Brisbane’s CBD after hours is still a sleepier hub than Melbourne or Sydney. That most likely comes from the fact that most people live outside the city, come in for work, and depart again when they’re done for the day, which doesn’t leave a ready supply of patrons to populate eating establishments outside breakfast and lunch hours. Despite that, there are a few places that have managed to make themselves a niche as destination dining places in the city. Urbane is one of those places.
Urbane is part of a quintuplet of linked event spaces: Sub Urbane, The Euro, the Euro Garden, and The Laneway, in roughly decreasing order of formality. Of them, Urbane is the most, well, urbane, and the oldest, having opened in its first incarnation in 2001. It isn’t stiflingly formal, but it does give you the sense of being somewhere special as you go through the heavy doors.
We were greeted as we came up the stairs, a lemony, flowery scent wafting by as we ascended, and promptly shown to our seats. One does make bookings in advance, of course. Glasses of water were brought to us (after checking which kind of water we would like), and which menu we would be having was confirmed. There is no physical menu to give you warning of what you will be partaking of, you simply decide if you are having five or eight courses, and whether you will be a herbivore or an omnivore (not a carnivore) for the meal. The rest you simply trust to the kitchen.
We opted for the eight course omnivore degustation, of course.
(Warning: if you want to be completely surprised when you go, read no further. Lots of pictures and descriptions follow. They do change the items that are served based on what is available, but you may find what arrives at your table very similar to what is here.)
The first item brought out set the tone. Two test tubes planted in a block of wood, with some sprigs of thyme. A setup like a science experiment. A warning that this would not be a traditional or typical type of meal. In those test tubes was a warm shiitake mushroom consommé, with a couple of slivers of the mushroom in it. The soup was amazingly clear, and had rich flavours. It tasted as hearty as a chicken broth might have been.
The next dish was served just about simultaneously. It, too, had a strikingly unusual appearance. Dark olive-coloured seaweed and rice crisps with dollops of a pea-green oyster emulsion served on a black slate slab. If you were on an alien planet, the landscape might look like this. On eating, however, the wafers were light and crunchy, and the creamy emulsion had a lovely umami flavour. Beats the usual cheese and crackers..
Next came sandwiches of house made potato crisps with smoked kingfish, accompanied by little glasses of cold sweet corn soup with sweet corn foam.
The potatoes were sliced with skill to make such light wafers. Crisp was an appropriate description. The kingfish between the crisps was salty, and slightly tangy. It was nicely soft. There were also flavours of dill and mayonnaise. The sweet corn soup was lightly flavoured, and quite delicate.
The next thing at the table was not food, but neatly wrapped hand towels, warm and smelling of lemon myrtle, worthy of a spot at a day spa. This was the likely source of the scent cloud near the entrance. This refresher was probably to make sure patrons’ hands were clean before the next course.
There is something special about freshly made bread. Swaddled in a napkin and kept warm on a bed of black stones (they wouldn’t show up in the photographs) was house-baked bread with macadamia. It was served with little mounds of mushroom parfait and salted butter. The bread was subtly crisp on the outside, and soft and airy on the inside. There were lots of nut bits for extra texture. The mushroom parfait was smooth, and just a bit savoury. We could have gone through loaves of that bread..
After that came a pretty dish of pickled onion, tapioca, buerre blanc, and dill oil. The pickled onion was tender and had a softer flavour than other pickled onions encountered elsewhere (this isn’t neighbourhood pub food). The sago pearls (tapioca) nestled in the onion boats were perfectly cooked, so they sat individually with no starchy outer layer sticking them together, and had a springy, rather than hard texture. The buerre blanc sauce was rich and buttery. Couldn’t really taste the dill oil, but it did make a pretty pattern.
We were brought bowls resting on plates, with flowers strewn around the base of the bowl. In the patterned bowls were tomatoes in tomato water, and basil pearls. Despite its unassuming appearance, the clear water packed a punch in terms of flavour. It was savoury with a hint of sweetness, like a distilled essence of tomato, without being overpowering. The little grape tomatoes themselves had been deskinned, and were ripe and sweet. The basil pearls disintegrated in the mouth.
Accompanying it (slightly staggered), we received quinoa crisp with tomato jelly and jamon. They were beautifully presented little bites, with the jamon draped over the crisps like fallen cloth. It had a subtle, pungent aroma, reminiscent of belachan.
Next course was pan fried octopus, fresh apple slices, avocado puree, and babaganoush. The octopus was very tender, but the suckers were crispy. It tasted of salt, and a bit of spice. The apple provided a touch of sweetness. The avocado puree was wonderfully smooth. The babaganoush had a mildly smokey flavour that went well with the fried octopus.
The kingfish sashimi, ponzu pearls, and wasabi buerre blanc was Japanese flavours presented in a different way. The sashimi slices were evenly cut and fresh. The ponzi pearls released little bursts of flavour in the mouth, and were a clever way to deliver the sauce. The wasabi buerre blanc had a light wasabi flavour, probably so as not to shock the palates of those who might not be used to it.
The dish of char grilled cos lettuce, lamb, lamb jus, and pea purée was a medley of strong flavours. On the plate were lamb sweetbreads instead of more typical meat cuts. They were cooked tender, but retained a gamey flavour. The salty jus set this off well. Perhaps the most interesting part of this dish was the smoked lettuce. It somehow had a robust, meaty flavour. The pea purée was, of course, finely passed and smooth.
Following that was wagyu beef from Jack’s Creek Station. We were told that it had recently won a prize for being the best in the world. On looking it up, steak from Jack’s Creek Station had indeed won the first World Steak Challenge, held at the end of 2015. The wagyu on the plate was graded 9+ on the marbling score, which is as high as it gets. When cooked properly, the marbling of wagyu beef does make a significant difference to flavour and mouthfeel. I am not convinced about the point of having wagyu beef burgers, as in mincing the meat, you lose the texture of the meat. As a steak, the rivulets of fat that run through the muscle make the meat extremely tender and juicy, and impart a rich flavour. Here, it was perfectly cooked, seared on the outside, and just heat-touched on the inside. Along with the beef was celeriac puree, kale, and native saltbush. Vinegar dust and jus with juniperberry added brightness and savouriness, but the beef was definitely the hero of the dish.
Next to the table was a palate cleanser of a lemon cream posset with lemon myrtle. It was like the filling of a lemon tart, but with slightly toned down sourness. The drops of lemon myrtle on top added more lemon aroma.
The first dessert dish was a pretty plate of lemongrass domes with a white chocolate shell, on tonka bean soil, with lemon gel and blueberries. Under the tempered white chocolate dome shells was white chocolate and lemongrass mousse. The mousse was light and sweet. There was also a craggy chunk of similar flavour, which had been set in liquid nitrogen. As Heston Blumenthal has popularised, the rapid cooling in liquid nitrogen means that there isn’t time for large ice crystals to form, which results in fine, smooth textures. The dessert was subtly sweet. There was a base note of vanilla in the tonka bean soil. The lemon gel brought in tart notes. It was an interesting dish of different textures.
The final dish was mandarin parfait, house made honeycomb, and fresh mandarin. Again, the parfait had been set in liquid nitrogen, and reminded me of a bowl of Dippin’ Dots, with the creamy but oddly light and dry texture that was almost a powder. Digging down to the bottom of the bowl revealed the chunks of sweet, crunchy honeycomb, richly caramel-y in flavour. Again, there was a tart punch in the form of the mandarin segments. We had been told that it was fresh mandarin, but the pieces seemed a little dry, as if they had been dehydrated to concentrate the taste. On the whole, this was probably my least favourite dish, as it veered too much to the sour side. The mandarin parfait didn’t actually add any sweetness, and there wasn’t enough honeycomb to counter the mandarin pieces.
They did, however, finish with chocolates. Essentially an after-dinner mint, inside the dark chocolate shell was a smooth, gooey mint.
The decor is understatedly clean and simple. White walls, one raw rough brick wall. Wooden floors. Black, leather-look padded seats with clean lines. White tablecloths. A candle at each table. Soft lighting.
The service was polite, but friendly. There was no snootiness. They explained each dish to us, and told us more when we had questions. Cutlery disappeared between dishes, and new settings reappeared. Food didn’t disappear before we were done.
All in all, Urbane is a must-do dining experience in Brisbane. The dishes are clever in presentation and flavours. It is pricey, but those hours were enjoyable (this is certainly not a place for a quick meal).
Food: 3.5/4 (so close to perfect..but I just didn’t love the desserts.)
Price point: 5 course menu $110. 8 course menu $145. (Same price whether you pick Omnivore or Herbivore.)
Address: 181 Mary St, Brisbane
Phone: 07 3229 2271