I hold in high regard people that demonstrate an unbridled passion for something. It’s not that I’m not passionate about stuff. But this is passion at another level; turning it up to eleven in a Spinal Tap-esque kind of way. Where a person’s eyes glaze over when they’re talking to you and every word is spoken from the heart and you become so engaged listening to what they have to say and you’re envious because you want to be where they are.
This is Leila Donnan in a nutshell. Co-owner and Maître d of Carlton North’s Bramble & Vine. She’s passionate about her menu; locally sourced ingredients and almost everything made from scratch. She’s passionate about her simple, but sound and ultra inexpensive wine list – all selected by Leila. She’s even passionate about the Tasmanian bottled rain water we drank and the Australian-designed handmade Plumm water and wine glasses we drank from. Her passion and her gregariousness were infectious. It made you want to be there. And the food just made it better.
This place has existed for around 18 months now and I’ve only recently dined there. Very foolish of me as it was excellent and a relatively high 93% of people on urbanspoon tend to agree, but for some reason it’s just not as busy as it should be and I don’t know why. The building that houses Bramble & Vine is the fourth incarnation as I have known it over the last seven or so years. Previously it was home to pizza joint Bande à Part and prior to that it was Caffe Qui and before that a Lebanese restaurant.
Granted, this part of Nicholson St can be a bit hit and miss. Excluding the cafes and the most obvious places leading the way (like the brand spanking new St. Ali North and Pope Joan), you’ve got Bistro Flor a kilometre or so back towards the city, but that’s about it.
As for the food… look, it’s not three hat, or one or two for that matter. But it’s honest, tasty and satisfying bistro cooking by chef (and the other co-owner) Sarah-Jane Mahoney, who is equally as passionate (just not as outward in showing it) and that was reflected in practically every dish that graced our table.
Like the wine list, the menu is simple and has strong leanings towards Mediterranean and Middle Eastern influences. You can choose from three light bites (all $14), four entrees (all $18), four mains (all $33), four sides ($8), four desserts ($14) and (the self-proclaimed) Australia’s best cheese platter with one, two or three cheeses for $19, $24 or $29 respectively – served with lots of lovely house made accompaniments; lavosh, honey truffled walnuts, baked bread, pear mash and a strawberry, fig, pine nut salad. It sounded very promising but I didn’t get that far. Maybe next time.
We decided to share dishes and started with a Sardinian gorgonzola garlic pizza, complete with half a confit garlic bulb. This was a true garlic-lovers delight, with a bit of fun thrown in by having the pleasure of squeezing out perfectly sweet and soft garlic paste onto a thin, crispy pizza base with good hit of creaminess and sharpness from the gorgonzola and the zing of fresh thyme and rosemary.
Next up was a light, whipped beetroot puree, studded with bits of blue goats cheese, hazelnuts, za’atar yoghurt and just enough horseradish; providing a subtle presence that reminds you of how well horseradish and beetroot work together.
I have my doubts that the mountain bread was housemade. Not that it’s an issue, but there is already housemade pizza, bread and lavosh on offer with other dishes and perhaps an opportunity lost to reinforce Bramble & Vine’s philosophy.
For mains, neither of us could go past the red wine braised pork belly with toasted coriander and ginger relish, chard and parsnip in both creamy (pureed, but more like a skordalia) and crispy crunchy forms.
The pork was meltingly tender and its richness was met with sweetness from the puree, some punch from the relish and freshness from the perfectly cooked chard. Put simply, it was a well balanced, well thought out dish in both flavour and texture.
For the sides, we sampled the Kipfler potato ‘chips’ with thyme, rosemary and bush lime aioli and the wilted chard with lemon garlic tahini and pine nuts.
Whilst I’m not a massive fan of the waxy Kipfler, the generous bowl of spuds provided a variety of some crunchy, some sweet, some soft potatoes to the point where we found ourselves vying for the title of finding the ‘best’ chip.
We probably could have done without the wilted chard, as there was already chard served in the pork dish. My only criticism was the colour of the tahini, most likely made with black sesame seeds which resulted in a fairly unappealing grey blu-tack coloured blob.
We ended proceedings with an ode to the hot weather we’ve recently endured; a perfectly poached peach, lightly spiced with cinnamon, was filled with a rich marscapone flecked with vanilla, the nutty crunch from crushed bits of almond flavoured meringue – all sitting proudly on a subtle champagne granita. Again, another example of a dish that was well thought out in flavour, texture and this time around, temperature.
To drink, we polished off a couple of bottles of (slightly chilled) 2011 Calulu Park Pinot Noir ($36) from the Yarra Valley. The rest of the wine list is just as affordable and whilst it’s a relatively straight forward, with 12 wines on offer, BYO is also welcomed.
Bramble & Vine is a great local that would be welcomed in any of Melbourne’s inner-suburban main drags. Quality ingredients are being treated with great love and respect, resulting in some top dishes that are extremely affordable. More importanly, it’s being run by some very passionate people that are doing what they love. If I can, at the very least, try to be as equally passionate for my love of local food and do my part to get a few more locals (or even those not so local) in the door and possibly become regulars, then it’s a win / win for everyone.
Bramble & Vine
749 Nicholson St, Carlton North VIC
(03) 9388 1558
Good For: Great local people making and serving great local food and wine to great local people, at very affordable prices