Dinner by Heston – Level 3, 8 Whiteman St, Southbank

There are a small handful of chefs that I genuinely revere because I’m enamoured with their style, technique and use of ingredients and flavours.

Heston is within this handful and he has been for a long time now. I was livid when the arseholes of the finance world hired IT experts to game The Fat Duck booking process, but I can now finally say that I’ve experienced a Heston meal and although it wasn’t The Fat Duck, Dinner by Heston was a magnificent consolation.

In the past, there has been a tendency for me to bang on about value; taking in all things considered – food, wine and the overall experience. Surprisingly, Dinner by Heston is a lot better in the value stakes than I had expected, although you may not think that when you peruse the à la carte menu; the food is on the pricey side.

The average price for a starter is $35, mains are around $55 (unless you want a steak, which will set you back $75-$85) and desserts are in the vicinity of $25-$30. Sides are $12. It’s the wine list though that has the potential to not cause too much damage to your credit card; that is, if you can also resist the temptation of supping on a $24 cocktail, whilst waiting for your table to become available. The vastly extensive and (literally) heavy wine list book will take some time to work your way through and if you’re on a budget, you can find some much-loved gems on the list that still have a typical restaurant mark up, but aren’t overly steep in price. Of course, like we did, you can also place your trust in the hands of the Sommelier if you find the list overwhelming.

Like a number of other reviews I’ve read, the theatre begins when you attempt to negotiate your way into the restaurant. Maybe it’s a test. We passed… albeit eventually and an automatic sliding door led us to a stunning open kitchen that overlooks a dining room with dark colours, tempered by light green chairs and tan leather banquettes. It’s instantly inviting and comfortable. The kind of place that makes you pleased that you’ll be spending the next 3 or 4 hours here.

Our table wasn’t ready, so we were ushered to the bar for a cocktail (call me cynical, but it does makes me wonder whether this was a subtle tactic). This is apparently Heston’s first endeavour into extending his repertoire into bars, so we played along and had a cocktail that was swiftly expedited. My Olive Leaf Martini (c. 1930) was clean and crisp. It was explained to me that the olive leave flavour is an extract from distilling the leaves. I like my martinis dirty, so perhaps the technique was lost on me. My dining partner has an aversion to gin, so he settled for a Pineapple Sparkler (c. 1910), which formed the basis of some objectionable jocularity for a few minutes until our table was declared ready.

Again we were ushered, this time to our table and we were given a prime window seat, overlooking what was a very clear Melbourne night. Sadly, this was an evening of platonic bromance and therefore any romantic inferences were completely lost on us.

One week into being open to the public, after a couple of weeks of offering soft openings, Dinner by Heston was still running at half capacity, with a full complement of staff. Needless to say, the service was impeccable; prompt and very attentive. But also friendly too, which added to the pleasantness of the evening.

So, down to the food. It was great. It was delicious, precise and pretty. But this is Heston, so you should expect no less.

The Menu

Meat Fruit (c.1500, $38) was ‘the’ dish that I have always wanted to try. An ever-so delicate chicken liver parfait that is expertly covered with a thin film of mandarin gel, textured so it looked like a mandarin more than some mandarins I’ve seen in Coles.

Meat Fruit

The parfait was sublime; light as a feather, not too rich and the citrus flavour from the mandarin gel was a perfect contrast.

Meat Fruit

Bromance opted for the Salmagundy (c. 1720, $36), which by definition is a fancy salad containing all sorts of things. This one contained chicken oysters, braised artichoke stems, marrowbone and pickled walnuts atop a well-balanced horseradish cream.

IMG_0391

We drank a modestly-priced Torbrek Woodcutters Semillion, which was, I don’t know… maybe $50 – a standard mark up for a $20 bottle.

Mains were hard to choose and as much as I wanted the Black Angus Rib eye with mushroom ketchup and fries (c.1830, $85), it was a steak. And whilst it would have been a damn fine one too, this was about trying other things, so I settled on the Powdered Duck Breast (c.1670, $54), which was cooked in Ale and served with charred artichokes. Sadly, we ate all of the bread, so there was none left to mop up the sauce. I didn’t ask, but should have.

Powdered Duck

Bromance went for the Lamb & Cucumber (c.1830, $56), which was a marriage of roasted best end of lamb with a braised cucumber, crumbed sweetbreads, broad beans, barilla & mint. Sunday roast on steroids.

Lamb & Cucumber

Our accompanying sides (Green Beans with Shallots and Fries) were underwhelming for not only the cost, but also the disparity in quality against the other quality dishes. They were pretty pedestrian and when you put fries on a menu, I expect fries. Not chips.

We turned to the Sommelier for advice on a red to compliment both the lamb and the duck, with a price point in mind ($100). He successfully recommended a French Grenache, which was fruity, but packed a bigger punch in the tannin stakes. Ten out of ten for matching and drinking.

Chocolate Bar

For dessert, Bromance chose the Chocolate Bar (c.1730, $26) with passionfruit jam and ginger ice cream. He liked it, but he wasn’t successful in masking his diner’s envy. My Brown Bread Ice Cream (c.1830, $26) vied for dish of the night with Meat Fruit. The ice cream was drizzled with malted yeast syrup and perched onto a bed of salted butter caramel. Little bits of fresh pear alternated with crisp miniature brown bread croutons. Heavenly.

Brown Bread Ice Cream

Whilst desserts come with a recommended dessert wine, we are but humble and creatures of habit and unanimously settled on much loved De Bortoli Noble One Botrytis Semillon ($80).

If you have room, there is also cheese and for some additional theatre, the wait staff will wheel out the Nitro Ice Cream Trolley and serve you a personalised cornetto, hand-churning your ice cream with liquid nitrogen, at your table. Sadly, not for us, but maybe next time.

If you’re a fan of Heston; seen the TV shows, read the books and even made the recipes, then this is something you should experience… as long as you know that a lot of the molecular gastronomy kit was packed up and shipped back to The Fat Duck in Bray. This is not the holistic Heston experience where you’ll eat Lego that tastes like bananas with whale penis… you know; like all of that Heston stuff you see on TV. But I knew that and I was up for seeing how Heston and his team have recreated some of the ye olde foods of ye olde times and thrown in some Australiana for good measure. And it works.

Advertisements

ESP – 245 High St, Northcote

Well, hello there! It’s been a while since my last post. In fact, I’d dare say that my vain attempts at even considering myself as a part-time food blogger would be stretching the truth. But in an effort to possibly be the first person to publish a review of Scott Pickett’s newest incarnation, Estelle by Scott Pickett (aka ESP), I’ve decided to come out of food blogging hibernation.

Scott features heavily in my blog. There are a couple of reviews of the Estelle… maybe three, plus a couple of truffle dinner posts hosted at The Estelle. Some might also call it a man crush. For the record, he’s just a really top bloke who just happens to cook awesome food that I dig in a big way. Also, I am slightly biased towards fellow South Australians.

It felt as though ESP was a bit of an enigma, through lots of local council bureaucracy that delayed inevitable deliciousness; what was meant to be an April opening finally took place on Friday, but it was well worth the wait.

The Menu

The fit out is incredible. It’s dark and moody, but in a good way. All the focus is on the open-plan kitchen, with ample bar seating around the perimeter for diners to watch in awe during and between courses. Why you’d want to sit at a boring table is beyond me.

Hard at work at the Pass

So, what’s the difference between ESP and the ‘old’ Estelle, before it was reinvented as a bistro? Basically, things have gone up several notches. In a sporting parlance, it’s the ‘one percenters’ that should take ESP to that higher level and happily reside with Saint Crispin as a solid two-hatted establishment.

Some of the aforementioned one percenters are the dark linen napkins and the Laguiole knives, both fashioned with the well-recognised ‘E’ emblem, the house-made butter perched on its own little wooden log plate, which accompanied the warmed miniature bacon and onion scroll or (actually, in my case AND) pretzel roll and of course, there’s the theater in the dexterous and attractive presentation.

Bacon Scroll or Pretzel Roll? Have both!

But thank God we do not just eat with our eyes; the flavour combinations were outstanding! My new favourite dish – Mud Crab, Cauliflower & Vadouvan (for the uninitiated… like me, before I googled it, is a sweet, mild, aromatic Indian spice blend, said to be developed by the French colonists in India). The aromatic curry flavours were incorporated into the cauliflower puree and highlighted the sweetness of the mud crab.

Dish of the night... Mud Crab, Cauliflower & Vadouvan

A serendipitous July opening meant that there was sure to be truffles featured on the menu and there were, featuring in a truffle-infused custard and onions executed with different techniques, burnt, pickled and as a consommé… with a generous shaving of truffle as a garnish.

Black Truffle & Onion

Scott’s homage to mentor Philip Howard was delivered in the form of hand-rolled macaroni, a delicately tender sweetbread and the equally tender loin of White Rocks Veal and Mustard Leaf.

White Rocks Veal, Mustard Leaf & Hand Rolled Macaroni

Tasting menus are funny things, you get to course two or three and you’re happy, you’re smiling. You have a large chunk of the night still ahead of you and you’re so, so thankful that there are still a good number of courses to go. Time passes, courses come out, wines are poured and you begin to lose count… is this the sixth course or the fifth? Before you know it, dessert is being placed in front of you.

Then you know it’s really all done when the Lemon Aspen Doughnut and Raspberry Vinegar Ganache ball arrives. It’s over. You fondly look over at the people across from you. They’re newbies, only just tucking into their Cod Roe & Potato Soufflé amuse bouche. They have so much to look forward to (sigh). You want to be those people.

When these arrive, you know it's over...

Still, all good things do come to an end and ESP’s eight-course tasting menu will set you back $130. There are two wine matches apparently available, Premier ($90) or Grand ($120), although on the night, I wasn’t given the option. Service was relatively slick and will get even better with every service they chalk up.

Man crush aside, this is a real winner. Standing outside waiting for my Uber at the end of the night, I stood on the footpath, looking into a very full Estelle Bistro and an equally full ESP next door and felt proud for Scott, Josh and his team; they’ve worked long and hard to build up the Estelle brand and we deserve places like these. As for ESP, book now or you probably won’t be able to get in for a while.

The Estelle + Truffles = Love

A refresh of The Estelle is, so far, paying dividends.

It sounds a bit weird given it only opened three years ago, but things appear to move pretty fast in Scott Pickett’s world.

In a little over the last twelve months he’s opened Saint Crispin with Joe Grbac. Then last October, chef and business partner, Ryan Flaherty, left the business to start his own restaurant, Mr Jennings (Bridge Rd, Richmond), which coincidentally opens today… I can’t wait to check it out.

More recently, there has been an impressive renovation of the courtyard (previously home to a fire pit and suckling pig on a spit) which delivers full overhead cover and comfortable heating to increase patronage by around 30 seats and an excellent refurbishment of the amenities.

This is all topped off with the addition of Josh Pelham as Head Chef in the kitchen. Like Scott, Josh is an alumnus of Phil Howard’s two Michelin-starred London restaurant, The Square, where Josh was Head Chef.

See? Whirlwind.

I dined here several weeks ago and noticed that there have also been a few alterations to the menu. What once was a choice of 5, 7 or 9 courses has become 6, 8 or 10. And gone is the ‘adventurous’ beverage pairing, which offered some more left-of-field alternatives to the more basic wine matches; like maybe a sake or a simple cocktail. Alas, making a cocktail (to order) is a far more laborious task within a very busy restaurant and relying on the next beverage match to be ready for its accompanying course is paramount. It makes sense.

As for the food, it was better. The pork jowl, apple and turnip has become my all-time favourite dish, closely followed by the Phil Howard-esque hand rolled macaroni, featuring pine mushrooms, parmesan and (in addition to a $15 supplement) a generous shaving of black truffle.

And to my not-so-subtle segue.

Last night, was the Fringe Food Festival’s fourth annual Truffle Dinner hosted by The Estelle (with the exception of last year, which was held at Saint Crispin), with truffles lovingly supplied by Madame Truffles.

The Menu

Winter staples are a perfect vehicle for the unbridled addition of truffle; rich pasta dishes, creamy sauces, under chicken skin and many other delights where buttery and cheesey goodness go hand in hand with nature’s black gold… I had a crack at a few recipes myself a few years back. And yes, we all know that high amounts of this stuff is not good for you in the long term, but The Estelle does moderation quite well and to be frank, the truffle season is very short indeed.

Truffles (Braidwood, NSW)

Last night’s menu kicked off with salty and warm – fresh from the oven – foccacia with truffled olive oil. This is opposed to the various incarnations of ‘truffle infused’ olive oils which are in most cases inferior. The olive oil was grassy and rich with the perfume from the very visible shaved truffle from Daylesford (VIC). Bagel and Pretzel mogul, Dan Taranto and I took turns seeing who could capture the most bits of shaved truffle onto our focaccia. It was a draw.

A delicious scrumpy-style cider from WA’s Custard & Co accompanied a most delicious Isle of Mull Cheddar and Truffle cheese soldier to whet our appetites. I’m not a big cider fan; my foray into fermented apple drinks was largely killed off thanks to the likes of Strongbow as a teenager. I will be heading to Wine Republic later this week to pick up a flagon (such a great choice of receptacle) or two as I am now a convert.

Cheese Soldier

The warming and satisfying Jerusalem artichoke veloute with pine mushrooms and a 63 degree egg (for 40 minutes) was topped with the nutty crunch of toasted rice and truffle from Pemberton in WA.

Jerusalem Artichoke and 63C egg

For the next course, we stayed in WA for a little longer. Western Australian marron was teamed with the most famous hand-rolled macaroni, basil and pan fried Brussels Sprout leaves. The sauce that embalmed the pasta was heavenly; rich with flavour from what I assume was the shells of the marron.

WA Marron

A quick trip from the west coast to the east coast was taken for our next course. Truffles from Braidwood (NSW) were paired with meltingly tender, slow-cooked beef shin, oyster mushrooms, miso and oyster mushroom puree, jus and a small nugget of deep-fried bone marrow.

Wagyu and all the trimmings

We closed the night closer to home, with truffle from the Yarra Valley (VIC) featuring in the (truffle infused) sponge cake and the ice cream, as well as honeycomb crumb and charred pear. I was a little apprehensive about the ice cream. I’ve had great truffle-flavoured ice cream in the past, but some former versions have been far too dominant in flavour, overpowering the other elements of the dessert and the wine. This version was quite redeeming.

Dessert

Another memorable night at The Estelle and if you’re quick, you may be able to snag a ticket to next Monday’s Truffle Dinner (details are here), which coincides with Bastille Day.

You wouldn’t think it could get any busier for Scott, but it does. There’s also a book coming out in November. Teaming up with renowned Australian food writer, Rita Erlich, Scott’s next foray delves into stories and recipes that have shaped and pay homage to his so-far 25-year journey in cooking.

I know what will be on the top of my Christmas list.

Epocha – 49 Rathdowne St, Carlton

My overly-elaborate definition of regret is not blogging for four months, then dining at Epocha in Carlton. With absolutely no desire beforehand to post a review, then realising too late into the night, it was a misjudgement. This place is worth reviewing.

However, my secondary overly-elaborate definition of (slight) regret is placing our unbridled palates into the hands of Sommelier, Angie Giannakodakis (there was nothing wrong with that part), to match wines and not talk cost. Being slugged $220 for a 1970’s vintage Eiswein (which was delicious) that at the time was declared “not expensive” was an important lesson learned that there are different perceptions of ‘expensive’, especially when it comes to Sommeliers. It wasn’t expensive compared to, say the $980 1981 Chateau d’Yquem that was also on the wine list. Or maybe in respect of other Eiswines, which can command up to $400-$700, but you see my point.

This got me thinking about the tactics that restaurants use to potentially discombobulate diners and extract more revenue on already paper-thin margins. Hey, the capitalist in me doesn’t blame them; most of them need it. Look at how the industry is suffering at the moment and every extra dollar makes a difference. On this night, we simply went with the flow as to what was offered to us.

For example, we ordered two espresso martinis and two espressos at the end of the night. Clearly on a roll with the wanton disregard possibly coming from our table, one of the staff came forward and suggested we “may as well ditch the coffees and make that four espresso martinis”. What are you going to say, no?

By placing ourselves into the good hands of the staff, the bill reflected that. If treated well, you become comfortable, you don’t want it to end and you can easily succumb to the upsell… like the Eiswine, the martinis… hey, it was our choice and they did their job extremely well and we had an excellent night. It’s merely a heads up to the cost-conscious (and reminder to me) to be more wary. Actually, excluding the cost of the Eiswein and it was pretty good value, around $175 for food matched with wine.

Epocha opened in September last year and it sits comfortably amongst the Victorian terraces on the top end of Rathdowne Street, across from Carlton Gardens. Inside, you immediately feel that it won’t be a difficult task at all to stay as long as you can, in an inviting room of dark timber, candles, crystal decanters, marble fireplaces and low light. It’s romantic, but it’s also a place where you’d feel very comfortable with a group of your nearest and dearest. The website states that they look forward to welcoming you to their home and they are spot on.

The menu is very much pan-European; it’s a little bit of everything from across the continent and some Rule Britannia thrown in for good measure (well, they are part of the EU). There is also a great emphasis on sharing. The $68 sharing menu is good value and probably more or less the same in cost if you were to order the same dishes a’la carte. Value went from good to great by taking the option to add the 550g Côte de Boeuf (on the menu for $64) for an additional $12 per person (for a table of four); a self-proclaimed feast and they weren’t wrong. The offerings were more than generous; rustic but very much refined.

House-baked bread arrived in a calico bag. Still warm, the bread was dark and sweet, like it had been made using a stout or a porter. It was flecked with caraway and a wonderful house-churned sea salt butter sealed the deal. Mixed olives ($6), with their own little silver tray for pits (the little things that made a difference) were full of flavour. The chicken liver pate ($9) was smooth and rich, but not rich enough to want to go back for more. The toasted bread-to-pate ratio was spot on.

I had a lot of favoured dishes throughout the night but the crispy pigs ears ($6) were outstanding and yet, probably the most simplistic. Finely shaved pigs ear, deep fried and seasoned. It was just missing a cold beer. Mushroom arancini ($8) were small, delicate and packed with flavour.

That was the end of the first wave of food. The second wave delivered venison carpaccio, with pickled mushrooms, hazelnuts and some spherified PX sherry ($16). Definitely the classiest dish of the night and one that I’d go back and selfishly have all to myself… with some pigs ears and the Kefalograviera saganaki ($14). Perfectly pan fried, salty, some punch and texture from currants and pickled apricots, a little acidity from some verjuice and a touch of honey for sweetness.

The quinoa salad with apricots and yoghurt ($14) was the healthy option of the night. Probably much needed in hindsight. Another belter was the Blue grenadier (with perfectly crispy skin) with a creamy pearl barley and celery risotto and shards of cavolo nero ($34).

Wave three saw us tucking into slow-roasted lamb leg, served in a rich pan gravy and stuffing ($38), a dish called simply ‘Bird’, which was the breast, thigh, leg and wing of a bird, presumably chicken ($32). All of the protein dishes had their own respective jus and they were all sublime, including the bone marrow jus that accompanied the 550g Côte de Boeuf, which was cooked perfectly to medium rare. This was protein overload. Fortunately two serves of duck fat roast potatoes ($9) and the obligatory green vegetable in the form of green beans with toasted almonds ($9) eased the pain.

Just when you think you can do no more, the final wave arrived… although nothing like the preceding tsunami-sized waves of protein; this was more akin to gently caressing the shore as it broke (it’s diners) and receded. Small, simple, decadent desserts. A couple of slices of (what might have been) a frangipane tart, some of the best choux pastry profiteroles I’ve ever had, filled with a light vanilla pastry cream and covered in salted caramel, a couple of slices of (again, what might have been) chocolate delice and a trifle-like thing in a glass that no one really touched because we were all too full. Things always get a little sketchy at the end. Desserts ($12 a piece) are rolled out on an old-school dessert trolley. A nice touch.

The wine list is extensive and if you’re one of those people that tends not to stray from stra’ya when in comes to wine, then perhaps this is the place for you to get out of your comfort zone. You won’t find any Australian wines on the list, nor anything Australian for that matter. Not unless you’re dyslexic and misread Austria. There’s a price point to suit all and like us, if you’re unsure about what’s what when it comes to wines of the Old World, you can always place your night into the hands of Angie, but unlike us, be a little more upfront about your preferred spend.

Epocha is a must-try. You won’t be disappointed.

Epocha on Urbanspoon

Epocha
49 Rathdowne St, Carlton VIC
(03) 9036 4949

Home

Good For: Guaranteed, rib sticking, interesting, honest, wonderful food and wine. Impeccable service. It’s a gem.

Not Good For: Vinoxenophobes… I’m copyrighting that.

Little Hunter – 195 Little Collins St, Melbourne

A friend of mine was recently diagnosed with diabetes. He’s 40. In fact, his birthday last year was the first of an imminent wave of 40th birthday celebrations that will transpire over the course of the next few years. It’s a pretty significant milestone; although 50 is apparently the new 40, so perhaps I won’t notice it too much in a few years time when it’s my turn. Regardless, these kinds of ailments remind that we’re not getting any younger. Our metabolism becomes slower. We need to have more regular check ups with our GP. We need to make sure we’re getting an adequate amount of exercise and we need to heed the caution of avoiding artery-clogging, saturated animal fats.

If you wholly agree with the above as the strict rules for a happy, healthy life that may well exceed the paltry amount of superannuation you’ve accumulated, then please do not read on. Or for that matter, dine at Little Hunter.

You see, Little Hunter is not for the feint-hearted. Literally. Most steaks typically come with a condiment. Little Hunter’s Robbin’s Island Ribeye ($60) comes with an unfeasibly large baton of roasted bone marrow and just when you thought that was going to push your cholesterol into double digits, beef fat butter. I’m not kidding. It may or may not be the first time I have uttered “thank fuck we ordered some vegetables” and it’s also ironic that Pete “Activated Almonds” Evans is a co-owner. They would definitely not feature on this menu… unless they were crumbed, deep fried and served with a lard jus.

Anyway, more on the food later. Little Hunter is set in the basement of the George’s building in Little Collins St. It’s a kind of ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ façade, with only a small plaque that acknowledges you’re in the right place. Walking down the industrial staircase, you head into a polished, comfortably lit warehouse-chic space that consists of a myriad of booths, tables and walls adorned with pictures of the likely ancestors of the bovines that you’ll be tucking into later on.

The menu is, to a great relief, very straight forward and easy to navigate. No confusion about shared plates that may or may not be entrees. Or mains. There are small dishes, sides, large dishes, steaks and sweets.

OK. Let’s get what is possibly is already the legend of this place; the bread and it’s evil partner in crime. The bread itself is delicious – a cheesey pull-apart style loaf that is so good, you will order another. But the real hero and star of the show is the chicken fat butter. Yes, you heard me correctly; the blend of 50% butter and 50% rendered chicken fat, flecked with chicken skin crackling is never ever going to get a Heart Foundation tick of approval, but we gave it five big ticks.

Cheesey Bread & Chicken Fat Butter

A number of my fellow diners were a little saddened to discover that one of the small dishes that featured on the website; Pork Cracklings – paprika, white cheddar, apple sauce ($6) were not on the menu. The alternative of corn fritters did not disappoint. Small balls of deep-fried corn were reminiscent of “pogos” according to a Canadian friend of mine. Apparently, they’re like corn dogs.

The stand-out dish of the night, winning by a bee’s whisker was “Beef on Toast” ($15). Atop a wafer-thin crisp of bread sat very thinly sliced, quality raw beef fillet, a creamy, rich chicken liver parfait and as a counterpoint, a chivey-capery concoction that brought the whole dish together. It was outstanding.

Beef on Toast

The Country Pate with pickled walnuts, guanciale (pig’s jowl) and pea shoots ($14) in comparison was like a poorer cousin. There was definitely nothing wrong with it, but amongst the bread, the butter, the corn fritters and the beef on toast – it was quite possibly one dish too many. Although using some of the witlof on the dish as a vehicle for consuming more chicken fat butter was great and yet writing about it today, it just sounds so wrong.

Country Pate - pickled walnuts, guanciale, pea shoots

I’ve already talked about the Robbin’s Island Ribeye. It was the best steak I have had in a long time. Mind you at $60 for a 280 gram steak, the expectation was high. The steak was cooked to the kitchen’s recommended doneness (medium rare) and as previously mentioned, came with a generously-sized piece of bone marrow that could have acted as a weapon and an extremely rich butter made with beef fat that anointed the tender cut of meat. If I had to be picky, I would have preferred one or the other, but not both condiments as it became a little sickly towards the end. Too much of a good thing.

Robbin's Island Ribeye - bone marrow, beef fat butter

The Cape Grim Filet Mignon ($38), marinated in coffee grounds and Worcestershire sauce, cooked via sous vide and then smoked was unavailable. However this was substituted with a wagyu fillet, cooked in the same manner, for $55. Three rounds (approximately 225 grams in total) were served simply with a big slice of king brown mushroom and an accompanying  sauce (which I don’t know what it was).

Wagyu Fillet - coffee and wood smoke

You will need sides as the dishes are fairly scarce without them. We tried the lettuce with balsamic vinaigrette (it is exactly just that) for $9, Little Hunter’s Fries, dusted with dehydrated onion powder and served with a ‘fry’ cocktail sauce ($6 or approximately $1 per chip to be more accurate), roasted yams with chimmichurri ($7) and some much-needed vegetables (baby carrots, zucchini, shitake mushrooms) with only a little bit of butter added – hey that’s what kitchens do ($9).

Little Hunter Fries

Some of us had thrown in the towel at this point, but others pushed on. Desserts are restrained, quite attractive, full of flavour and hit the right notes after the preceding calorie-laden offerings. The frangipane with meringue, passionfruit curd and peach sorbet ($15) was light, not to mention delicious. As was the licorice ice cream with milk crumbs, bee pollen and candied citrus ($12).

Frangipane - meringue, passionfruit curd, peach sorbet

The well balanced wine list is reasonably priced, lots of choice between local and international wines. You’ll probably pay around $60-$70. We drank the 2011 Tscharke Montepulciano from the Barossa ($67) and moved to a heavier, 2012 The Story ‘Writer’s Block’ Shiraz from the Grampians ($60, also available by the glass for $12). There is also an extensive list of beers and ciders.

Service was extremely attentive. Our server, Sarah, had to put up with the attempted wit of five gregarious dudes. This is a place for gregarious dudes… or lunching men in suits… or carnivorous better halves. Just no vegos.

Oh and please don’t ask as to why there is a duck on the wine glass. You have been warned.

Little Hunter
Basement, 195 Little Collins St, Melbourne VIC
(03) 9654 0090
http://www.littlehunter.com.au/

Good For: Meat. Grrrr.

Not Good For: Vegetarians, people that get excited about 99% fat free products and people whose cholesterol might be already exceeding 5.5

Little Hunter on Urbanspoon

Bramble & Vine – 749 Nicholson St, Carlton North

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.

Sardinian gorgonzola garlic pizza & confit garlic

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.

Whipped beetroot puree, goats cheese crumble, hazelnuts & za’atar yoghurt and mountain bread

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.

Red wine braised pork belly

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.

Kipfler potatoes with thyme, rosemary and bush lime aioli

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.

Wilted chard, lemon garlic tahini and crushed pine nuts

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.

Cinnamon poached peaches, champagne granita, vanilla bean mascarpone and meringue

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
http://bramblevine.com.au/

Good For: Great local people making and serving great local food and wine to great local people, at very affordable prices

Bramble and Vine on Urbanspoon

St. Ali North – 815 Nicholson St, Carlton North

The great north of the river versus the south of the river debate. Which is better? The generalisations are that the South is pretentious and the North is full of unwashed bohemian hippies, but don’t quote me on any of that.

When I moved to Melbourne in 2002 (cue Ministry of Sound Chillout Sessions 3), I started out south of the Yarra and being a newbie to this town, not only was I was oblivious to North versus South rivalry, I was also quite unaware of what the North had to offer. On the surface, I thought it was a dirty shithole full of full of unwashed bohemian hippies. I made the occasional trip to Brunswick St – with great disdain because it took, like, forever. And when I crossed the river again, between Richmond and South Yarra train stations, I felt at ease being back on terra firma. I enjoyed my little world in and around St Kilda; saying hello to the prostitutes whilst on my way for a walk along the Esplanade, beers at the Prince of Wales, the awesome delis on Carlisle St and I spent many a Friday night playing lots of pool at the Arcadia Hotel in South Yarra. Good times.

Once my Sister had moved to North Carlton and other friends were settling nearby in Collingwood, it was inevitable that I moved closer. I got as far as Richmond in 2004 and since then, I’ve progressively moved further north; spending the last 6 years in Carlton North, Fitzroy North, Thornbury and recently, back to Fitzroy North. I’ve also increasingly become more passionate and parochial about the north. It’s my life. It’s where relationships have been forged and failed, it’s where my kids were born and raised and it’s part of me. If an unknown rich relative bequests me a decent amount of cash for a house deposit, I’ll happily spend the rest of my life here. As for the south? I just think it’s pretentious.

Fortunately for me, as my deep-seated love for the north increased (as did my passion for all things food), the north became the biggest jewel in Melbourne’s culinary crown (southsiders may disagree), with Gertrude St becoming the new Brunswick St, then Smith St became the new Gertrude St, then pockets of places-to-be on St Georges Rd, High St in Northcote and Thornbury and the cool end of Lygon St.

Poor Nicholson Street missed a lot of it. Sure, there’s Pope Joan / The Bishop of Ostia and Milkwood, but they’re up the end past Brunswick Rd… and that’s East Brunswick, which is too cool for school anyway. Nicholson Village is the bit that roughly starts at one end around Reid / Richardson Sts and ends at Holden St / Brunswick Rd and for all it’s gems like Milawa Cheese, the two butchers, Artastic – for all your picture framing needs (gratuituous plug), it’s always been a little hit and miss for coffee and food.

Bramble & Vine is unfortunately not very well known, which is a damn shame because it’s great (review coming in the new year), other places like Birdie Num Nums were good, now are not so good. Then some guy from the, ugh, south had the temerity to expand on his ‘little’ cafe in South Melbourne and along came St. Ali North… BAM!

St. Ali North - Pic courtesty of Essjay

Putting a coffee shop on the Capital City Trail on Park Street, just off the corner of Nicholson Street, was always going to work. I would imagine that many others (myself included) would have had that idea in the back of their heads at some point. Fortunately Sal Malatesta and Jesse Gerner did it and from my (so far)  five visits, they have done it very well.

It’s not without it’s minor faults, but please bear in mind (that’s you, discerning urbanspoon reviewers) it’s been open for a little under a month and the reputation of its southside sibling has clearly preceded it. There was absolutely no way this place was going to get away with a soft opening, in December, during the festive season. I mean, people loved the concept of having the St Ali brand in their neck of the woods, some bastards stole their brand spanking new twin Synesso Hydro coffee machines, around $45,000 worth of kit

I haven’t had enough visits to get all funky with St. Ali North’s range of coffee offerings, but all of the strong skinny flat whites, short blacks and short macchiatos have been consistently exemplary and I’ve become so addicted to adding a tiny bit of the panela organic cane sugar (an unrefined, caramelly sugar that does not detract from the flavour of the coffee), I was compelled to leave with half a kg under my arm after today’s visit.

As for the food, I will continue to work my way through the menu and vow to not have the same thing twice until I’ve exhausted this promise… however the burger will be sure to get a more frequent work out. The ‘St. Ali Royale’ ($16) is a Wagyu beef burger topped with aged cheddar, house bacon (just look for it hanging in it’s own shrine), Russian dressing and housemade pickles on the side. Anywhere that offers a burger from 7am deserves a medal; especially if it’s made by someone with the same last surname (Chris Hamburger, as opposed to Chris St. Ali Royale… I don’t know where he works. Or if he exists).

St. Ali Royale

‘My Mexican Cousin’ ($21.50); a favourite on the South Melbourne St. Ali menu also features at North… fried sweet corn fritters with kasundi, halloumi, greens, tomato and poached eggs. I liked it, but overall the dish was a little on the dry side. My poached eggs were a tad over and perhaps some gooey-er yolks or the addition of some of their avocado mash would have provided some better balance.

My Mexican Cousin

Villa Verde free-range eggs come four ways – poached, scrambled, fried or 63’ 63° ($10.5o). You can add field mushrooms, haloumi or bean ragout for an extra $4 a pop. For $4.50, you can add either bacon, house-smoked salmon, morcilla or feta and avocado mash.

On another visit, trying to be a little bit healthy before Christmas, I stuck to poached eggs with bean ragout and avo mash. The avo was mash midly spiced and flecked with feta. The beans, whilst well flavoured, were a little tough, like when you salt the water when cooking any legumes. Overall though, it was great. I regret not getting the bacon though.

Poached eggs, bean ragout and avocado mash - Pic courtesy of Essjay

Other dishes tried by my various brekky partners include the house-baked fruit toast, with fruit conserve and labneh ($7.50) – it’s fruit toast, but damn good fruit toast – and Bircher muesli with mango, lychee and toasted nuts ($12.50) which is what Maximilian Bircher-Benner might have eaten when he went on holidays to Thailand.

Bircher with Mango & Lychee - Pic courtesy of Essjay

A simple kid’s menu is also offered. For $8 you can choose from several dishes, like scrambled eggs with bacon or a cheese toastie with tomato sauce on the side.

Due to the design and the concrete floors, the decibel levels can get a little out of control, but you can live with it.

Welcome to the neighbourhood.

(Thanks to SJ from essjay eats for loaning me a couple of pics. You can read her take on St. Ali North here)

St. Ali North
815 Nicholson St (on the bike path on Park St), Carlton North VIC
(03) 9686 2990
http://www.stali.com.au/

Good For: Raising the bar on great food and great coffee in the North
Not Good For: Impatient people; you could wait a little bit for a table and people with sensitive ears (you could listen to your iPod)

St Ali North on Urbanspoon