I love my birthday. Not as much as I used to when back in the day, I’d exploit it to the hilt, spreading it across nine days (two weekends and five weekdays). Nowadays I’m lucky to milk it for no more than the day itself and the closest weekend to it.
This means that invariably, quality reigns over quantity and so my choice of restaurant for my Friday night celebration was to be a good one. But I also wanted to go somewhere that I’d been yearning to try, rather than heading back to familiar digs. Merricote was high up on the list of ‘my next place to go’, so the choice was easy.
The recent winner of the 2012 The Age Good Food Guide’s Best Short Wine List, Merricote has come on to the scene in a big way over the last seven or so months, yet when you walk in your first thoughts are… well, it’s quite unassuming. A simply decorated dining room features some large prints on the walls of the ‘staple’ animals we like to devour: pig, cow, chicken… and some quirky figurine farm animals feature here and there. To add to the simplicity, there is no bar or counter, allowing for more space between tables of this 30-seater, making the room feel totally devoid of that claustrophobic feeling you can experience at some places. It works very well in this relaxing, laid-back, lounge-room setting. Ideal for dinner with good friends.
Bronwyn, co-owner (with other half, Rob, slaving away in the kitchen), sommelier and front-of-house made us feel very welcome from the moment we stepped in the front door, ushering us to our table promptly and offering us a choice of Northcote’s finest tap water (as featured in the drinks menu) or Antipodes sparkling mineral water.
Over a couple of glasses of pleasant French bubbles ($19) we perused the menu which featured four dishes each under the categories of charcuterie, small bites, starters, mains, sides, desserts and a highly anticipated cheese trolley. A degustation menu was also available at $65 for six courses.
Some exceptional house made bread rolls were offered; a choice of a seeded brown, dark beer-based roll or a floury white roll with fennel. Being ever so health conscious, I stuck to the brown roll which was outstandingly fluffy and even better with a generous spread of softened butter, which if I was a betting man looked and tasted like Naomi’s butter from Myrtleford.
Settling on the a’la carte menu, our first choice was a clearly obvious; a selection of charcuterie ($22). We were promptly presented with a board laden with thinly sliced handmade salami, capicola and some other tasty cured meat, served with some house made piccalilli and cornichons. I found the piccalilli a little too salty, K disagreed. Each to their own, I guess. We popped the top of a jar of the most delicious duck rillettes – the best rillettes I’ve eaten to date! A well judged ratio of duck fat to the slowly cooked and well-seasoned duck meat, which was chunkier than what you’d expect. It was more like pieces of confit duck than the finer shred of meat you’d expect from rillettes. Not that I was complaining.
A slice of pigs’ head terrine was paired with an excellent, chunky sauce grebiche. I also decided that I wasn’t a big fan of pigs’ head, which is absolutely of no disrespect to the kitchen. I’ve tried a number of times now; as brawn / head cheese, plus a number of variations. I don’t know… maybe it’s a texture thing. Anyway, that was my problem. Some (again) house made lavosh was on hand to scoop, spread and devour what was a great start to our night. In hindsight, the charcuterie selection was probably a little ambitious for just the two of us and probably better suited for 3 or 4 like-minded carnivores.
We also ordered the beetroot, walnut and goats cheese salad ($14) to share, providing an extra foil to the rich proteins. We were both unanimous in declaring this as a most perfectly balanced salad. Pickled baby turnips and baby beetroots featured with some very fresh pieces of walnut, twice shelled broad beans and various micro herbs – all atop goats cheese foam, which had all of the full flavour of the cheese combined with the lighter-than-air texture of a whipped mascarpone. Delicious.
Our choices for main dishes ($29-$32), as well as they were executed, seemed a little out of place as they would be much more suited to a Winter menu, as opposed to it being half way though Spring.
K chose the ‘nose to tail’ lamb; a couple of perfectly cooked and seasoned cutlets, some braised meat combined with mushroom and shaped into a cylinder, then pan fried, a crumbed and fried nugget of brain (which immediately found its way to yours truly) and, served separately en papillote, was a rich and robust braise with white beans.
I opted for the rump of beef, cooked to medium rare and served on a ragu (of sorts) of chickpeas, mushrooms and braised ox tail. The cooking of the rump was to order, although one piece was a little on the chewy side. By and large, the execution was bang on, but it just seemed a little too hearty for October.
We selected a refreshing shaved cabbage, mint and barrel-aged fetta salad, which was lightly dressed with tangy vinaigrette. An excellent counterpoint to our mains. We drank a 2008 Whistling Eagle Sangiovese. As a choice between the aforementioned and a Tuscan Sangiovese, we asked the advice of Bronwyn, whose recommendation did not let us down.
As much as we were already close to satiation, we had to see the famed cheese trolley. An awesome selection of 15 cheeses were wheeled over to us: soft, semi-soft, hard, goat, cow, sheep, washed rind, ashed, blue mould, wrapped in stuff… take your pick! There were too many to mention (or remember for that matter). If only we knew, we wouldn’t have made pigs of ourselves earlier. Still, we settled on the Holy Goat Veloute. Bronwyn took our selection from the trolley and deftly proceeded to slice the top off like a skilled surgeon. We selected a few dried figs and some more of the house made lavosh. The figs were a perfect accompaniment to dip into the ripe, creamy, sweet and slightly nutty gooey goodness.
Maybe the cheese gave me a second wind. Maybe it was birthday magic. Maybe it was just plain greed and the hope K was paying. I was determined to push on through to dessert. And I’m glad I did.
The aptly titled Dutch mess – homage to all things orange lived up to its name. It was probably also the most carnival-esque and fun desserts I’ve had. A well thought out combination of bitter blood orange segments and jelly surrounded a disc of creamy vanilla ice cream. Delicate orange and yellow flower petals were visually stunning but added nothing to the flavour (perhaps some peppery nasturtiums instead?) and were a little feathery at the back of my throat. On top of the largely bitter ingredients, a contrasting layer of light and airy orange blossom-flavoured Persian fairly floss and a precise scoop of orange sorbet featured. No one ingredient dominated another and alas, my life was a little less bright once it had disappeared.
A well made espresso rounded out the night and my birthday feast.
Questionable seasonality of the main dishes aside, Merricote is an absolute gem of a place and we’re quite spoilt to have it at the bottom of Ruckers Hill and The Estelle at the top. High Street, Northcote continues to the up the ante and the best thing is that us locals get to reap the rewards with good, honest and unpretentious food that’s combined with an extensive, well sourced wine list – all of which is excellent value and all of which Merricote delivers with aplomb.
Thanks for making my birthday special.
81 High St, Northcote 3070
(03) 9939 4762
http://www.merricote.com.au/ (website coming soon)
Good For: Sticking it up the people on the other side of the river; we’ve got it better than them
Not Good For: Seasonal confusion