Dining Out: Woodland House

A DINING EXPERIENCE REVIEW

Type: Contemporary Fine Dining     Food: 9/10       Service: 8/10     Value for money: 8/10

http://www.woodlandhouse.com.au

78 Williams Road, Prahran, VIC 3181

Restaurant notes:

  • Woodland House took over the iconic Victorian manor house that housed Jacques Reymond up until January 2014 in Melbourne. The venue is classical and opulent, boasting a romantic garden, grand fireplaces and intricately decorated ceilings.
  • The team focus on seasonal produce for all their multi course tasting menus, which means the menu changes regularly and the dishes can get very creative. The produce is locally sourced.
  • We experienced the Winter menu, and the highlights were the goose, the crisp octopus, and the potato cavatelli with sweetbreads – although everything else on the menu was a wonderfully elegant and innovative experience

In my line of work, you’ll find people like me who have a certain passion for creating experiences that cater to everyone. Websites, apps, and operating systems often fail miserably at complete user experiences, and I get frustrated that accessibility to every day modern things are so constantly overlooked when it comes to designing them for a wide range of people. It’s sad that when a complete experience is considered, it is often done so half arsed (pardon my french). Have you ever jumped on a website as a blind person? Ever used a screen reader? You’ll often come across websites where developers and designers clearly didn’t take accessibility very seriously.

Screen reader: “Heading one, Dining out,colon, woodland house, break, break, heading two, a dining experience review, horizontal line, paragraph…”

It doesn’t sound fair to me. The fact that we only ever fully design experiences that cater to a select group of people. It makes my blood boil.

So, I apologise profusely for anyone who is currently having to use accessibility tools to read this blog post. WordPress isn’t amazing at catering to design your work for consumption by all types of readers. I can put a lot of effort into the colour scheme, fonts styles, and general look and feel of my pages, and it feels ridiculous that the experience I am able to create for people who have sight isn’t ever going to be translated well to someone without sight because I lack the resources to design for them here. It’s like when I get sponsored by clients to spend weeks on colour psychology for a style guide but get  only a couple of days of accessibility review.

Eventually I will move and build my site up from scratch. I’ll have a sound and voice over option that can be turned on so I can unleash my creativity on how to give everyone the experience that I want them to have. I could feature sounds that invoke the same sense of warmth and comfort I design my colour scheme on. What if my readers could smell the food I shoot, so they can visually dream it up in their mind and not have to see the images necessarily?

*End of random insight into a UX designer’s tormented mind*

Honestly though, this is probably why I respect the restaurant industry so much. Think about it. When you walk into a good restaurant – you are often greeted with an all encompassing, five-senses experience. Everything from the sounds, the smells, the interior design and the mannerisms of the wait staff are all meticulously designed to invoke a feeling that the restauranteur wants you to feel when you come to have a meal. And this is all even before they start carefully planning the experience of the food that is on your plate!

Restauranteurs takes experience design – for humans – very seriously. When you design for feelings and emotion, you are acknowledging that your target audience is human, and you will see a natural progression of whatever it is that you have designed become a part of everyday human life.

Woodland House is a good example of this.

From outside, the glittering Victorian manor surrounded by perfectly manicured hedges and pretty little angel statues seems like any other stately home. It is dead quiet, the sounds of the night only broken by the trickling of a water feature in the front court. There’s no music, no locked gates to buzz into, no real signs anywhere that make the place look like a restaurant. It’s as if you are simply arriving at home to a meal.

As you walk in through the front doors you are greeted by all the staff. I mean all of them. It’s almost like coming home to be greeted by family. Or maybe you’re a character from Upstairs Downstairs. Everyone is at the foot of a handsome wooden staircase, introducing themselves to you and smiling. Do I hug them and give everyone kisses on the cheek? They all boast a strong french accent – all but the front of house – and you’re reminded that this was once the house of Jacques Reymond. It is not so quiet anymore, as the room is filled with the sounds of dinner and conversation, bouncing around the high ceilings and raw without the presence of ambient music. I like it.

The ambiance comes from the warmth of the crackling of fireplaces instead. The calm hues of green and blue splashed across the walls, and the soft lighting is welcoming. Despite the elegant, don’t-touch-anything-you-can’t-afford-to-pay-for decor, we settle into a relaxed and easy going atmosphere. It even smells like dinner is full under way. I’ve always found it slightly disappointing whenever I go to restaurants and the kitchen is so far removed from the dining area that you can’t smell your meal being cooked. A lot of restaurants feel too clinical and loungey nowadays. At Woodland House, you know you are about to eat a spectacular meal because the smells coming from the kitchen tease you as soon as you are seated.

I’m being treated to a birthday dinner by Josh and we are led to a fairly classical, double clothed, no-fuss table beside an opulent fireplace. The only thing that feels out of place are the quirky bread plates that sit at the table in the form of heavy, oddly shaped stone slates. The champagne glasses on the table seem aware that celebrations are about to take place. I’ve been in Perth for the past month or so and have been quite homesick being away from my partner and my family, so this birthday weekend is particularly special to me. Josh has been patient with me not being around – because sadly this is our life and we’ve had to adjust. Josh and I spend more time on planes than with each other, and we try to make the most out of the moments we have when we’re both in the same state/continent.

We’re swiftly offered the menus for the evening, and they are read out with precision. Same goes with the wine list. A pair of knowledgeable staff are able to respond to any of our queries about the dishes and what recommended wines to match a few of the dishes with. I enquire about a few different champagnes to start with and settle for the blanc de blanc, which is light and refreshing. The menu is a no brainer. We opt for the degustation because it’s become a tradition of ours to go all out on tasting menus for special occasions.

 

Our starters come in threes – all very good and very comforting. The smells are of cheese and hearty fried goodness. They are decadent and rich little dishes, which seems an odd choice for starters, but we are not complaining. Pictured above from the left to right: crisp squid with fish head sauce that’s all sorts of impeccable savouriness, pine mushroom cromesquis that explode in your mouth when you bite into them, thin wafers of fried purple congo potatoes, and cups of jerusalem artichoke veloute that is velvety and fills our stomachs with warmth and happiness.

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Next come some very earthy dishes, and the restaurant has taken the plating of this quite literally. Melt in your mouth grilled venison skewers are served on a slab of rock with greenery, and incredibly intense duck ham is served on moreish corn bread placed atop a handful of twigs. The theatre of it is quite fun as I imagine myself out on a wild hunt, and I expect this to be the story they are trying to tell with the dish.

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Enchanted by our meals so far, we become giddy with excitement – possibly influenced by our champagne as well. We order a vintage chablis and decide to stick to whites for a while since we notice most of the meals in the degustation fall on the seafood spectrum. Our next dish is a beautiful rainbow trout with tantalisingly crispy skin, sitting on a bed of smoked oysters and ice plant. The ice plant is bizarre and slightly overpowering but does not ruin the dish.

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More seafood follows. The next dish of spanner crab and super sweet, succulent scallop with daikon is an absolute winning dish for me. Probably not for Josh as he is more attracted to intense flavours, whereas I appreciate it when chefs are able to maintain the true flavours of ingredients. This dish is delicate and has a Japanese influence.

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In contrast to the spanner crab dish, the one that comes after it is incredibly intense in flavour, scent and plating. Thin slivers of squid with pistachio and roasted sardines arrives at our table clean, before a vibrant herb oil infused sourced cream is poured over the top of it. The colour is gorgeous and it looks like a piece of modern art on my plate. What I find strange is the presence of the roasted sardines. There is a lot of it on the plate and it is very overpowering and very rich, which seems so strange because it is paired with the even richer sourced cream. The squid and pistachios however, pair perfectly with the rest of the dish. I admit that without the saltiness of the sardines, the dish may have been a tad too bland in flavour.

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Josh was a little nervous about the next dish at first, but I assured him that it would be nothing too crazy in flavour. We’re served a kangaroo tail consomme with abalone, sea cucumber and melon. I tell him that consommes usually have very clean flavours, and the only reason why he might be feeling squeamish is because of the idea that he is eating kangaroo tail. I tell him to liken it to a rich, but clean Chinese style oxtail broth – and surprisingly it is just like that! The dish is sweet, light and easily consumed.

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I’m grinning with anticipation as the next dish arrives at our table, because I can smell it from a mile away. You know what I would have been in my past life? I think I was a truffle pig. Oink oink…I have a nose for this stuff, it’s insane. When the potato cavatelli arrive at our table, Josh has ordered mine to have truffle added to it because he is an understanding partner who unfortunately has  to deal with my addiction. The dish comes with sweetbreads, which has a hilarious background story to it:

Once, we were all out at dinner with some friends at a Spanish tapas restaurant where Josh and his mate Charlie had ordered a bunch of items on the menu they liked the sound of. I warned them when they ordered “sweetbreads” that the dish would not be a dessert, and that it is in fact a dish made from the thymus glands of animals. No one believed me and thought I had mistaken it for something else, so when a savoury dish arrived at the table they became very aware that they did actually order a plate of animal glands. The look of sheer horror on their faces was spectacular.

Nevertheless, sweetbreads are freaking delicious. I implore everyone to try it. You eat rump, you eat bellies – whats wrong with a bit of damn thymus gland? 😛

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As we switch to our reds, our menu starts to become heavier. Our favourite dish is the aged goose, which is served with salt baked celeriac, super sweet brussel sprouts, and liver sauce. I’ve never had aged goose before but gosh after this I want it every day for the rest of my life. It is a very strong umami flavour, salty, rich and fatty. The sweetness of the brussel sprouts balance the dish out well, but I honestly don’t care if I get a big bowl of this stuff without any balancing veggies. Give me all the aged goose. Give it to me.

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A long time ago, because of my Asian heritage, I was brainwashed to think that lamb tasted bad and smelled bad. I wouldn’t eat the protein for a very long time – until I went to Greece and lamb gyros was pretty much what I lived off for a few weeks.

Now, I am a lamb appreciator. The dish that follows our aged goose is a lamb fillet with confit lamb belly, parsnip, sweet garlic and sorrel. If you had served this to me a few years ago, I would have turned up my nose at it in disgust. It smells incredibly strong for one thing, and the flavour of lamb isn’t exactly something you can mask with a bit of garlic and parsnip. The confit belly is delicious and moreish, but the lamb fillet feels like it is missing some sauce. You’d think that coming from a classical French background the chefs would be generous with their sauces.

Josh and Sha have had too much to eat. Josh and Sha would like to sleep.

We have to mentally prepare ourselves for dessert because we feel quite stuffed after our last main. Our happy bellies and wine drowned kidneys are sending messages to our brains to shut down and prepare for hibernation. After our palette cleanser of passionfruit, lemon myrtle and white chocolate, we sleepily scoff down a beautiful Tonka bean ice cream nestled underneath shards of sesame cocoa and caramel tuile and pineapple quince. That satisfaction of tapping at tuile and hearing the snap and crack as the tuile breaks apart gives me the warm and fuzzies.

We happily ask for the bill after 4 hours of eating and drinking only to be told that there is one more thing left for us. A graceful set of petite fours arrive at our table, all delicious but all too much. The mark of a good value degustation – when you feel like you have to roll yourself out of the restaurant.

In short, we truly enjoyed the experience we were treated to at Woodland House. The staff are welcoming and warm, and there isn’t anything clinical about the service or the ambiance. It is a restaurant designed for humans, designed to play with our emotions and invoke a sense of family and home. Highly recommended!

Happy feasting, and remember to mind your table manners.

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