What’s behind the wardrobe door? The Understudy, that’s what

Many a Melburnian has heard of 1806 – it was the year the word ‘cocktail’ first appeared in print and is the name of the CBD bar that won the prestigious Best Cocktail List award at the sixth-annual Tales of the Cocktail festival in New Orleans in 2008. How many places can you drink at that has that kind of pedigree?

So we were all ears when Sharking for Chips & Drinks were invited to preview the new bar and cocktail menu on offer downstairs at The Understudy. A great name for a room hidden from view and given the same air of mystique as some of the hidden eating and drinking dens in London (such as Barts, a quirky late-night speakeasy bar situated in a 1930s apartment block on Sloane Avenue , Chelsea). Entry is via a faded green wardrobe door, the other side of which sits larger-than-life jesters, mad hatters, a ventriloquist’s dummy, Venetian masks and a general array of bizarreness.

Stepping through the doors you are met with a feeling of trepidation as you follow the white rabbit down the hole. The Alice in Wonderland décor is here, there and everywhere in a very small space. You cannot help feeling watched by the eerie puppet perched on the wall – cocktail glass in hand. But look to the bar and you will realise you are not dreaming as you have a Willy Wonka of a barman mixing to his heart’s content.

To whet our whistles we were served the Truffle Airmail – White rum, Champagne, honey, truffle that was matched with tomato roulade, prosciutto and goats cheese. The pungent truffle honey sent us back to Borough Market in London and the food stand that we would continuously sample until we were chased away by the owners.

The palette cleanser Thujone Cocktail – Absinthe, Juniper, Sage, French vermouth was matched with a dish that I thought had more in common with a falafel than a cake:  Spiced Macadamia, carrot cake, labne and caviaroli. A slight misstep in the texture department, but the cocktail was refreshing.

WordMonkey has previously spent quite a chunk of time travelling around South America so when she spotted the next drink in the line-up , Szechuan House – Pisco, Szechuan, watermelon, lemon – she went a little mental. But after I and the rest of the table tasted it we knew we had probably discovered the drink of the day. Punchy, fruity, perfectly chilled by large, sparklingly clear custom-made ice cubes. Why not add some sake roast pork belly, corn puree and Szechuan crackle? That small serve disappeared quicker than you can say ‘I’m Pisco’d’.

So – would you order a cocktail where one of the ingredients was avocado? Yeah, me neither – but we were told this was a love or hate drink and the avocado was only added to give the drink an extra-silky smooth texture. So I give them points for trying the Nieve – Tequila, avocado, cinnamon, soy milk that was matched with ocean trout rillettes, betel leaf, lime. I preferred the bite more than the drop. The ago and the milk made for a smoothies consistency that just didn’t sit right with the booze.

Algonquin No.2 was another palette cleanser– Rye whisky, pineapple, basil, olive salt that sat well next to the 90-degree goat ragout, kataifi bun and candied beetroot pickle it was served with.

What I thought was quite a dessert drink – Fraise D’Amour – Cognac, pine nuts, strawberry, orange was served with a non dessert dish, but that wasn’t a problem as it was up there with one of the best dishes of the night – Squid ink brioche, prawns and sesame toast.  And wow – did that alcohol hidden under the cream pack a punch.

The final drink of the night just didn’t do it for me. The Storm in a Tea Cup – Aged sake, tonka bean, PX sherry, jasmine just didn’t jazz with me – the smell is so insanely smoky and rich. My booze-addled taste buds were telling me to drink but my brain was just saying no.  I haven’t experienced anything like it but it sure was intriguing. Drink aside, the sweet White chocolate mousse cone and pink peppercorn praline topped the night off well.

I suggest heading down to The Understudy and chatting to the uber-talented and inventive mixologists. I can promise an (good) assault on the senses. And they don’t just do cocktails, they also stock a carefully selected range of wines, beers and hard-to-find spirits. Make a journey through the wardrobe and see where it takes you – before the secret gets out.

The Understudy

1806, Downstairs

169 Exhibition St

Melbourne 3000

03 9663 7722

Ph. 03 9663 7722

The Understudy on Urbanspoon

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