Yep, as self-confessed victims of hype we headed to Der Raum. In fact, we headed there twice (just to be sure). Our bank accounts are still pleading for mercy. Gourmet Traveller named the blink-and-you-miss-it Church Street establishment 2010’s Most Thirst-Provoking Cocktail List in its Cocktail List of the Year awards, and it also landed honourable mentions in two other categories. Trendy Melbournites go-to guide Broadsheet raves about it and Matthew Bax’s innovative bar recently garnered praise at the esteemed Bartender Magazine Australian Bar Awards (click the link to vote in 2011’s Most Influential List).
The super-slick website promises ‘a little shelter from a world of fast, pre-mixed, artificial tasting drinks’, and bloggers have long been singing the praises of Der Raum’s brand of ‘molecular mixology’ – not a term favoured by the bartenders themselves but it sums up the essence of what they do – bring some of the principles of physics and chemistry into concocting a cocktail. However, applause and awards aside, is it worth the price tag?
From outside the unassuming brown building looks at best closed, at worst derelict. But step inside and you enter an Aladdin’s cave of sprit bottles hanging above a simple bar surrounded by no-frills seating and minimal décor – less artwork, more chalkboard lists of spirits and special cocktails. Actually, if you are after a bargain, the cocktail of the day (when we visited it was a take on the classic Tom Collins) is sold at a reduced price between 6-8pm. Boyfriend’s long-suffering wallet breaths a sigh of relief.
We are greeted with a boozy amuse bouche (is there a better kind?) of camomile-infused vodka on liquid nitrogen served in a brown glass bottle labelled ‘poison’. Think apothecary chic. White ‘smoke’ spills out of the opening and we are advised not to inhale. Quirky, tasty, alcoholic. I like it. Plus it kind of helps take the sting off when you realise not much on the actual cocktail menu is under $20.
Menus are informative and if the page where the cocktails are plotted on a sweet/dry graph doesn’t guide your decision-making process the helpful chaps in aprons behind the bar will. Looking for sheer Heston Blumenthal wow factor? Go with Pharmacy, inspired by Damian Hurst don’t you know. Syringe of liquor, citrus tablet and mixing flask – all served on a clinical metal tray. You can’t argue with the attention to detail. Similarly, the sweet-as-candy Knickerbocker comes in a mini metal milkshake flask. Oh-so cute. Ask for a rum-based Jamaican Blackstrap and you’ll be drinking it from a bottle concealed in a small brown paper bag.
Menus are chained to the bar – not that strange a decision. It’s a great way of ensuring gossip doesn’t get in the way of watching the masters at work. But then, here kind of lies my gripe. While the cocktails and extensive array of spirits taste good (yes, you can just order a gin and tonic) is it value for money once the novelty wears off. It is not a question of style over substance – both deserve the critical acclaim the bar continues to receive? Maybe the penniless writer in me just can’t get to grips with the idea of spending $100 on four drinks. My advice, enjoy the showmanship, marvel at the flavour and texture combinations (such as the +/- Pina Colada, a layered combo of warm white chocolate and coconut foam with ice-cold pineapple and rum) and then get out while you still have your overdraught intact. This is a great place for when friends from far away come to visit or you want something to talk about on a first date.
438 Church Street
Tel. (03) 9428 0055