It’s not all about what’s on the plate for Melbourne’s Best New Restaurant of 2013. Clementine Ford is served.

Having spent some of my formative years imprisoned in boarding school, the idea of an early dinner has never sat well with me, so it’s with some trepidation that I claim my 6:30pm table at Pei Modern, the only time available this weekend.

The romantic dinner I’d envisaged gives way to images of eating in conspicuous silence, both of us too afraid to speak lest our whispered sweet nothings reverberate off the walls in a booming echo.

But I’m pleasantly surprised to enter the intimate setting and discover that, despite the early hour, the place is already jumping. The walls flicker with shadowed candlelight; around us, couples gaze at each other with doe eyes, while raucous groups get stuck into manager-maitre d’-sommelier Ainslie Lubbock’s impressive wine list.

Lubbock was recently awarded the Australian Gourmet Traveller’s Maitre d’ of the Year, with Pei Modern named Best New Restaurant 2013 by the Good Food Guide – two factors that have drawn me to it tonight, not to mention the fact it’s helmed by the one and only Mark Best of Sydney’s Marque.

It’s not hard to see that a lot of thought has gone into making Pei Modern a welcoming yet sophisticated space. Cleverly divided to cater to the various needs one would expect of a CBD location, it provides a stylish bar for the local suits to perch at, an al fresco enclave that lends itself perfectly to surveying the guests entering and leaving the nearby Sofitel, and the restaurant itself.

We miss seeing Lubbock on this occasion, but the loss is amply made up for by the attentions of new general manager Ari Vlassopoulos (himself the recipient of a Good Food Guide Service Excellence Award). Vlassopoulos proves to be charming and accommodating at every turn; after exchanging light-hearted banter, he leaves us in the capable hands of our waitress Bec. Her easiness puts us at ease, yet she remains professional at all times. She immediately furnishes us with some of Pei Modern’s luscious homemade sourdough.

I’ve always felt slightly ridiculous tasting new bottles in restaurants, and tend to cover up with pedestrian humour – when I joke about how screw top wine is unlikely to be corked, she politely sets me straight and I’m left feeling informed rather than embarrassed at my own self-conscious lack of sophistication. I can thus turn my attention to my steadily growing appetite.

We begin with head chef Matt Germanis’ (formerly of MoVida) entree special; a crumbed pig’s trotter with prawns, mushroom and sauce gribiche. The pig’s trotter is delectable, with just the right balance of crispy fried crumbing and a burst of flavours within. It’s all I can do to not steal the plate out from under my companion’s cutlery, but I’ve ordered the cuttlefish and must satisfy myself with that.

Accompanied by broad beans and Meyer lemon puree, it’s a pleasing enough dish but seems to lack a certain oomph. The balance of tastes creates a sensation that manages to be both oceanic and earthy – almost like an aquarium. I’m yearning for a hint of garlic to draw my nose into something a little sharper.

Instead, I inhale the bouquet of our Michael Hall Stonewall Valley 2010 Shiraz, a juicy drop that confirms everything I know and love about the affordable reds of the Barossa Valley, and wait for our mains. For my companion, the braised beef short rib with organic chard and horseradish milk; and for me, the hanger steak with beetroot, onion and caramelised yoghurt. The short rib is divine, almost collapsing at the touch of a fork, but it’s the hanger steak that really impresses.

Reader, if I could have bathed in the juices of this extraordinary meal I would have happily done so. The meat, served in three segments rather than a single slab, is as tender as a mother’s kiss. The caramelised yoghurt, dyed pink by the roast beetroot, seeps into the steak’s crevices and explodes in your mouth like a glitter bomb at Mardi Gras. It is sensational – elegant simplicity with a touch of something special, all underscored by the satisfaction of a jolly good feed.

Vlassopoulos has encouraged us to order the butter roasted brussel sprouts as a side. I’m dubious – brussel sprouts traditionally taste like that aforementioned boarding school – but am happy to put my trust in our erstwhile navigator. Oh, the heavenly joy! Perhaps it’s the mounds of butter that must go into shrink roasting these mini cabbages, but I gobble them all up like someone starved and wash them down with our next bottle, a 2012 Head Red Shiraz.

We leave at around 9pm, well after our table was meant to be vacated. Vlassopoulos has kindly shuffled bookings around to accommodate us; by the time we leave, we’re in a heady daze, cheeks glowing from the excellent food, wine and service. The night is still young, and so are we.

The details

The verdict: A delightful spot nestled at the base of the Sofitel, with all the charm of your imaginary Aunt Edie’s European salon. The perfect place to take friends or lovers and feel completely doted on.

The score: 16; great

We rated: The knowledge of the waiting staff. Our waitress was informative and charming, and kept us entertained all night.

We hated: As large bookings made their way in, the space strayed a little closer to cramped than cosy.

Where: 45 Collins Place, Collins Street, Melbourne CBD (conveniently located at the base of the Sofitel Hotel for interstate visitors).

Notes: Degustation tasting menu available on request.

Contact: 03 9654 8545; peimodern.com.au

 

More: Three other Melbourne restaurants where service really matters.