There have been a few conversations over the weeks that we should commence revisiting all of the places that we’ve visited over the last six year’s worth of our semi-regular lunches. Upon throwing around some names of places we’ve been over the years, we realised it was remiss of us to overlook O’Connell’s (and The Montague, so that’s probably slated for next time).
South Melbourne and its immediate environs are littered with pubs that are seeped in history. Some choose to celebrate the pub’s rich past through preserving some of the old charm through new renovations. Others, like O’Connell’s, simply haven’t changed much therefore the old charm naturally still exists (as do the odd mix of pictures in the front dining room). This is not a criticism either (albeit, the jury’s out on the pictures though); it’s a comfortable pub and if I lived in South Melbourne, I’d probably choose to drink here. It’s a bonus that their kitchen is pretty decent as well.
It was reasonably busy on the day we visited. A good sign. Another good sign was our pre-entrée course of Oysters would also be fulfilled. Half a dozen each of freshly shucked Coffin Bay oysters ($3 each) were duly ordered with a bottle of crisp and refreshing 2011 Shaw & Smith Sauvignon Blanc ($50). The oysters lived up to expectation; they were freshly shucked and served simply with a lemon cheek. Also, rather than dealing with annoying rock salt which invariably goes everywhere, the oyster shells sat atop some very stiff, salty meringue. My only (personal) gripe was that the adductor muscle was still attached to the shell but I understand this to be a French thing to prove it’s from the actual shell the oyster’s presented in. Ah, you learn something every day…
Warmed baguette and unsalted butter were happily replenished several times upon our request.
Five entrées preceded five mains, plus a number of different cuts of steak that are cooked on the wood grill and a handful of specials. There is also a ‘pub favourites’ menu on offer with a further seven dishes, featuring some pub classics; a pie, a burger, schnitzel and so on.
For entrée, one of our party opted for the ceviche of Hervey Bay scallops with preserved watermelon, avocado, corn and curry vinaigrette ($19) and two of us ordered the Spencer Gulf king prawns with ox tongue sausage, capers, garlic, lemon and brioche ($19.50).
Upon arrival of the entrées, there was some conjecture and disappointment of the alleged accuracy in pluralising the word ‘scallops’ versus what was served. The scallops had been served shaved and the serving was scant to say the least. In fact, quite the contrary to the three plump, generously sizes prawns that adorned our plates. This feedback was constructively passed on to the kitchen. As for the scallop dish itself, it featured the most amazing preserved watermelon, which was meaty in texture and intense in flavour.
I’ve since learned the process to get your common garden variety watermelon to this stage from Chef, Paul Cooper. Needless to say, when I have a free weekend, I’ll give it a go. It’s more than worth it for the end result. The avocado, corn and curry flavours worked well with the other elements, although (no surprises) they were a little too dominating in the absence of some more scallop.
The prawns, to me, were ever so marginally overdone. However, the accompanying flavours and textures were extremely well balanced; crunch from the brioche croutons, a strong meaty flavour and texture from the ox tongue combined with some desired acidity from the lemon and capers in the butter-based sauce that brought the whole dish together.
For mains, we each agreed to select a different dish to sample as much as we could on the menu. My dining partners respectively went for the slow cooked pork shoulder with ragout of summer beans, gala apples and cider sauce ($33) and the (Farmer Joe’s) baby goat with pumpkin puree, smoked yoghurt, pumpkin seeds and spiced goat sauce ($34).
I chose the roasted duck breast with confit duck leg sausage, spinach compote, plum puree and roasted onions ($34). From all reports, my dining partner’s dishes were quite sound; the pork was meltingly tender and the crackling shard was good enough not to share with anyone else. The accompanying cider sauce had a good balance of sweet and tart to counteract the richness of the pig. Farmer Joe’s baby goat must have had a good life. The meat was sweet and tender and the smoky flavour and sourness from the yoghurt was perfectly in tune with the spiced jus. There’s no denying that O’Connell’s kitchen knows a thing or two about balancing flavours. A dainty pithivier, filled with more goat meat, also featured on the plate.
My duck breast could be best described as amply bosomed. The skin was crisp and the meat had been well-rendered to leave just skin and meat. I would have preferred the meat a shade underdone than it was served, but that’s just personal preference. I would have also loved a good dredging of the accompanying just, but that’s just greed. The confit duck leg sausage provided some extra richness. Although we could have gotten away with no side dishes (all $9), we chose the sautéed green beans with bacon, almonds and brown butter. All beans… no, wait… all green vegetables should be served like this. Other sides are the usual suspects; Fries, mash and a salad option.
For dessert, we did exactly the opposite of our main selection. We all ordered the same thing; Melbourne city rooftop honey iced nougat with port poached pear, chocolate mousse and crystallized pumpkin seeds ($15). Although I could have gone for alternatives, like the sticky date pudding with English toffee sauce and treacle nut brittle ice cream ($15) or the bitter sweet chocolate tart with macerated cherries, cherry cream, candied bacon and orange ($15). Mmm… candied bacon; totally underutilised. We asked to try some separately and we were duly rewarded. My preferred version of a petit four.
To quickly digress, for the uninitiated, Melbourne City Rooftop Honey are Beekeepers that are bringing bees back to the city and the suburbs of Melbourne. The organisation ‘re-houses’ swarms of honey bee colonies into specified hived around inner-Melbourne. The output, of course, is honey made practically on your door step (or rooftop, as the case may be), which you can also buy on-line here. Please check out this very worthy project.
The honey was the star in our parfait-like nougat, closely followed by the support act in the form of a small quenelle of decadent chocolate mousse… any more mousse and it would have dominated. Another example of perfect balance in both flavours and texture; soft pear / crunchy sugared pumpkin seeds / icy nougat / silky mousse.
We rounded out proceedings with our usual road test of the cheese board, which was pretty solid in terms of generosity. Three cheeses at 50 grams per cheese ($28) were served with lavosh, quince paste, fresh pear and some of the most interesting dried grapes that almost tasted like dried apricot. The cheeses on offer were a French double brie, Manchego and a Gorgonzola.
With our mains and desserts, we drank the 2008 Craiglee Shiraz ($96). O’Connell’s wine list is extensive and covers both ends of the price spectrum very well.
Overall, O’Connell’s is providing some honest, (in parts) inventive and of course, tasty food at a price point that is smack bang where it should be for the experience and surrounds. The staff know their stuff and are attentive… even to accommodate requests like sampling some candied bacon. In the kitchen, Paul Cooper and his team, including Kiwi Stacy Thompson, are doing the right thing by the people of South Melbourne.
O’Connell’s Centenary Hotel
Cnr Coventry and Montague Streets, South Melbourne
(03) 9699 9600
Good For: A great example of a true ‘Gastropub’ experience in Melbourne… even though I hate that term
Not Good For: Being a little too miserly with their scallops. But all is forgiven (hey, I didn’t order it)