Dusk poured through the windows, bathing the immense sphere looming over the room in a rosy glow. I looked at the pig's eye in my drink. The pig's eye looked back at me. "It's time to go inside," said one of the invigilators. "Would you like it soft or hard?"
Having made the necessary preparations, signing the waiver* and declaring myself free of seizures, "hard" seemed like the only fitting answer. I slipped off my shoes, took up the panic button, and ducked through the small hatch on the side of the sphere. I climbed the handful of steps, lay down on the bed at the top, and waited as the door was closed from outside. The ceiling, only a few feet from my face, blazed blue. And then it began.
Faro's dining room
Around 14 minutes later, after it was all over, I emerged from the sphere, at once dazed and exhilarated. The invigilators told me to put on my shoes; it was best, they said, to go straight from the light to the darkness. Later, as I sat in what felt to be a comfortable chair in an otherwise empty pitch-black room, I decided they were right. And then the main courses rolled around.
There are bells at The Source, Mona's long-established flagship restaurant, and there are whistles. The tables inside are like vitrines, and beneath their glass tops lie artefacts such as the vulva-shaped bowls that were part of the service at the wedding feast of Mona founder David Walsh and artist Kirsha Kaechele. The tables on the balcony are planted with mossy groundcover and flowers in place of tablecloths. But it's all just so much set-dressing compared to Faro.
Black margarita with pig's eyeball
This new restaurant is very different to anything at Mona. Very different full-stop. Where The Source is an arty restaurant at an art museum, Faro is a work of art. Part of Pharos, the new wing of the museum, the art is part of its very fabric. Its 10-metre ceilings comfortably accommodate the epic scale of the vast sphere housing Unseen Seen. Commissioned for Pharos, Unseen Seen is the largest version of the Perceptual Cells series built yet by American artist James Turrell. If "enclosed, autonomous spaces… in which one's perception of space is challenged by light", as Turrell puts it, seem an unusual thing to make part of a dining experience, just wait till you get a load of the work's companion installation, Weight of Darkness.
Faro, inside Mona's new Pharos wing, as seen from the outside
Then again, by the time the hapless diner has arrived at the restaurant itself, none of this should be entirely surprising. This is Mona, after all. At dinner, access to Faro is gained via a lift which leads to a bunker containing Memorial to the Sacred Wind or The Tomb of a Kamikaze, a mechanical sculpture made in 1969 by Jean Tinguely which makes such a racket when it comes to life that its attendant wears protective earmuffs. Turn left and you step into the gleaming vertigo of Richard Wilson's 20:50 - used sump-oil has never been more captivating, and this installation of the work reflects well on the design of Pharos itself. Turn right and you're bathed in rays of colour as you walk through another bewitching Turrell, Beside Myself, which opens onto the dining room.
Views of the Derwent River (photography Adam Gibson)
If this all sounds a bit bloody chilly and cerebral and Stanley Kubrick for dinner, rest assured the staff at Faro put a warm and human face on things. They're as quick with a quip as they are with a recommendation from the cellar. They'll share their thoughts on whether hard or soft is the best way to experience Unseen Seen (hard is the consensus), and how best to drink a black Margarita garnished with a feral pig's eyeball (promptly, before the sphere of ice encasing the eye melts).
The food itself is not particularly challenging. It's Spanish for some reason. I prodded David Walsh on this point via email, and he replied with a question: "What cuisine would you not have inquired about? Lebanese? Greek? Tapas is a cuisine that scales from snack to meal, and we are serving all day."
Air-dried beef with broad beans and peas
Anyway, it's more the Spanish of Cal Pep and classic tapas bars with a dash of Mod Oz element than Ferran Adrià and the foam brigade, though there's the odd powder here and there. The ham is ham, the sherry is sherry. It's good news for anyone who had enough of the whole inverted-comma thing dining in the noughties. The ham and sherry happen to be among the best things on offer, and together, especially when the sherry is a cold, dry manzanilla from Equipo Navazos, they kick a night off in style.
Faro's dining room (photography Adam Gibson)
There's something to be said for that simplicity. The further off-piste the kitchen veers, the less successful the dishes tend to be. The diner may find herself pondering such questions as why are there so many things happening in each dish? What about a bit more Tasmanian produce? And what's with all the basil? I counted five instances of basil on the menu - roughly the same number of dishes with basil in them I've seen visiting Spain over the past 15 years.
Confit abalone, raw scallop and miso on a linseed cracker
The drink with the eyeball in it is, sadly, as much of a let-down to the would-be Instagrammer as it is to the drinker. The blackness of the black Margarita is achieved with the addition of charcoal powder, and the glass is rimed with black salt. These seem to dampen down the flavours of tequila, mezcal and lime as effectively as they make it a nightmare to photograph. If you want to drink something black, opaque and decadent, the smart, eclectic wine list yields a 1946 Toro Albala Pedro Ximénez at a cool $78 a glass.
Back on the plate, asparagus garnished with salted egg yolk and a Daliesque flap of crisp chicken skin brings the flavour. A little three-bite sandwich of fried oyster and chorizo rises above the basil in its mayo to make for a perfect snack, and smoked Berkshire pork, served with clams and ling and, to really drive the smokiness home, smoked paprika, is fall-apart tender. (It also has basil in its garnish, just for good measure.)
Clams, smoked Berkshire pork shoulder and ling with smoked paprika
The wares are beautiful. Gold and black Cutipol Goa cutlery glints next to granite-finish plates on the marble tabletops. And the room itself has a grandeur that takes a while to fully comprehend. With a couple of notable exceptions, in recent times most of Hobart's better restaurants have offered little in the way of a view, so even without the art Faro's soaring lines and vantage on the banks of the Derwent River make it a pretty captivating proposition. Throw in the Stranger Things-meets-2001 vibe conferred by the lab coats and ominous six-metre-high steel ball and you've got something really radical on your hands.
The menu alone mightn't inspire a trip to Tasmania - unless you really have a thing for basil. But Faro is wild and strange and fun in the way that restaurants usually aren't. It's a credit to Walsh and Kaechele's larger Mona mission of subversion, disruption and provocative play.
Unseen Seen by James Turrell
"There are plenty of museums with good restaurants, including us already," Walsh tells me. We pursue biological imperatives: among them sustenance and pleasure. "But I have my own motives, and my own money, so I can mess around and see what happens. What happened this time is Pharos. It's a little peculiar because we are a little peculiar."
After dessert you once again slip off your shoes and step into a void - this time the wild pink yonder of James Turrell's Event Horizon, once again becoming part of the art rather than someone looking at art. There's nothing else like it in Australia. And as the ganzfeld effect begins to take hold, and you find yourself floating in a space beyond perspective, it may well feel like there's nothing else quite like it in the world.
Faro Tapas, bar open daily 11am-6pm, dinner daily 6pm-10pm. Tapas $6-$10, smaller plates $18-$24, larger plates $26-$34, dessert $14-$16. Mona, 655 Main Rd, Berriedale, Tas, (03) 6277 9904, mona.net.au
* "2. In participating in the Works, I
(a) I will lie on a bed, in an enclosed metal sphere, for about 15 minutes while I experience visual images created through flashing lights, and also be subjected to extreme darkness;
(b) There are inherent risks, and some participants may suffer adverse health effects including, but not limited to, epileptic seizures;
(c) I may be required to experience the Works, in close proximity, with an unknown participant and that Mona is not responsible for that other person's conduct; and
(d) Mona is not able to guarantee that I will not suffer any injury or develop any condition, serious or minor, as a result of participating.
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