Bold new Hilton opens

Hip design and a menu by a Michelin-star chef are hallmark's of Melbourne's newest hotel, writes Kay O'Sullivan.

It's sod's law. If you say something is a first or unique you'll be proven wrong. But, somehow, I can't imagine there is another five-star hotel in the world with artwork made of Brillo pads.

Yes, Brillo pads, those highly efficient steel-wool scourers shaped like a coral polyp. That's exactly what you will find adorning the vast wood-lined lobby of Australia's newest five-star hotel, the Hilton Melbourne South Wharf. By now you probably have an inkling the venue is not your average Hilton.

Sure, all the Hilton boxes are ticked, especially in the 396 rooms. The colours in the bedrooms are soothingly neutral, the beds big and deep, the marble bathrooms luxurious. And anyone who has ever stayed in a Hilton will know how to use the phone (any button will connect you through to reception).

But if I had to pick one word to describe the hotel's public spaces - those bits that will ultimately decide whether the hotel becomes part of Melbourne's wining-and-dining scene or remains the preserve of well-heeled travellers - then bold springs to mind.

Architects Woods Bagot, in association with NH Architecture, drew heavily on the hotel's location - the banks of the Yarra in the newest bit of Melbourne between the Docklands and Southbank - to inform the interiors. But there's nothing jaunty here.

We're talking soaring seven-metre ceilings and timber, huge planks of it on the floor, ceilings and in between. There's steel, some of it rusted; walls of smoky glass; sophisticated, expensive lights; cobblestones; and red-and-brown-striped carpet in Sotano, the tapas bar. The sum of the often-surprising parts of the new Hilton is sensational.

Town planners, to say nothing of the Hilton hierarchy, are praying that this South Wharf precinct will take off in the way Southbank did 20 years ago.

There's plenty there. Views of the Polly Woodside, the river, the southern CBD beyond Etihad Stadium and Jeff's Shed, with more shops and restaurants in the pipeline. At the centre is the new Melbourne Exhibition and Convention Centre and the Hilton Melbourne South Wharf, which are connected on two levels.

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Now all they need is guests who are not just conference delegates or business travellers. Which is where Michelin-starred Spanish chef, Ramon Frexia, comes in.

Frexia owns the Michelin-starred El Raco d'En Frexia in Barcelona. He also operates two other restaurants in Spain, one a Michelin red star. Here, Frexia is central to Hilton plans to establish the hotel as a destination for Melburnians.

"With so many fine restaurants in the city there has to be a reason to choose the hotel restaurant," says Jean-Luc Fourrier, vice-president of food and beverage for the Asia-Pacific region - one of the scores of Hilton personnel in town to see that the hotel opened on Thursday night in a manner Hiltons are supposed to.

Frexia, with an international reputation for lively, fun restaurants that produce seriously good food, is deemed to be enough of a reason for Melburnians to try the newest Hilton. But the question has to be asked: how is Frexia going to establish the Hilton as a destination when he lives half a world away?

The man in question says he will visit often and be on the phone daily to resident chef Philippe Perrey, who trained with him in Barcelona.

"Every night for you, every morning for me," says Frexia, who is in town for three weeks working on menus with Perrey and staff. "There are also many things that are the same. The produce is great and this is a Mediterranean climate."

Frexia says the flagship restaurant, Neuvo 37, will be Melbourne's first taste of Spanish-style fine dining. Sotano, the Catalan tapas bar, is something we are more familiar with. It is, I suspect, where the hotel's vibe will emanate. Apart from the striped carpet, the talking point of the huge space - it accommodates 200 people - will be the wine cellar.

But this cellar is actually a mezzanine with nearly half of the hotel's collection of 5000 bottles stored in a rusted steel cage suspended above the bar. At the risk of repeating myself, it too works. At night it glows and by day you can watch the staff select your wine.

Sotano and Nuevo 37 open out onto the Yarra River. Enter that way and you would never know you were in a hotel, even a five-star hotel. It just feels like a great place to have a drink or dinner.

Hilton Melbourne South Wharf, 2 Convention Centre Place, South Wharf. Phone 9027 2000, see newmelbourne.com.au. Rooms start at $195. Barcelona-born, Melbourne-based Dani Marti was commissioned to create the Brillo artwork in the foyer and two other works of art. Neuvo means new in Spanish and 37 refers to Melbourne's latitude. Sotano, meaning cellar, has a four-metre-high charcuterie tower and a cheese sommelier. Cafe Cino, the modern incarnation of the oft-derided hotel coffee shop, bakes its own bread and pastries. The hotel has a gym but no pool.

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