Watching a chef at work in an open kitchen of a buzzing Melbourne restaurant is like witnessing a performance. Dan Cooper works neatly and with precision as he pieces together creations developed from the daily deliveries of local suppliers. Dan prides himself on experimenting with ingredients at their seasonal peak, aiming to enhance and compliment the existing flavours. “Letting the ingredients drive how, what and when we cook is key to maximum flavour and taste,” he explains.
Dan honed his craft at (the two-hatted) Aria in Brisbane, followed by stints under Jake Nicholson and Paul Wilson at Circa, The Prince before taking a culinary Rumspringa across Northern Africa and the Mediterranean rim where he discovered the locals’ unique approach to spicing and cooking with hyper-seasonal ingredients. Spice-driven comfort flavours are now the backbone of the Prince Dining Room menu and as the mercury dips, Dan consciously finds his inspiration in the smoky, spicy and saucy flavours of northern Africa.
Applying an arsenal of techniques he calls “back-to-roots cooking,” Dan uncovers the unique tastes and sensations that come from utilizing the original heat source, fire. “By using coal grills and a wood-fired oven we are seasoning the produce with smoke as well. It takes time to understand how the wood and coals work, like a hot spot on the grill, which only last for 5 minutes, fire requires constant attention.”
Prince Dining Room will continue to flip the script on the traditional approach to menu curation by making the vegetable the hero. “This is a daily challenge in the PDR kitchen and each morning is exciting as the farmers arrive with produce.”
Dan’s relationships with his producers are close and collaborative. He speaks fondly of each one, grinning especially as he dishes on a quality haul of pine mushrooms from Jo and Matt Corrigan at Mushrooms Anonymous. “The mushrooms are sourced from deep within state forests, so pure, clean and full of flavour!”
While the restaurant does hero vegetables, Prince Dining Room explores all flavour profiles. Dan explains his engaged interest in sustainable fishing and farming. “Our friends at OceanMade seafood source the best and most sustainable seafood from Australia’s coastline. We are seeing some amazing things from them at the moment. Our food is designed to be approachable, to share, obviously to be full of flavour but with a conscious thought on sustainability and waste.”
As for winter at Prince Dining Room, the menu will evolve throughout the season working with smoke, charring, grilling and especially spices for warm, tasty and comforting food.
Considered yet playful, dishes include:
- Pine mushrooms, red harissa
- Jerusalem artichokes, wild nettles, crab head sauce
- Graffiti eggplant, mussels, spicy sausage, fava beans
- Jewelled cracked freekeh pilaf (the jewels are the ruby red pomegranate seeds scattered through the pilaf)
- Turmeric curry, charred red mullet, chickpeas, coriander
- Sher family wagyu beef skewers, fermented green chilli
Read on for a glimpse beyond the pass as Dan Cooper reveals a home cook’s version of his Pine Mushrooms, red harissa recipe.
Prince Dining Room is open Mon-Wed: 7am – 11am, 5pm – 10pm | Thurs-Sun: 7am – 10pm.
BBQ PINE MUSHROOMS, RED HARISSA, CRISPY CHICKPEAS
This is a lovely side for beef or chicken dishes, or a full flavoured fish like Ocean trout or local snapper. It’s also great solo as the texture and flavour of the mushrooms hold their own.
- 200g fresh pine mushrooms
- 50ml extra virgin olive oil
- Salt flakes
Dress mushrooms in oil and salt. Cook over an open flame on bbq. If you have access to a wood-fired bbq or grill, the results are far superior. Cook until some juice starts to come out of the mushrooms and they feel soft to touch but are not shrivelled or crispy. Remove half of the stem only. Set aside.
- 2 long red chillies
- 1 birds eye chilli
- 3 red capsicum
- 4 garlic cloves
- 6 banana shallots or 8 shallots
- 15gm Aleppo pepper or similar
- 10gm ground coriander
- 5gm ground cumin
- 5gm smoked paprika
- 8gm sweet paprika
- 100ml extra virgin olive oil
- 20ml sherry vinegar
- 10gm Flake salt
BBQ chillis, capsicum, garlic & shallots whole with outer skins on. Once heavily coloured, peel all.
Add all ingredients to a food processor or mortar and pestle and blitz until broken down. It doesn’t need to be a smooth paste some texture here is good. Set aside.
- 250ml olive oil
- 200gm fresh or tinned chickpeas
- Merguez spiced seasoning (see recipe)
- 10gm flake salt
Fresh chickpeas are always better. But if you don’t have time use a good quality organic tinned chickpea.
If using fresh, soak overnight. Cook the next morning until soft, refrigerate until cooled.
If using tinned, drain and wash well dry on paper towel.
Fry cooled dry cooked chickpeas in canola oil at 170º until crispy, about 3-4 minutes.
Carefully drain through pasta colander shake excess oil off then immediately season with spice mix and salt. The seasoning sticks to the chickpeas better if there is some oil residue on the chickpeas.
Merguez Spice Mix
- 100g sweet paprika
- 20g fennel seeds
- 20g cumin
- 20g coriander seeds
- 5g salt
- 5g cinnamon
- 5g black pepper
- Toast seeds and grind in a mortar and pestle
- Mix all together
- Spoon a good amount of Harissa onto a large plate or serving dish.
- Cut your larger mushrooms into 4 and smaller ones into halves. Arrange on top of the Harissa.
- Sprinkle with a generous amount of merguez spiced crispy chickpeas and extra virgin olive oil.
- Serve warm to guests alongside your choice of protein.