You know the story of The Town Mouse and The Country Mouse – one’s a bit flash while the other is more modest in his tastes. Well, Carlton’s latest opening manages to be both mice at the same time, if you get what I mean. Glow-in-the-dark business cards and gold leaf signage out front? Now that is flashy. And if the food weren’t so insanely well-judged and delicious I’d have a hard time accepting such ostentatious gimmicks. Luckily, substance far outweighs style at this very stylish haunt – the latest in a long line of gourmet over-achievers to inhabit the narrow space on Drummond Street. Andrew McConnell’s Three, Two, One and Nicolas Poelaert’s Embrasse might have once called this spot home, but all ghosts of restaurants past have been stripped away. The present incarnation, owned by Christian McCabe – who used to run Wellington’s sensational Matterhorn, looks slick and inviting. The false ceiling has been knocked out, the bar has moved location, a door has been revealed. The extensive facelift has resulted in black-tiled walls with stunning green borders, high wooden tables and an easy-to-perch-at bar. It is a little bit bistro, a little bit New York. It certainly stands out amid the slew of industrial chic and minimalist styling that seems to be dominating Melbourne’s food scene lately. Let’s just say a quick word about the service and then I can avoid repeating myself throughout the remainder of this post. It’s good. Friendly, assured and five steps ahead of the game, the staff are an absolute joy and happy to make recommendations or to take a step back as required. And as for the stuff coming out of Amber McCabe (ex-Longrain) and husband Jay Comeskey’s (once at South Melbourne icon St ALi) kitchen goes – wowsers. One more aside. We go through phases of slavishly following the hype – hopping from one new opening to another, and having our dining decisions dictated by whatever has been name-checked on Twitter the most – and then we go through phases where we just can’t be bothered. It’s so rare the reality lives up to the expectation in those first few feverish weeks of opening. Acland Street Cantina and Virginia Plain might be extreme examples, but I don’t think it’s uncommon to leave a new place feeling a little jaded. Our benchmark when deciding whether a place makes the grade is if we leave wishing we had spent our hard-earned cash at The Estelle instead (substitute your favourite Melbourne restaurant as appropriate). Sometimes, a place you had hoped would blow you away turns out to be a bit underwhelming, for example – dare we say it – what’s all the fuss about Little Hunter? Back to the here and now. A couple of glasses of smoky-peppery nero d’avola from Sicily ($11.50 a glass on the Thirsty menu) go down a treat and we turn our attention to the Hungry menu – both menus look great and feature the same slanting typography that appears on the front window and stoop (inviting you to ‘Come In For Good Times). There is also a kind of TRON-style grid. Whatever, it looks cool. Broken into To Start, Raw, To Share, Vegetables, Meat and Fish, and Dessert the list encourages the kind of sharing we have come to know and love. It is such a great way to try a variety of dishes and avoid the dreaded curse of food envy. Fresh warm bread with seaweed butter is served alongside the first dish of the night – steamed diamond shell clams from Cloudy Bay, black mussels, clam bisque, fennel and rosemary ($25) – and it is a great way to mop up the briny liquid and tart fennel shavings at the bottom of the bowl. A real taste of the sea this one, and great to discover such a delicious winter warmer that doesn’t weigh you down at the beginning of a meal. Couldn’t really discern the rosemary (but not sure it was necessary, anyway). Slightly sticky, rich little squares of lamb belly, dried carrots, peas, goat’s milk, pistachio and orange blossom ($22) came next. Dried might be an understatement when it comes to the carrots – there were dehydrated until black and had an amazing teeth-coating texture. Heaps of flavour in something so innocuous? Yep, and the orange root vegetable continued to excel itself in our second meat dish – blackened pork jowl, smoked carrot kimchi, cos, green apple and peanuts ($23). All the warmth and fermented goodness of the Korean stalwart without the nose-burning pungency. A great Asian slant on a broadly Mediterranean menu. When we aren’t comparing places to our favourite restaurant (I won’t repeat it), we are judging a restaurant on the quality of their vegetables. That’s right. When you are paying double figures for a few potatoes you want them to a delicious dish in their own right. And that was exactly what we found here. Kipfler potatoes cooked in toasted hay, buttermilk, crisp sage and almond brown butter ($12). Oh my. The buttermilk and fluffy potatoes combined perfectly – honestly this was one of the standout dishes of the night. The shaved courgette and cos, parmesan, lemon, tarragon and mint ($14) provided a lighter foil to all the earthy flavours in front of us. Again, we could happily eat that side on its own. We were really torn when it came to dessert and eschewed the chocolate offering in favour of lemon and yuzu curd, white chocolate, burnt coconut, spiced rum and coconut sorbet with a crackable meringue outer ($14) – there was a whole lot going on here, which worked really well in unison but was a bit too much or not enough when tasted in isolation. The cubes of spiced rum jelly, for example, were eye-wateringly boozy until teamed with soothing flakes of white chocolate and the creamy sorbet. Meal finished, bill paid and last dregs of wine drained from the glass we found ourselves sad to leave. So strong were my separation issues I managed to leave still clutching my napkin. At least I have something to remember one of the best dining experiences in Melbourne by, and another reason to head back soon (as if we needed another one).
The Town Mouse 312 Drummond St, Carlton Ph. (03) 9347 3312