It takes a brave man to offer himself up to people and ask for feedback on an unfinished product, but this is exactly what owner and executive chef, Tom Randolph, does every Tuesday night at the Chef's Table at No4 Blake Street.
Unlike the full Tasting ($120pp) and Classic ($90pp) menus offered Wednesday through to Sunday night, Tuesday is different. Tuesday is special. And in the words of venue manager Majdouline Dahbi: a little bit risky.
Every Tuesday night, with a strict 7pm start, a series of up to seven dishes will be presented. Each dish will stay on the menu for three weeks, changing slightly from night to night as the chefs' finesse flavours, balance, technique and presentation. Your feedback one week might influence a change in the dish the following week, and will play a part as to whether the dish will ever end up on the full menu. Talk about power to the people! We took it quite seriously, rating the dishes and debating the merits of each course, but that's probably a little extreme. There is no way to predict what dishes you will be served, but if you have any dietary requirements or allergies, you will be well taken care of if you give plenty of advance warning.
To start we were presented with a wooden board with two types of handmade bread, still warm from the oven: a plain sourdough and an olive ciabatta. The bread came with a choice of cultured butter and an olive oil emulsion: a semi-solid ball of olive oil with an almost jelly-like texture. It was the first time I had eaten olive oil this way; and the first of many times that night when I was exposed to something new or different.
Let's be honest – you might not love everything you eat on a Chef's Table. This is no place for precious eaters. Some dishes will challenge you. One may confuse you. All of them will amaze you.
Century Egg, a challenging and technical dish, but oh so pretty
For me, I found the Century Egg dish pushed me to my limit. Admittedly, I had first heard about this dish on Masterchef, where an egg is preserved and fermented over at least a month, changing its colour, texture and flavour. I was excited to see this dish on the menu, but I was challenged by it. My problem - one of many, my husband informs me - was that I looked at the egg before I ate it: a greying, gelatinous relic of something which once resembled an egg.
The rest of the dish was very pretty, with a lighter-than-air chilli foam, ginger emulsion, fresh mushrooms and rich black garlic. It was spectacular, but in the end I had to pass my last piece of Century Egg to my more adventurous husband.
I am happy to say I have now ticked Century Egg off my bucket list. And I am never going to try it again.
I had to use this picture again because they are the most attractive vegetables in town
A dish made with beetroot and onion, proves that you don't need to treat vegetables like second class citizens. It was the most beautiful dish I have ever seen, and had been developed using elements from other dishes, combining them in new ways. Much of the technique for this dish was based on dehydrating foods, including a ribbon of onion and a striking wafer made from beetroot.
Up next came our favourite dish, with a resounding 10/10 from us both: ocean trout that had been cooked so slowly in the sous vide water bath, that although it was fully cooked, it still had the delicious texture of almost raw fish.
It came with an extraordinary miso rice cracker, which in texture was a bit like the prawn crackers we get from our favourite Chinese restaurant. But the flavour was something different altogether, and not likely to be found alongside a bright red sweet and sour. 'Fish floss' was finely shaved shards of dehydrated fish, plus fresh and pickled cucumber. The only problem with the dish was we wanted more.
It is possible that by now some people are thinking - 'fish floss', foam, dehydrated onion, fermented egg – and wondering whether or not the Chef's Table might be for them. It's true, there are a lot of cheffy elements. In some restaurants, they come across as pretentious, but at the Chef's Table, we are being invited to try something new, to experience a dish that the day before could have just been an idea being flung around the kitchen.
Not all the dishes are perfect yet, you need to pay extra for that on a full dego night later in the week, but on Tuesdays, you are taking a journey and I believe being part of the development process is a privilege. And it's fun.
The next dish was an example of this: char-grilled marron, deep-fried salt-bush leaves, baby beetroot and a plum sauce with a real kick. We both thought there was too much of the plum sauce on the plate, and we said as much to Tom when he came to speak with us. Whether or not he agrees is a different story, but the desire for feedback is real.
The Chef's Table is treated as an educational experience for the kitchen, which is why the prices are relatively low: prices are set at $65 (up to seven courses) for the meal and $35 for the five matching wines: they are simply covering costs. So if you're an adventurous foodie on a budget, you have just found your dream come true.
Since all diners eat at the same time (starting at 7pm) it means there is a little less flexibility than in a normal a la carte meal, but it also means that food comes out relatively quickly, with our seven courses plus bread finishing in under two and a half hours.
The Wine Room at No4 Blake Street, also available for functions
You can't skip ahead, but it feels relaxed and you are never rushed. Also, unlike other fine dining restaurants across Perth, the entire experience at No4 Blake Street is not stuffy or overly formal. The music is jazzy, the room is open and polished with big winged armchairs, a blank banquette along one wall, exposed brick, and low-hanging lights that reminded me of an old black and white movie, with Humphrey Bogart puffing on a cigarette in the moody gloom of the street light.
Our penultimate course was a palate cleanser, a sorbet of mixed berries sitting atop a powder made from kefir, a cultured milk drink; a cleanser that was almost savoury, but readied us for dessert which was simply described on the menu as apple & rhubarb, but was obviously so much more.
Up to this point I had been feeling just short of happily sated, not hungry but not overstuffed. I was waiting for a big finish, and I was rewarded with a warm-from-the-oven rhubarb cake, poached rhubarb, house-made fairy floss, a tart green apple icecream, caramel, a strawberry cream (that I initially mistook for a marshmallow) and a scattering of crumble. It was like no apple and rhubarb your Grandma ever served up, nor is ever likely to.
After that I was perfectly full, and given the five glasses of wine, not too tipsy either. The wines were delicious, and I have already contacted my local to try and source at least two that we particularly liked.
The thing is, when you visit No4 Blake Street, the menu will be entirely different. It will be beautiful, but the dishes will be a little bit (or a lot) different from what I described. What will be the same is the beautiful staff, such as Majdouline who greets you like family and makes you want to return the next day, and the United Nations of chefs in the kitchen, making amazing food out of simple, fresh and sometimes unexpected ingredients.
It will say at the end of this article that I was an invited guest, and on this Tuesday I was. But I have seen enough to want to try more: I want to try the full degustations that are offered Wednesday through to Sunday, and I have already booked lunch in the much-more-casual café by day.
They also offer breakfast - my favourite - but that's another story.
As of May 2014, the Chef's Table experience has been renamed Dinner Club. No4 Blake Street has also introduced an annual membership of $30, which will give members a reduced rate on the Tuesday Night Dinner Club, discounts on wine and dinners, free coffee with breakfast, a free birthday lunch, upgrades on the High Tea package and free room hire for functions. Dinner Club for non-members will now be $80pp.