Melbourne, VIC 3000
Ph: 9660 1183
Website: Essence Restaurant at Marriott Hotel
I've walked past Essence Restaurant quite a few times when I park in the outer parts of the city centre. I look enviously at the restaurant patrons as I wondered how it would feel to dine in such an elegant and refined surrounding. I thought that you had to stay at the hotel to eat in there, so was very jealous of the diners. I'm far from rich so have never stayed at a 5 star hotel. Luckily for me, the restaurant is actually open to all diners and I was invited to dine there as a guest. I was also informed that Essence Restaurant was also looking for a photographer to shoot their new menu, and the best photos taken will be the chosen winner.
Upon arrival with my friend John, we were led to a great seat, right near the window. This mean we got as much of the setting sunlight before getting a wonderful view of the city lights and people going about their business on the Melbourne streets. The room is beautifully decorated with a modern feel. Large heavy wooden tables of assorted sizes are scattered throughout the room, with quite a large amount of space between them. Our waitress took our drinks orders before leaving us to browse the menu.
We are served an Antipasto Platter as a starter. It looks nice and there were some good elements, but also some bad elements. The prosciutto was ok and the grilled vegetables were good, but elements like the breadsticks, olives and salami were very bad. The platter was very generic and felt very store bought.
The entree of Seafood in Coconut Sauce was very good and both John and I enjoyed it thoroughly. The fresh tasting seafood worked well in the creamy sauce and I soaked up all the sauce with my bread. However, the next dish undid all the good work the seafood dish did. The Salt and Pepper Calamari was one of the worst I've tasted. It looked good but was very chewy and floury. If I had to guess, it was either fried at too low a temperature, left on the pass for too long, or pre-fried and then re-fried. Whatever the reason, it was not good and we didn't touch it after our first piece each. The Oysters Kilpatrick was better, but still not great. The oysters themselves were fresh, but the Kilpatrick sauce was far too sweet and lacked that tangy bite needed.
Between entrees and main, Executive Chef Samantha Lotter came to talk to us. I found out that she was originally from South Africa and had been an Aussie for quite a long time. She has been at the helm of Essence for 2 years and the menu is her design. I felt that she was enthusiastic about food and when asked, knew where her ingredients were from. I asked Samantha about the Lamb and Steak that we were going to have and she said they were from Victoria, which gave me high hopes as Victorian Lamb and Beef are very good.
My Roast Lamb was served with a wild mushroom sauce, green beans and a roast potato. Let me start with the good elements. The lamb was cooked nicely and had good flavour. I loved the mushroom sauce and it went very well with the lamb. However, simple elements like green beans which tasted raw and an extremely starchy and gluey potato ruined an otherwise good dish. I didn't touch any of the beans or potato. I think fundamental elements such as cooking beans and potato properly should be a requirement of any restaurant, let alone a place that is catering to a more refined clientele.
John's Steak with Chips was again, good and bad. The steak, while still tender and tasted good, was not cooked to medium rare as requested. It was cooked to at least medium well, if not well. And see that red sauce around the steak, that wasn't all the sauce. There was quite a bit of blood leaking from the steak still, which is easily avoided by resting the steak before serving it. That is again a fundamental skill that anyone who's ever cooked a steak will know. Even I can say that I rest the steak when I cook it at home. The heirloom tomatoes served with the steak were good, as was the mushroom. However, the chips were so limp and starchy that it was not eaten at all.
For dessert, I chose a Bread and Butter Pudding with maple ice cream. This was a mixed dish, like everything else we had that night. I loved the maple ice cream, with pecans placed through it. However, the bread and butter pudding was a sorry sight. It was a dry, thin piece of bread, dotted with sultanas and tasting way too sweet. Bread and butter puddings are a comfort dessert and should be lush and creamy and buttery, as the name suggests.
John was recommended the special dessert at the time, a Chocolate Fondant with Macerated Strawberries. The fondant was served in the silicon mould, which I can't say I really liked. The fondant was far too runny and undercooked. The bits around the edge that were cooked better did taste good. The macerated strawberries were good and vanilla ice cream soft and smooth.
The restaurant atmosphere was fairly quiet throughout the night as there weren't too many diners. I didn't mind this and liked the elegant feel that enabled me to comfortably talk to John without shouting. Whilst I liked the elegant feel of the atmosphere, I can't say the same about the service. Whilst all the waitresses tried hard to make sure we were looked after, they probably tried a bit too hard. I felt a bit agitated with the constant inquiries as to how I was enjoying my meal. I had hardly put a fork into my entrees, mains or dessert without being asked how it was each time. The placing and clearing of plates was also quite clumsy, with items dropped constantly. This wasn't the fault of the wait staff, but more these ridiculously sized two person tables. With so much space and the tables spaced so far apart, the two person tables were those tiny round cafe tables which is adequate for placing two coffees and some small plates of cakes, but not when you share entrees or have large mains plates with sides.
The food at the restaurant is extremely confused. There is a bit of everything that I guess is trying to please all the hotel clients. However, it leaves me as a diner, unsure what to order. The quality of the ingredients is good, but the way the produce has been cooked left quite a lot to be desired. I don't think they can justify the prices they are currently charging. I can handle simple food with quality ingredients, but they would still need to be done well. The Melbourne dining scene is far too competitive to get away with food that is not cooked well at high prices. The setting may increase the value of the food a little, but I would choose to sit in a cramped restaurant eating well cooked food at a great price rather than a comfortable restaurant with food that is not cooked well.
I think the way forward for Essence is to cut down the menu and focus on a few items that has mass appeal if they don't want to zone in on a particular cuisine style. This probably means concentrating on simple salads and well cooked seafood for entrees. Simple changes such as putting some thoughts into salads rather than using the same supermarket mixed leaf salad for everything would instantly add appeal. Mains can be simple items such as Steaks, Lamb Racks, Pastas and Seared Fish. Desserts can be simple items served with their nice ice creams. Something like Sticky Date Puddings are easy to make and cliche, but nonetheless still delicious. Tarts and cheesecakes can be pre-made and chilled and hence not put stress on the kitchen. Something definitely needs to be done or the restaurant will continue in the same manner, quiet. I'm not being harsh for the sake of it. Having done my "boot camp" at Steer, I know how hard it can be and all the issues involved. I hope that my clear and honest assessment of what I thought was wrong, and some possible solutions can help improve the restaurant.
We dined courtesy of Essence Restaurant.