If I work up the motivation to walk or jog around Melbourne’s Tan I usually like to reward myself with lunch or at least a coffee. Up until recently the options were fairly limited but now wunder chef Shannon Bennett has taken over what used to be The Observatory cafe and transformed it into Jardin Tan. What used to be more a canteen than a cafe dominated by a gift shop is now a gorgeous sunny restaurant spilling over into the most fabulous kitchen garden. There’s a magical feel to the place with hanging mossy plants and trees decked out with tiny bells which ring in the breeze.
There are two parts to Jardin Tan, the more casual cafe where you queue to order and food is served in takeaway containers and the restaurant which has table service and a more extensive menu. I’ve eaten at both parts of Jardin Tan and the common theme running through the two parts is a French/Vietnamese menu. The Vietnamese focus is is quite a departure for Bennett and at the cafe it translates into offerings of banh mi and rice paper rolls alongside the pastry, donuts and coffee. It’s nice to have a different offering to standard sandwiches but the cafe food is pricey for what it is. My rice paper rolls ($10.50) were dry from having sat in the sun for a while but then you are paying for a spectacular location.
The food gets more interesting once you are in the restaurant. I visited with my friend Claire so we ordered a range of dishes to share. Cubes of golden crispy tofu ($9) wobbled when we bit into them and popped thanks to a sprinkling of lemon grass salt.
The highlight was the grilled Wagyu mince wrapped in betel leaves ($14). Dipped in a creamy peanut sauce it was the perfect finger food. I wasn’t as impressed with the quinoa salad or the fried chicken ($18) with firecracker sauce. The chicken was tender but the batter was soft rather than crunchy and so lacked in textural contrast.
There’s a more tenuous link to the Vietnamese vibe in the desserts on offer but don’t let that put you off as they are sensational. We ordered ours to go and walked out through the kitchen garden to eat them sitting in the Botanic gardens. If it’s on the menu you must get the pineapple upside down cake which is sticky and sweet while crunching with brown sugar.
Jardin Tan’s fusion of Vietnamese and French cuisine isn’t always successful and service can be extremely slow (particularly at the cafe). But it’s not just about the food here – the experience comes as much from the fantastic setting.
Details: Jardin Tan, Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne, Birdwood Ave, South Yarra (Ph 03 9021 2111)
Damage: Pricey. Our bill for two came to $120 with one glass of wine each.