An afternoon tea with potential in what is perhaps Melbourne’s most opulent dining venue.
Southbank has long been dominated by bleary-eyed clubbers and light-fingered gamblers, spotted with a handful of extrovertedly over-priced glitzy restaurants catering for those who had the requisite bling-bling and deep pockets to frequent Crown Casino’s Mahogany Room. That shadow still lingers, but a wave of more refined sophistication increasingly laps at the Yarra River’s southern banks. Situated in the Casino Complex but isolated from the gambling crowds, the Conservatory is perhaps, the most beautiful restaurant venue in Melbourne. It is a luxuriously appointed space washed in a palette of pale jade green, creamy white, aluminium grey and spots of rich garnet. Stunning art deco pendants are ensconced in cathedral high ceilings, and diners are seated on plush upholstered chairs. The view is stunning — of shimmering city skyline bordered by brown river waters. Notwithstanding its name however, there is not a green leaf or blossoming flower in sight at the Conservatory.
On our visit, afternoon tea at the Conservatory was strictly timed, with entrance to the venue granted at only 3.00 pm, and ending at precisely 5.00pm. It was conducted as a buffet-style, rather than a three-tiers affair. Table dressing was plain and consequently, rather underwhelming. Big, white, plain. Tea was offered from a communally-shared tea pot, and may or may not have been loose leaf. Just as the tea plate was stark white, the tea poured into the tea cup was stark black.
Savouries were perhaps the strongest point of high tea at the Conservatory. Diverging from classical ribbon sandwiches (which do feature), there were also bruschetta slices with a Mediterranean spirit — sundried tomatoes, mozarella, pesto, saucy chicken — and miniature roast beef burgers, savoury almond friands, arancini balls, cheese pastry cubes, and a generous cheese platter.
Scones were soft but dry, and were present in two varieties — plain or raisin-studded. The accompanying strawberry jam was dismal in its lack of spread-ability.
The dessert buffet occupied two sides of the buffet’s four-sided table arrangement. It was without a doubt, rather eye-catching. However, looks can (and proved to be) somewhat deceiving. On our visit, there were two “real” cakes, which were difficult to slice through and a messy option with so many patrons visiting it. The glorious counter of sweet things was an army of mousse. Long-time readers of this dessert-only blog will know the great aversion which these Dessert Correspondents harbour against gelatin, a porcine by-product. Ergh. It appeared that the same cream — somewhere between a mousse and a panna cotta — had been used with only a superficial change in its embellishments, from raspberry jelly to orange to lime to coconut to mango. Disappointing. On the more positive side, there was an ice cream bar with five types of ice cream to be scooped into proper wafer cones and sprinkled with a rainbow of confectionery from glass bowls. This was clearly a favourite of fellow patrons. There were also psychedelic lollipops tied to trees which created a pretty whimsical effect, and a magical, multi-tiered flowing chocolate and caramel fountain.
A chef wheeled out a towering trolley of desserts at 4.30pm and commenced clearing the afternoon tea and preparing for the dinner buffet. Evidently, more attention had been paid to this trolley of dinner desserts than to the desserts offered at the afternoon tea.
The Conservatory has obtained a reputation for fine buffets. For lunch or dinner, yes. For afternoon tea, not really. Although the savoury options are very good, it is somewhat difficult to overlook dry scones, the predominance of mousse cakes, plain tea… and a disappointing lack of service. It is unfathomable how such a beautiful place can offer such an afternoon tea. That said, afternoon tea at the Conservatory — because of its simplicity and its stunningly elegant setting — is ideal for first-time afternoon tea patrons. It does have potential to be great. For us though, on our visit, we gazed beyond the beautiful art deco windows and sighed. Our quest for excellent high tea in Melbourne therefore continues.
Dessert adventure checklist
- ☑ Dessert destination: The Conservatory, Level 1, Crown Complex, Southbank, Melbourne, Vic 3006.
- ☑ Budget: $$$ ($45 pp).
- ☑ Sweet irresistibles: High tea.
- ☑ Must-eat: Available daily, buffet-style.
- ☑ The short and sweet story: An afternoon tea with potential in what is perhaps Melbourne’s most opulent dining venue.