Fine dining in a mall always raises some doubt — namely, questions like, "If the restaurant's any good, why is it in a mall in the first place?" But Thomas Keller's Per Se is in a mall in New York (albeit a very fancy mall, but still a mall) and nobody questions its pedigree.
The Deck is obviously no Per Se, but it is good. Very good. The restaurant, located on the upper level of the Southgate mall in Melbourne's Southbank neighborhood, probably won't win much in the way of ambience with most diners, unless seated in the rear where there is a partial view of the waterfront.
But, the focus is on the food here, where chef Hayden Smith puts out beautifully executed dishes showcasing modern Australian cuisine. The emphasis is on fresh, seasonal ingredients prepared simply — take, for example, the heirloom cherry tomato salad with burrata pictured above, which highlights locally grown tomatoes at their peak.
Or these lightly fried zucchini flowers, served with the stems and placed atop a piquant dressing that enhances their flavor but doesn't overwhelm.
And on the cusp of fall, a simple fig salad with baked crisps and house-made aïoli, an unlikely combination that works well.
Granted, these are all dishes that could be made just about anywhere with a temperate climate and fertile soil. What about uniquely Australian dishes?
Diners might want to try this local soft-shell crab salad, then, with a spicy sambal based dressing, perfect for sharing.
A barramundi, too, perfectly seared with a delicious crust, served simply with grilled summer squash, braised greens, and manila clams, is a must-have main.
Some things, though, could be done better. A seafood risotto, for example, featured nicely cooked scallops, but the risotto itself was watery and seemed to require either a bit more cooking, or a bit less stock. Risotto is a tricky thing to master.
A pickled octopus salad with watercress and quinoa, too, sounded good on paper and was beautiful to look at, but perhaps pickling octopus is a bit too challenging a concept to attempt in general — this one was too vinegary in flavor, too rubbery, and tough in texture.
Still, overall the food is very good, the wine list is well-chosen, and the service leaves nothing to be desired. So on the whole, The Deck still offers a dining experience that is above par and definitely worth seeking out when in the area.
Closest tram stop is Casino East/Flinders Lane (55).