Food & Wine Luxury Hotels Travel

Sensational El Bulli-type dining is almost part of InterContinental Melbourne

Luxury hotel - A wall of the café that is an 'extension' of the hotel deliberately courts would-be artists

A wall of the café that is an 'extension' of the hotel deliberately courts would-be artists

There are walls, and lots of them, at InterContinental Melbourne The Rialto – which used to be, going back in time, Le Méridien and before that the Rialto Hotel on Collins and before that two adjacent terraced blocks with a street, presumably the Rialto, between them.

Some of the internal walls are now an adjacent café, kinda-outsourced but you can sign there.  The gal can sign her bills, to her hotel room.  She can also sign the wall.  Nothing like a bit of graffiti to add colour to life.

In fact instead of dining in the caff we went for a honey afternoon tea in the bar. There are fashion and chocolate and goodness knows what kind of themed afternoon teas, worldwide. This hotel’s sibling, the Willard InterContinental in Washington DC, has a cherry blossom tea March 20-April 27, 2011.

But this, here in Melbourne, is the first honey tea we have come across.  Thanks to the dedication of hotel General Manager Jörg Böckeler, who qualified as an apiarist after he arrived here, there are now no fewer than ten beehives on various rooftops of the ten-floor building (swim in the lovely 60-ft indoor pool, on the rooftop, and look through heavily-sealed glass walls at hundreds if not thousands of bees buzzing happily around fruitful lemon and orange trees and herbs).

Luxury hotels - Afternoon tea at the InterContinental Melbourne hotel

Honey afternoon tea comes with three tiers of edibles, and a box of teas (right) for your choice

So, lots of honey and what to do with it?  The honey tea comes with a three-tier cake stand full of bite-sized honey scones and thick cream (and butter for the Aussies) and such sandwiches as open-topped rounds of honey-infused Gippsland Blue cheese.  The tea is Ronnefeldt Teastar collection, served with your own teapot on a hot stand, but if you want something stronger the bar has over a hundred whiskies to offer.

This 253-room luxury hotel is, methinks, unique.  There are others, say the former-prison Malmaison in Oxford, England, that have two parallel blocks of rooms separated by a rooftop-high open atrium. But this one is, as already mentioned, a former street, and highly controlled by Australia’s National Trust so instead of a cheerful sage green, say, for the heavy ironwork it is a mandatory deep burgundy.  Or blood, if you must.

It might be heritage but, with the original 1891 bricks of architect William Pitt’s buildings, it may just look just a little funereal – and to be honest, Joseph Pang’s room interiors are a little serious.

Luxury hotels - InterContinental Melbourne's central atrium

Looking down into the hotel's atrium, originally a street flanked by two tall buildings

The hotel, however, is not without fun.  Böckeler is full of ideas, like bringing in a Penfold’s-themed bar in the lowest level of the atrium, and hiring top jazz trumpeter James Morrison, from Boorowa NSW, for eight concerts a year.  And head concierge James, from Vancouver, is a laugh a minute.

That night, we soared to the top of the adjacent Rialto Building to taste Shannon Bennett’s cuisine at Vue de Monde.

This is a memory a minute.  The tables, tightly-covered in buttoned-down kangaroo leather, are bare except for what looks like a collection of old stones.

At Vue du Monde, one of Melbourne's finest restaurants, tables (covered in kangaroo hide) are merely set with central 'displays' of stones

At Vue du Monde, tables (covered in kangaroo hide) are merely set with central 'displays' of stones

In fact as the meal – which can be up to 20 courses – progresses, each stone has a purpose.  One might hold your Laguiole knife.  Another opens to reveal salt. Some are separated to form shallow platters that hold carpaccio of veal.  And so on.

Shannon Bennett, a former Australian Restaurateur of the Year, is author of personal guides to New York and Paris as well as My Vue and My French Vue cookbooks.

A typical dinner menu here can be Oysters & lemon & Crispy venison sandwich & Pumpkin & Smoked eel, white chocolate, caviar; Spanner crab, broccoli, beetroot, crustacean dressing (2009 Feudi di San Gregorio ‘Pietracalda’ Fiano di Avellino DOCG Campania, Italy); Pine mushrooms, walnuts, bird’s cress, cona infusion (NV Toro Albalá Oloroso Viejo Montilla-Moriles Andalusía, Spain).

Melburne fine cuisine at Shannon Bennett’s Vue de Monde restaurant

Dishes come fast and furious, each more exquisite than the last

It continues …Marron, beef tongue, brown butter emulsion (1994 Best’s Riesling Great Western Victoria, Australia); Fried duck egg, lamb sweetbreads, pickled onion, truffle (2002 Moët & Chandon ‘Cuvée Dom Pérignon’ Épernay Champagne AOC, France); Cucumber sorbet, crushed herbs; Blue fin tuna toro, pork fat, spiced pear (2008 by Farr Pinot Noir ‘Farrside’ Sangreal Geelong, Victoria); Kangaroo, lemon pith, raspberry, kale, salt bush (2009 Carrick Pinot Noir Central Otago South Island, New Zealand); Blackmore wagyu beef cheek, radish, dill, caper, anchovy sauce (2006 Cantine Antonio Caggiano ‘Taurasi Vigna macchia dei Goti’ Taurasi DOCG Campania, Italy); Petit Livarot washed rind & Maffra cheddar & Bleu d’Auvergne (2009 Domaine des Bernardins Muscat de Beaumes de Venise AOC Rhône Valley, France); House made lemonade, frozen toffee apple, popping candy Lemon meringue ice cream, white chocolate, lemon curd, parsley (2005 Klein Constantia ‚Vin de Constance‘ Constantia Coastal Region, South Africa); Tonka bean soufflé, smoked cocoa ice cream (NV Penfold Rare Tawny ‘Grandfather’ Multi-Regional, South Australia); A selection of coffee, teas, infusions & petits-fours.

After three and a half hours of sitting on chairs backed with kangaroo skin, we gave up, before the cheese. Some of the most memorable parts were the small half-bite marshmallows infused with truffle that came as canapés, and the sorbet course. We were brought individual stone mortars (handleless cups) with a selection of fresh herbs in the base.  Salt is put on, then liquid nitrogen is sprayed on to make them brittle.

Shannon Bennett’s cuisine at Vue de Monde restaurante in Melbourne

And some are, well, absolute heaven...

We found pestles (round-ended stamping sticks) by our places, and we stamped on said herbs until they were a mash.   A spoonful of cucumber sorbet was then carefully put on top of each.  Oh, and the butter came in a 15-inch high Beurre Echiré wood tub that was twice as tall as the black leather bags, with hot stones at the bottom, that kept the bread rolls warm.

Believe it or not, early next morning the gal was out for a run round the block and a swim (the bees were not yet up).  She felt happy to be alive, and knowing she would get a tender loving care cup of excellent coffee in the fourth floor Club Lounge of this luxury hotel. The care extends to a working relationship with Vue de Monde.  Stay at the InterCon and they can get you a table for Shannon Bennett’s cooking – only three days’ notice required rather than the usual several-weeks.