Rustic, pasta-sparse Italian; ambitious, bold Japanese; French technique and an aversion to share plates – these are some of the most impressive new restaurants in Melbourne. A number of the city’s best-known restaurateurs and chefs opened new venues in 2017, and they did not disappoint. This was a year for the industry veteran with a precise and emphatic vision, executed with style.
In no particular order, here are our favourite restaurant openings of the year.
Andrew McConnell calls Supernormal Canteen a “short, sharp, punchy” version of his pan-Asian CBD restaurant. It’s low-lit elegance mixed with smoke-filled vibrancy. Blue noren partition curtains hang overhead, and a long charcoal yakitori station is the beating heart of the restaurant. As in the city, there’s a bit of this – Chinese – a bit of that – Korean – and a lot of Japanese. Former Supernormal sous chef Tim Goegan is heading up the kitchen. Chicken yakitori includes thigh, fillet, skin or tsukune (Japanese meatballs), and is made with a top-dollar breed of chicken called Sommerlad served with a sweet soy-reduction dipping sauce that’s perfectly balanced. Carpaccio-style cobia fish comes with fresh and non-sadistic wasabi. Duck leg bao, prawn and chicken dumplings, and McConnell’s famous lobster rolls have made the journey south. This is Asian dining that is rousing, gratifying, and damned tasty.
There’s something refreshingly old school about Saxe, chef Joe Grbac’s (Press Club, Saint Crispin) first solo venture. Upstairs, where the service is more formal, plates are presented one per person, rather than to share. Downstairs it’s a snacks-and-cocktails arrangement: there is scrambled duck egg and spanner crab; Clair de Lune oysters; and Louis Roederer at all hours of the day. A quail-breast dish draws in Lebanon and India as readily as France ¬– its served with puy lentils dressed with pomegranate vinaigrette and served with crisp green curry leaves. A pan-fried bass grouper tastes, deceptively, of chorizo and is accompanied by unexpectedly tender Robe octopus and vinegary Verdale olives. Asparagus, slightly fermented, is served over a parmesan custard with a white miso gazpacho. The look is pared-back white stone, American oak and blue velvet. Classic.
This is Tipo 00’s bigger, more refined sibling. There are bare white-brick walls, historic arches, cognac leather booths and an open kitchen hemmed in by a long bar with some of the best seats in the house. The owners are resolute that Osteria is not Tipo 2.0. That is, it’s not a pasta joint. And while you will find grin-inducing, pillowy nettle gnocchi, and paccheri with crystal prawns, the menu is largely pasta-free. Lamb cutlet with a blood-red spicy peperonata is a standout, but so are the light and golden zucchini flowers; charred rappini served on a bed of creamy corn; corn-fed duck with hazelnuts and radicchio; and a long slice of pecorino cheesecake served with juicy pine mushrooms and garnished with pretty nasturtium leaves. Booths and banquette seating are luxe and great for groups, but a seat at the bar, overlooking the open kitchen, is prime real estate.
The Mayfair, CBD
It’s all Old World charm and late-night allure at this supper club by David Mackintosh (SPQR) and Joe Jones (Romeo Lane), which sits at the base of the Sofitel hotel. Inside it’s jazz by a three-piece band, leather booths and white tablecloths beneath a curved, grey, slightly marbled roof. All liquor is served from glass decanters, Perrier-Jouët champagne flows freely, and caviar is served with chicken-skin crisps and chive crème fraiche. Despite its opulence, the Mayfair isn’t ostentatious. It’s intimate and private, with a wine list that’s about classics (not funky or natural drops) and dishes that lean French, such as four-week dry-aged steak tartare. A crisp-bottomed, house-made crumpet capped with herbs, spanner crab, bottarga and trout roe is lightly dressed in a Keens Curry-spiced mayonnaise. “We are quite unashamedly doing something that is not particularly contemporary,” Mackintosh says. Good.
New Zealand-born chef Hayden McMillan (formerly of The Roving Marrow) runs this Brunswick East restaurant with wife Dominique Fourie McMillan, and Hannah Green. Green and McMillan used to work together at Neil Perry’s Rosetta and regularly ate together at The Roving Marrow where the group concocted their own future diner. Etta is just the right mix of polish and warmth. It feels like a special, elevated local, as well as a casual fine diner worth travelling to from other parts of the city. More than half of McMillan’s seasonal menu is vegetarian. Dishes include tamari- and brown-sugar-roasted buttercup pumpkin served with a dairy-free sunflower cream, and Flinders Island lamb marinated in a cumin and fennel seed dry rub cooked on a Japanese-style binchotan charcoal grill. We can’t remember having a better crumbed whiting. And the bread – well. It’s doughy, warm and dense for a start. It’s got to be some of the best in Melbourne. Lathered with the accompanying burnt butter? Unforgettable.
The Brasserie at Paul Wilson’s sprawling venue at Prahran Market is the jewel in Wilson & Market’s crown. Wilson (formerly at the Botanical) is fastidious about where his produce and proteins come from; fruit and veg are from a biodynamic farm on the Mornington Peninsula, seafood is sustainably caught, and heritage-breed Sommerlad chicken is from Milking Yard Farm. Wilson has installed a rotisserie bar to cook chickens the size of small turkeys and dry-aged meats over charcoal and wood such as mallee oak and ironbark. The chicken is sweet and tender and tastes like chicken is supposed to. A buttery slab of smoked Petuna ocean trout is a highlight, served with devilled egg. Don’t leave without visiting the bathrooms – designed by Kate Challis interiors, they’re lit up in sci-fi shades of green and pink.
Familiar dishes at David Thompson’s Crown restaurant (green curry, larp and pad thai) take suburban Thai and turn it up to 11 – these dishes are brighter, deeper and more aromatic. Sometimes they’re spicier than other restaurants would dare. A dish of dried prawns, ginger and toasted coconut wrapped in betel leaves doesn’t fall apart as it might elsewhere, thanks to scrupulous chefs cutting fiddly holes and latches into the leaves, a process that must take hours. Long Chim’s key ingredients come direct from the motherland, including curry pastes, palm sugar, tamarind, turmeric, noodles, fish sauce, chillies and limes. But the restaurant is about more than just good ingredients. It’s also a place to try sour orange curry made with ling fish, and other Thai specialties not yet popular in Australia. Chiang Mai larp of chicken, mashed prawn curry, and charred rice noodles with pork are standouts. But the menu is full of them.
We haven’t seen many openings this physically large and conceptually ambitious in Melbourne. With his sleek three-storey Japanese restaurant Kisume, Chris Lucas wanted to “redefine higher-end dining” in the city. This is not another Chin Chin or Hawker Hall, though you will find moreish shareable snacks – such as maple- and soy-glazed Berkshire pork ribs, and prawn and foie gras “potstickers”– here, too. But you’ll also find a number of Melbourne – if not Australian – firsts. A dedicated Chablis bar is one. Australia’s most comprehensive collection of prints by Nobuyoshi Araki – arguably Japan's most famous (and controversial) photographer – is another. Then there’s The Table, a 15-course Japanese degustation known as kaiseki, which unfolds each night around a horseshoe bar with room for 12. Here the scampi sashimi is sweet and dense with sour pops of finger lime; a roll of toro, foie gras and black truffle is rich, decadent and one of the highlights; a gooey, sweet pineapple, lychee and passionfruit dessert comes served in a tube – suck it back in one amusing slurp.
Neither Cutler & Co or Wickens at the Royal Mail Hotel are technically new, but both restaurants bare little resemblance to their forebears after dramatic overhauls in 2017.
Andrew McConnell’s Fitzroy jewel reopened in March with a new interior by Iva Foschia. It’s a polished, light and airy daytime restaurant that transforms at night into a luxe, moody dining room with a menu featuring smoky, meaty Jerusalem artichoke topped with burnt onion and charred marron so good it will make you laugh. The bronze-tinted front bar is now a destination in its own right, serving dishes you won’t find on the restaurant menu.
In Dunkeld, chef Robin Wickens has given his name to the Royal Mail’s revamped – and relocated – fine diner. It’s not in Melbourne, but it’s one of the most important Victorian openings this year, and while this place requires a road trip, it’s worth it. Wickens’s food straddles elegant and comforting, which is rare in restaurants like these. At his disposal is the Royal Mail Hotel kitchen garden, which is the largest of its kind in Australia. The space, filled with Australian hardwoods, tactile sandstone and sheepskins, is one of the most beautiful places to eat in Victoria, with floor-to-ceiling windows with views of Mount Sturgeon.
Audience Picks: Miznon (Israeli pitas with a cult following); Rare Hare (an earthy diner with sweeping vineyard views); and Bhang (regional Indian street food in a converted warehouse) were three of our most-read restaurant-opening stories of the year.