It’s a daunting task, the definitive “best of” list, pulled together with much heated debate across the Broadsheet Melbourne editorial desk. Last year we saw a list dominated by industry veterans, but in 2018 we’re seeing a new guard of up-and-coming restaurateurs emerge.
Fermented and fire-fuelled dishes still reign supreme, and it’s glorious to see Australian native ingredients become more familiar occurrences on menus (regardless of whether that menu is Euro-inspired or taking cues from Southeast Asia). Half birds and other protein-heavy plates are showing up everywhere. Sharing is still up for debate – and probably always will be – but overall we’re again seeing a lean towards approachable menus executed cleverly and with finesse, seen here holding their own against more destination diners.
In no particular order, here are the restaurants that impressed us most this year.
Unlike most of the other restaurants on this list, Navi (pronounced “na-wi”, which means “local” in Cherokee) opened with very little hype. It’s by chef Julian Hills (Paringa Estate, The European, The Courthouse Hotel).
Hills and his brother were raised on a 40-acre farm by their American parents (his father’s Cherokee heritage inspired the name of the restaurant). On days off, Hills forages sea parsley and karkalla, a native succulent, from friends’ properties on the eastern side of the Mornington Peninsula.
Back at the restaurant, on a quiet suburban street in Yarraville, these ingredients form part of an eight-course tasting menu that combines European techniques, native Australian ingredients and Eastern philosophy, though the flavours are undeniably Australian.
The elegant and intimate 25-seater dining room – designed to reflect both the industry of Melbourne’s west, and the Victorian bush where Hills forages for many of his ingredients – is small enough that Hills’s menu can centre around produce with limited availability, and from small local farms, such as wallaby tartare wrapped with cured egg yolk; and a macadamia cream, native thyme and bush-tomato tart.
Hills has a bachelor of fine arts and is passionate about craft – a vital element at Navi. Using a pottery wheel on his back porch he spins the clay for every plate brought to your table.
Turin-born sommelier Cristina Flora spent three years as a senior sommelier at the Press Club and is on hand for pairings. Try the rice wine that smells of hard cheese and dried mushrooms.
It’s the upstairs sister restaurant to the pair’s Russell Street wine bar Embla, and has been on the cards for almost two years. When it finally opened, Lesa didn’t disappoint. It’s unlike most of the restaurants opening in Melbourne right now. The dining room is refreshingly quiet. Bookings are encouraged. Share plates are not.
McCabe says he wanted the space to feel lived-in, and has decked it out with rustic French kitchen tables from the 1700s and antique chairs.
The menu is fixed: four courses with three choices at each step. Dishes are beautifully, minimally plated. Nearly every one has spent time on or very close to an open flame, has been fermented onsite, or both. Potato flatbread comes with macadamia cream and a meaty, smoked shiitake mushroom oil. A beetroot terrine is made with purple and Chioggia (candy stripe) varieties layered with fresh thyme. A leek dish almost brought our writer to tears.
But not everything is so complex, a deliberate move by Verheul to facilitate conversation in the restaurant that goes beyond the meal.
An idiosyncratic wine list is stacked with young, unusual drops from France, Italy and Australia, as well as a few vintages of burgundy dating back to the ’80s.
The dramatic diner is just over the road from the Botanic Gardens. Inside, the red-brown ceiling is a colour reminiscent of Uluru. Native wood sits piled beside a long bar overlooking the open kitchen. Dining tables, by furniture-maker Hugh Makin, are made from trees felled in the Otways. Glass cabinets filled with botanical installations – from flowering artichoke plants to fermenting persimmons – change with the seasons.
The menu is bold, contemporary Australiana. John Dory is steeped in grenobloise (typically capers, beurre noisette and lemon, given a native edge here with saltbush, desert lime and lemon myrtle). Spanner crab dressed in crème fraîche is studded with finger lime; the right mix of sweet and miniature explosions of sour. It comes with charred flatbread and butter dusted with dehydrated school-prawn dust. In some plates, flames and coal are obvious. In others, less so: such as smoked vanilla-bean ice-cream served with a pink-lady tarte tatin (Pickett says he tested this dish 600 times before nailing it).
Ascend the soon-to-be iconic peach stairs and you’ll be slapped with one of the friendliest welcomes in town. Start with edamame drenched in buttery chimichurri, mapo tofu and pork-cheek empanadas, or moreish prawn crackers dusted with barbeque seasoning. Then onto meat: aged Kurobuta pork chops and loins, cooked in the Josper charcoal oven, or duck, which the kitchen ages for a week and serves by the half with smoked hoisin.
Andrew Barry (ex-Gingerboy) is largely responsible for the wine list, which is quirky without being overly challenging (expect young, bright bottles from Jamsheed, Manon and Good Intentions). But dessert, a section of the menu often overlooked, might be the biggest surprise. Try the brioche ice-cream with hundreds and thousands, and parsnip shavings.
The dining room evokes a kind of futuristic brutalist beauty: a wall of illuminated wine bottles acts like vivid wallpaper, while a single fluorescent shoots the full length of the ceiling like a laser, throwing light on raw concrete walls.
Twenty-seven-year-old Khanh Nguyen has got to be one of Australia’s most exciting young chefs. He spent nearly a decade working in Sydney’s best restaurants before opening Sunda, his sexy Southeast Asian restaurant in Punch Lane.
Nguyen’s time at Noma Sydney introduced him to native ingredients, and he uses them sparingly to add sharp, citrusy accents that readily complement the sweet, sour, salty and bitter flavours of his innovative take on Vietnamese, Malaysian and more. An XO egg-noodle dish mixes squelch and crunch thanks to a showering of chicken-skin crackling and native pepperberries. Cigar-sized baby corn is a show stopper, laid out on a dark plate, creating a tiger-stripe effect. Briny oysters get topped with curry oil and mounted on a pillar of whipped egg white, salt and seaweed powder.
The fit-out features rough brickwork, internal aluminium scaffolding and plywood accents, referencing a construction site, which earned it a commendation at the Eat Drink Design Awards a couple of months ago.
Behind a heavy gold-and-black carved door, is a delightful restaurant and bar from Sven Almenning (Eau de Vie, Boilermaker House). It's a retro-futurist Viking dining hall filled with handmade axes and whole-beast cooking.
The host wears a coarse cotton smock and leather apron, with a dagger at his hip. The dragon-headed prow of a Viking longship bursts forth from a wall. Mjølner isn’t subtle, but boy is it fun.
The protein-forward menu isn’t an ode to what the Norse explorers ate 1000 years ago. Rather, Almenning asks, “What would Vikings eat today?” His answer: short rib, braised for 12 hours and served with caramelised brussels sprouts and sticky pan juices; roast porchetta; venison cured then seared in a hot pan and rolled in ash.
Dinner begins with a complimentary Stone Skål – an amber shot of stone-boiled vermouth, mead and honey, and savoury cocktails are a strength. Erik the Red – the house Bloody Mary – is port, pickled onions, red seaweed and beetroot, garnished with a ramekin of salty-sweet potato crisps and pickled chilli.
For dessert, try a delicate bombe alaska, which is set on fire right in front of you. But despite the theatrics and embellishments, this is no themed restaurant – it's something much more refined.
The fit-out at Congress is as smooth and refined as the food: on entry, brushed-concrete columns and dark-brass balustrades lead you to the lofty but intimate mezzanine dining space.
Head chef Jack Stuart (ex Michelin-starred The Forest Side in England’s Lakes District) designed the menu with co-owner Katie McCormack’s input. It includes a roasted quarter Milawa chicken with a thick wedge of charred savoy cabbage and chicken jus, but the stand out is the soft, peppery, house-made kangaroo pastrami, served on a smudge of house-made cultured sour cream and a layer of crunchy shallots reminiscent of autumn leaves. The Dutch spice-cake with malt custard, tamarind and pecans is a nod to the cakes that McCormack’s oma (grandma) used to make.
The 50-bottle, Australian-dominant wine list mixes classic and minimal-intervention wines. You'll be back here a few times.
Carlton Wine Room, Carlton
In a striking 19th-century building on the corner of leafy Drummond and Faraday streets, Carlton Wine Room this year got a new coat of paint, new owners and a new spirit.
It’s now home to an approachable but considered modern European-influenced menu, where dishes are comforting and concise – the handiwork of head chef John Paul Twomey, formerly founding head chef at Cutler & Co. Twomey’s kingfish crudo is a monochrome dish of thick slices of raw fish nestled into a smudge of crème fraîche, topped with napa cabbage and shaved horseradish. Grilled broccolini is served with feathery shavings of cured egg yolk, fat lardons of bacon, and a parmesan, cream and egg yolk sauce. An already established favourite is the half roast chicken; it is tender and crisp-skinned and sits on a light, mousse-y aioli, with big raw sorrel leaves laid flat, confit rounds of potato, and jus on the side.
This one incited a bit of controversy. Can a restaurant lean away from refined dining and still make this list? Heck yes, of course it can.
It was a shock to see well-loved dive bar The Beaufort so dramatically transformed into this polished trattoria. In stark contrast to the venue’s former life, the tables are (mostly) clothed, the walls unadorned, the terrazzo floors polished within an inch of their life. Seventies and ’80s Italian disco comes courtesy of Sam Rogers, who spent time in Berlin as a music producer and now heads up front of house.
The menu is classic Italian with an Italo-American bent. Dishes are unfussy – clever behind the scenes but understated on the plate. Start with antipasti: shaved prosciutto, pork neck gabagool (cured ham), spicy pickled fennel. An aged mozzarella cheese pizza is a winner, as is the clam pasta, with depth lent by reduced dashi broth.
Harris Plane has put together a drinks list that includes a few minimal-intervention wines, but most wine here is produced traditionally, made in Italy or from Italian grapes. Everything is selected to stand up to rich, tomato-based sauces and big Italian cheeses. There’s a wide selection of Amari and a handful of American beer, too.
Restaurant Shik, Peter Jo's 65-seat, dimly lit Korean restaurant down a cobbled Melbourne lane shows off the Momofuku Seiobo, Belles Hot Chicken alum's skilful, contemporary take on Korean. This is innovative Korean cooking you won't get elsewhere in Melbourne, or even Australia. The tight menu features mainly secondary meat cuts, flamed on the grill, and a 60-bottle wine list that's almost entirely natural.
Ishizuka can be found inside a basement on Bourke Street, with chef-owner Tomotaka Ishizuka at the helm. He serves kaiseki, a devoutly seasonal, centuries-old Japanese haute cuisine tradition involving meticulous preparation and only the freshest ingredients. Ishizuka was the head chef at Crown’s Koko, and his eponymous restaurant has just 16 seats. The subterranean space feels like the inside of a light and airy cocoon, with a huge white dome reminiscent of a Japanese lantern.
Leonardo's Pizza Palace is the new 1970s-style Italian joint by the Ramblr and Leonard’s House of Love crew. It's only a week old, but we felt it deserved a spot in this list: it feels like it’s been there forever; it's fun; it's approachable; it's got something special. We hope it's around for many years to come.
Half Acre (an airy, beautiful diner in an old mill, which couples the drop-in spirit of a pub with the food of a more polished eatery), Ippudo (world-famous ramen from Japan), Mr Crackles (a late-night spot doing decadent roast pork rolls and buckets of crackling), and Hawker Chan (serving the world’s cheapest Michelin-starred meal) were four of our most-read restaurant-opening stories of the year.