Originally, Michael Baker and Daniel Mason conceived of their Rathdowne Street bar, Henry Sugar, as a sweets-only affair. “That’s what we first started talking about,” explains Baker. “It might be something for the future, but I don’t think Melbourne’s big enough for it.”
Instead the pair has opted for a more rounded approach that draws on Baker’s time as chef at Fitzroy’s Hell of the North and former world’s best restaurant El Celler de Can Roca, not to mention Mason’s stint behind the bar at Joe Taylor, Cookie and the Toff in Town.
The drinks list leans heavily on minimal-intervention wines, small-scale brewers and cocktails mixed with house-made sodas. If it all sounds fussy, it’s not – there’s a guiding principle to Henry Sugar. “Dan and I like to give people something a bit different, something people haven’t tried before,” explains Baker. “But we never ever lose sight of: ‘Fuck, that’s delicious’.”
“We’ve been really careful to make the food approachable,” he adds. “I don’t really enjoy things I don’t understand. If someone’s got 12 things on a plate, I’m just bored by the time they’ve finished describing it. Here, there’s very rarely more than three or four things on a plate. It’s not minimal, it’s just rustic.”
The slim menu includes dishes such as a puy lentil parfait cooked in sherry; a kangaroo tail and rhubarb rillettes (known informally as “kangarhubarb”); and a tofu tartare with yuzu and shiso. The name – taken from Roald Dahl’s The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More – is a sign that Baker’s passion for pudding hasn’t been forgotten. There is a dessert of coconut custard, coconut granita and a citrus-and-mirin sorbet, and a dish of caramelised lychee, green almond and roast-parmesan ice-cream. “It sounds a bit wacky, but it really makes sense when you try it,” says Baker.
The Carlton North restaurant takes the place of Peruvian-Argentinian diner Piqueos, which closed last October. Baker and Mason kept renovations simple, installing a charcoal-coloured concrete bar in the centre of the space. “There’s a certain feel to the building when you walk in,” says Baker. “Almost everybody that comes in comments that it’s just really warm. We really want to be accommodating to people who just want to pop in and have a wine.” But it’s also a place “where people can come in for one drink and end up staying most of the night”.
Baker’s approach on the pans comes from his design-school background, a perspective that was reinforced by his time in Spain. “When I went to Celler de Can Roca, I walked into the development kitchen, and the walls were covered in whiteboards,” he says. “I felt more like I was at design school, the way they’d take certain ingredients, research it, break them down, and that was the process of creating a dish. I thought, this is the place I want to be.”
298 Rathdowne Street, Carlton North
Tue to Thu 4.30pm–10pm
Fri & Sat 3pm–11pm