This article was also published in the Financial Times.
Gerald Diffey, wearing a dapper grey suit, stood by the striking white marble bar and surveyed the dining room of Brooks as it began to fill. This is the restaurant he opened six months ago in the centre of Melbourne, Australia, with his partners Mario Di Ienno and chef Nicolas Poelaert.
When the music stopped, he turned on his heel, lifted the lid of the record player, flipped the record like an old-fashioned DJ, and swiftly turned back to ensure that nothing had escaped his attention.
These two very different characteristics, that of an eagle-eyed restaurateur and a consummate hoarder, have characterised Diffey’s career in Melbourne since he settled here from Gillingham, Kent, over 20 years ago. ‘This city has been good to me’, Diffey explained with a smile. Having eaten twice at Brooks, and on each occasion exceptionally well, I can only add that Diffey has been very good for Melbourne, too.
The origins of Brooks, and the partnership behind it, lie in the suburb of North Carlton, a 10-minute drive from the centre. Here, along a very attractive row of Victorian shops complete with cast-iron columns, is an unassuming sign that welcomes guests into Gerald’s Bar.
This became Diffey’s professional and domestic home when he took it over seven years ago after his career as a journeyman manager for other restaurateurs led to divorce. Here, he could be chef and patron and remain close to his children.
And here he could also display what distinguishes every exceptional restaurateur, a great eye for detail. The walls of the bar and dining room today overflow with all he has collected: a photo of Michael Caine taken by David Bailey; a picture of George Best that came via his mother’s collection of coupons from drinking so much Typhoo tea; scores of LPs; and bottles of all sizes from all over the world that testify to his love of wine.
Gerald’s Bar soon became the location for many in the city’s restaurant business and one of them in due course was Di Ienno, a fellow restaurateur. Not too surprisingly, its tables subsequently evolved into a late-night incubator for contemplating new ventures. When the fruit and vegetable shop next door was forced to close, they felt that this was too big a loss for the neighbourhood so they stepped in, renaming it St Clements. The need for a butcher’s shop led them into another new venture a few doors away, now trading as Skinner & Hackett.
Then they were approached to look at a basement site of a late-19th-century building that had once housed Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen Academy. Diffey and Di Ienno quickly appreciated its potential and while contacts were to provide the necessary finance, Diffey and Di Ienno began to refine just what this new venture would be.
‘It seemed to us that too many restaurateurs were losing sight of the importance of hospitality and concentrating instead on the bottom line’, Di Ienno explained. ‘We wanted to restore that sense of rather old-fashioned customer service. Hence the name [a reference to Brooks’s, a ‘gentlemen’s club’ in London SW1], the rather formal attire of the waiters with ties and waistcoats, and an extensive menu that would delight a whole range of customers.’
To this end, they were determined to lure Poelaert, whose cooking they admired, away from his own restaurant, with the added attraction that he would now be free to cook while they took care of the administration. It is a winning formula.
Poelaert has trained with the highly regarded Michel Bras in Laguiole, France, so flowers, herbs, salad leaves and vegetables play a large part in his cooking. Many of these ingredients are on display behind a glass counter at the approach to the dining room in what was once a pasta-drying cabinet. ‘The sight of them, we hope, will put our customers in the mind to eat good food’, Diffey explained.
The resulting pleasure on both nights was more than even the sum of its parts. Three very different first courses, a pile of multi-coloured, sliced heirloom tomatoes topped with a cool consommé, sweetbreads with peas and smoked maple and a Moreton Bay bug with pickled oysters, were each fresh, vibrant and as appetising for the eye as for the palate. Main courses of duck with wild berries, carrots and cumquats and beef with the unlikely combination of charred vegetables and Mimolette cheese were rich and intense.
What also distinguishes this style of cooking is that because the flavours are so concentrated and complementary, the portions are not overwhelmingly large, which in turn means that the menu prices are relatively low. Our dinner for two without wine came to AU$122, great value for money in this country whose dollar seems to go from strength to strength.
Matthew Brooke, the sommelier, provides a further attraction not just for his knowledge and enthusiasm but also via a particular style of service. All the wines that were being served by the glass in March were poured from magnums, an approach that adds glamour to even the less expensive wines.
With a highly talented Frenchman behind the open kitchen and an astute Englishman treading gently between the bar and the dining room, Melbournians have struck lucky. The opening page of Brooks’ menu asserts that the partners were taught by their grandmothers to treat people the way you would like to be treated. They have proved to be highly attentive pupils.
Brooks Basement 115-17 Collins Street, Melbourne 3000; tel +61 3 9001 87775