Towards the end of Aug 2019, we had the pleasure of attending a friend’s birthday in Melbourne and the venue was the Neil Perry’s Rockpool Bar & Grill at Southbank. I’ve never been to the Rockpool, but had heard about it for many years and the word was that it was excellent. So we looked forward to this experience and didn’t mind the long drive from Mirboo North, much more so for the birthday than the venue. Thankfully the drive to Melbourne was surprisingly easy and uneventful, with the ever present roadworks not the problem that we’d dreaded, so we arrived in good time at Southbank. Trying to remember where to go once we exited the Burnley Tunnel was more of an issue. I’m certain that in past years the Crown Complex was well signposted so that those not familiar with Melbourne could find their way, but this time we saw nary a sign. That said, we managed to get to the right place without drama.
After a couple of short loops, we found a carpark that didn’t demand your first born as parking fees (min $50 at the Crown Complex) and didn’t require a cut-lunch to walk the distance or a tram ride (only had to remember where it was on the way back). As an aside, the traffic in Melbourne never ceases to amaze me and I doubt that there’s a day in the year or an hour in the day where the streets and freeways aren’t full of cars. It’s something that I was beginning to hate with a vengeance and what prompted us to leave Melbourne in the first place (nearly eight years now). Whenever we do have to go to Melbourne, thankfully few and far between, it’s always with a sense of dread (at least for me) as I truly hate all the congestion and the woeful drivers that inhabit the roads. And at around 4.00 pm that Saturday afternoon, Southbank was already full of people, probably attracted by the rescheduled White Night festival, which has been moved from Summer to Winter and spread all over the place, raising a lot of criticism. But that’s par for the course when it comes to anything that emanates from Spring Street.
Anyway, as we eventually caught up with everyone, we found a place to relax with a drink or two before dinner commenced. Even though it was only about 4.30 pm, the crowds were building up steadily, but we managed to score a corner that was enough for our group and near the restaurant. There’s no denying that we’re just getting old, as one thing that really grated while we tried to carry out a conversation was the obnoxiously loud music blaring from around 8-10 speakers in the ceiling of the bar. There was no way that anyone could carry on with a normal conversation and you really have to wonder why the music has to be so incredibly loud in such a place. Throughout the entire complex every nook and cranny was pierced by loud music and the like. And where we parked our car, when exiting the carpark, we passed a gaming room for kids that were it a workplace it would have required mandatory hearing protection. Is there some psychological aspect to this raucous noise that makes it mandatory in places such as these?
Once out of there and at the Rockpool, thing were much better and we were finally able to converse in a normal manner. The Rockpool is a much larger venue than one expects, with all manner of rooms and almost tunnels leading to tables secreted throughout. It’s also a very dark venue, giving the impression of a cave, not a Summer’s day on the beach peering at things in rock pools. When the menus came out, everyone was squinting and some used their mobile phones to light the menus, something which many diners that came later repeated. The faux candles that some tables were blessed with helped a bit. It also didn’t help that the menus were printed on A3 sheets using around 9pt Arial font, making it doubly difficult to read. This sombre darkness baffled me, as I always get the feeling that when a restaurant is darkly lit and you can’t really see what’s on your plate, there’s perhaps something to hide. Rather than presenting an atmosphere of ambience, it presents an sombre atmosphere of impending woe. And that was somewhat prophetic.
Anyway, we eventually put in our orders and with the Rockpool being renowned for its dry aged beef, several of us chose to try out something that doesn’t come by every day. The entrees chosen were quite good, with the steak tartare apparently being very good and prepared in a somewhat different way than you’d normally receive as a main. In this case all the ingredients were already mixed into the steak and rolled into what resembled a lamb Kofta. I had Wagyu beef sausages and they were pretty good, helped immensely by the sauce. Then came the mains and this is where everything went downhill. At our end of the table there were orders for dry aged ribeye on the bone, lamb cutlets and dry aged sirloin. Other than for one diner, everyone was utterly dissatisfied with their meals (though the others in our group were quite satisfied with their non-beef choices). To be brutally honest, I’ve recently cooked oyster blade steak that came out significantly more tender and tasty than the ribeye that was on my plate. What I received was loaded with gristle, tough and extremely chewy, such that some bits had to be swallowed whole (rather than spit them out). Far from being a $79 steak, mine resembled a $5 steak that had been overcooked at a backyard BBQ. The restaurant’s website photos don’t reflect at all what was on my plate (including the lighting).
In all my years of having enjoyed pub meals across Victoria and elsewhere, never have I had a steak that was as tough and grisly as that dry aged ribeye at the Rockpool. In my stories about Life Behind Bars we’ve been visiting many a country pub and enjoying the honest meals that they present and many meals that cost no more than maybe $25 have been far better than that Rockpool ribeye. We haven’t experienced one pub meal that’s been of as poor quality as what I received at the Rockpool. But it wasn’t just my ribeye, the sirloin was apparently the same and the lamb chops were not much different, with the fat not even rendered, being mostly raw. I have to also add that the vegetables that were presented were fairly average as well, with one dish looking as if an entire tub of yoghurt had been inadvertently poured into the bowl of sweet potatoes. As we left, I also noticed one of the kitchen hands in the open kitchen using a tenderising tool to beat the steaks into submission and that explained a lot about what we’d received. You never have to do this if you have quality meat.
This is why I really have to say that I prefer a country pub any day to one of these pretentious Melbourne restaurants that are claimed to be excellent, but often are not. If Melbournians believe that what they are being served at the Rockpool is superior quality food, they need to venture out to some of the pubs, bistros and restaurants out in the country to see what it means to get a wholesome, excellent and value for money meal. Country pubs have lifted their game immensely over the last few years and put a huge effort into preparing great meals that rival just about any restaurant that you’ll find in the metropolitan area. Many have to be booked well in advance as they are that popular, and it’s not because they are pretentious, it’s because they are good. I don’t know if it’s still the same, but years ago I booked the Tramcar Restaurant for my wife’s birthday for a group of friends and the meal cooked in their minuscule kitchen put the Rockpool to utter shame. Just about every country pub we’ve visited puts the Rockpool meal to utter shame and the Korumburra middle pub apparently has Wagyu beef for $35 that is reportedly outstanding.
You can never tell what something is like without trying it and, if nothing else, it’s been tried. Thankfully, the most important thing was catching up with good friends and having an otherwise great night out. Despite the disappointing food for some, it was a top night and well worth the drive from the country into the big smoke. I do wonder what the judges on Masterchef would have said if presented with a meal such as the one that I was given. I have no doubt the contestant would have been out of contention rather quickly. And I do hope that these people aren’t sending their meat to Rockpool. Funnily enough, my wife did a check on comments about the Rockpool and the latest ones aren’t favourable. But if you want to know how to cook meat, check out Guga Foods and his other channel Sous Vide Everything and you’ll see how easy it is to beat anything that’s served at the Rockpool.