wooden plate. We liked the warm, yeasty smell of the bread as well as the audible crunch just before biting into softness. You could also sprinkle some salt and ground pepper is you like, but the butter purist opposite me won’t have it any other way. There is no substitute for butter, she would say, and I would have to agree.
The arrival of plump golden hue scallops heralded the start of something beautiful. Crusted with a mixture of panko and fine wakame, the scallops captured both the sand and sea elements. A droplet of pink ginger gel was delicately piped on top of each morsel, creating a visually stunning artwork. Usually not fans of ginger, we found ourselves pleasantly surprised by how its mild tang went well with the sweetness of the translucent scallops. I added a smidgen of smoked bell pepper aioli but apart from creaminess I couldn’t really taste the bell peppers. Were they perfectly cooked and succulent? Hell to the yes!!! From memory, we had halting conversations punctuated with expressions such as “Wow” and “really good” whilst eating the scallops. Yes, that is how eloquent we are ;). As our waitress came to change our plates, we asked if the scallops were going to be on the menu for the next two months. At first, I panicked because she said there might be variations to the menu. Quelle horreur! No more scallops?! She must have seen the slightly stricken look on my face, because she hastily clarified with “small changes”. For example, instead of Diver scallops, they could be serving up Hokkaido scallops. Oh, I think we can live with that :)!
There was a decent wait between the arrival of the scallops and that of the main, but then you can’t rush good things. If the scallops were anything to go by, we had high hopes for the main. The Coq au vin did not disappoint. It was carefully plated with small mounds of golden buttered mash potato and garnished with mushrooms, a small bulb of onion and a cube of bacon. There was a generous portion of well seasoned, juicy chicken, so tender that it fell off the bone easily with a slight nudge of the knife and fork. It is important to stress that the texture of the chicken was not mushy. We are willing to bet that no one likes to eat mushy chicken, which is wrong on so many levels of hygiene and decency.
I think I have used the word “butter” a fair bit in this post, and so here it is again: buttered mash potato. The three words that send my friend’s heart racing in excitement and possibly leaping for joy. In her words, the mash was “velvety smooth and flavoursome without being overpowered by butter”. She also said a lot of other wonderful things about the deceptively light mash, and perhaps in her highest praise yet, “you could almost imagine you were in France”. That is a hypothetical statement since we have never been to France. However, I suppose that the French are pretty adept at making mash potatoes given that “Paris mash” originates from them.
The sliced mushrooms had soaked up the richness of the jus such that it tasted the slightest bit sharp. The jus which by now had formed a small pool at the base of the dish rather made us wish that there was more to go around. As we polished off the chicken, mash and mushrooms, we eyed the bacon. The bacon turns out to be lardon, a cute rectangular marvel with layers of melt-in-your-mouth fat evenly spaced in between succulent pink meat. The fat has rendered the meat tender, and the meat has imparted a hint of smokiness to the fat. A symbiotic relationship at its best. Individually, each component on the plate was faultless; but put together and the sum of them was outstanding.
By this stage, we felt pretty impressed with our experience at Persimmon. Our plates were changed after every course and our glasses never empty. I think it is fair to say that Persimmon provides excellent service in a way that is unobtrusive of your personal space, something that is rare to find these days. The only dish left was dessert. I love desserts and will often return to the furthest places just to eat them again. We had ordered chocolate fondant, croissant ice-cream, chocolate pop rocks. I was sold on the fondant and my friend on the croissant ice-cream. Dark chocolatey goodness spilled and puddled into a gooey mess as I halved the soft fondant which we immediately tried to scoop up to taste. Thankfully for us, the fondant did not burn our tongues. The chocolate fondant contained just the right amount of sweetness without being saccharine. The portion size was just right and the dessert did not overwhelm with its richness. And after a mouthful of the croissant ice-cream, the both of us agreed that this was not a dessert to be shared :). You could definitely taste the croissant from the silkiness of the ice cream which my friend adored. For a playful twist to their dessert, Persimmon scatters some pop rocks along the plate. Eating these and hearing them crackle as they explode brought back fond memories of me sneakily eating pop rocks in grade school.
In summary, Persimmon restaurant is a hidden treasure that turns classic dishes into incredibly delicious artworks – befitting of an establishment located at the heart of culture. Go there to unwind from the hustle and bustle of the city, and enjoy quality service from impeccably polite staff. If this is what Modern Australian is about, then I think Napoleon himself would have been jealous of what Persimmon has to offer.