Investment banker by day, gym junkie by night - but always a writer at heart.
Published August 21st 2014
Enchanting atmosphere with great food - perfect for a date
Visitors to Melbourne's Crown Casino will be spoiled for choice when it comes to dining, but No. 8 by John Lawson makes things a bit easier with its reasonably priced food, gorgeous view, and romantic atmosphere.
Entering with my date through the main entrance from the casino, I immediately find myself awash in a soft, amber glow. The restaurant is dimly lit and generously splashed with warm colours – off-whites, yellows, browns, and deep reds. Melbourne is cold but the restaurant feels snug.
The place is bustling with activity but the noise is kept at a gentle murmur. It is quiet enough that you can hear the clink of cutlery against china, but not so quiet that it feels oppressive and uninviting. In short, the perfect atmosphere for a date.
There is a bar, at which we are asked to wait for a table to be prepared for us. Unfortunately, the bar is somewhat small and was already occupied so we were left to stand somewhat awkwardly in a slightly too-narrow walkway occupied by the waiters. However, it was not long before we were called up and guided outside through the glass sliding doors.
Abruptly, the warm glow of the restaurant inside is replaced by the chilly night air of Melbourne, but I can't say I had any complaints. Spread out before us was the Yarra River, a sleek, glassy black speckled with the bright reflections of myriad fairy-light-adorned trees lining the pathway. Quite simply, beautiful.
I have to admit, we came back the day after and the river looks far less attractive in the daylight as it is a muddy brown, but at that moment, we were charmed by the perfect setting (and lighting). Crown Casino makes Sydney's Star City look like a joke - they even started spewing gouts of fire into the air from the buildings, just because.
The waiter was helpful and friendly without being intrusive, and we were soon left with the menu and brought water, bread, and a pinot noir. Those familiar with fine dining may realise when the waiter asks you "sparkling water or still?", both are going to cost you. Nevertheless, I'll mention that the still water was about $10 (bottled water). The bread and wine, by the way, were delicious.
Although normally I would try the set menu at any new restaurant, this one was somewhat pricey at $85 for 4 courses or $160 for a 5 course truffle menu and I was already stretching my budget (Melbourne is not cheaper than Sydney, despite what I've been told). Instead, we picked our own dishes: Kohlrabi ravioli and sprout salad avocado, chilli and pistachio to start. It was small, as expected, and very light yet creamy on the palate. The texture was very much like soft avocado, and it was difficult to cut in a pretty way so it ended up looking a bit messy. Despite that it carried a very pleasant texture and was one of the first times I'd tasted something both creamy and refreshing at the same time.
Kohlrabi ravioli and sprout salad avocado, chilli and pistachio.
Following our starter, not too quickly nor with too much delay which was perfect, were our mains. For me the Crispy Otway Ranges pork belly, caramelised apple puree, carrot and cider jus. Although the crispy skin was slightly difficult to cut, I couldn't complain as the crunch was amazingly satisfying. The pork was juicy but with the sauce, not too heavy on the palate. It felt like a splendid combination of both the crispy skin of pork belly that I expected and the thick, filling meat of a steak (which I also love). No complaints at all except that I could have eaten another twenty plates of it.
Crispy Otway Ranges pork belly, caramelised apple puree, carrot and cider jus
For my date was the Milawa duck breast with Williams pear, Brussels sprouts, and foie gras. She had truffles added at the waiter's suggestion (it cost an extra $25, which was not mentioned). She was lovely enough to let me try some and I have to say I was surprised. It was my first time trying duck breast – normally when I eat duck it's always Asian style. Somehow, it tasted like a super tender steak (yes, steak again) except duck flavoured. Moist and fatty, but in a warm and filling way without leaving an aftertaste or feeling too heavy, I can honestly say it was one of the best cuts of meat I've had. It's not chewy or tough or dry at all. I've never paid attention to duck breast before but now I wish it was more widely available.
Milawa duck breast with Williams pear, Brussels sprouts, and foie gras
We decided to skip dessert and possibly go elsewhere for something sweet. Although tempting, none of the desserts on the menu really sounded amazing and after the additional cost for the water and truffles, my dessert budget was somewhat expended.
I wouldn't recommend No 8 by John Lawson cost-wise, but for the view, the atmosphere and the food? Worth it. The only regrets I have are the water and truffles. I'd go again for the bread, pork belly, and duck breast. Overall, a lovely dining experience with all the mood and ambience that it would take to impress a date.