There are no questions of fashion or trends in a good pub, no concerns about what others might be doing. The moment consists of the drink in front of you, the friend or family member by your side and the space you’re sitting in.
The Builders Arms in Fitzroy reopened two of its three sections in April (the restaurant opens next week), with much planning in tow. Its three owners – Andrew McConnell, Anthony Hammond and Joshua Murphy –have enough combined experience to run a small village and have pared back the much-loved pub to bring out its best.
While we don’t immediately think “pub” when we hear the name Andrew McConnell, the chef who has given us Cutler & Co., Golden Fields and Cumulus Inc. is in fact a good fit for the Builders. Collaborating with pub veteran Hammond (from St Kilda’s The Prince and Fitzroy’s the Commercial Club Hotel) and former Cumulus Inc. head chef Joshua Murphy, the trio have redefined the Builders Arms and reintroduced the culture of the old-school pub – a culture that’s been neglected in recent times.
Over the last 20 years or more, the development of banal pubs by large brewing companies and business groups has diluted the original intention of a public house – an institution that was all things to all people. History shows that in the UK, the birthplace of the pub, the heart of any community was structured around the local public house, where men, women and families would drink, eat and talk. The famous essay written by George Orwell in 1946, Moon Under Water, sees him tell of his fictional favourite pub. So impressed by the essay, the boys at the Builders have named the dining room after it.
“Moon Under Water can be anything,” says McConnell of the dining room, opening next Wednesday, July 4. “It’s a small, intimate dining room and will have a different menu to the bistro. It reflects who we are. We’ll take bookings and we want to create a different element in the heart of the pub – in its look, its feel and its offering.”
After banding together with the intention of creating a place that they would like to eat and drink at themselves, McConnell, Hammond and Murphy set off to the UK and France in October last year to explore what was on offer.
Spending time together and enjoying themselves was the goal, but experiencing a good English pub was crucial to the trip. McConnell continues: “We wanted to go and see that honesty and simplicity that you don’t often see in a pub that’s been taken over.”
They ate their way around London and Paris. “The Harwood Arms [in London’s Fulham, co-owned by Australian chef Brett Graham] was great…and at the Canton Arms [in South London’s Stockwell], we were eating foie gras and haggis toasties with pints of beer,” says Hammond.
“I had a creamed parsnip and partridge soup…amazing,” adds Murphy.
Despite creating a pub ensconced in familiarity and community, it’s clear that quality ingredients and the skill and experience of the owners are central to the new Builders. This isn’t just any pub counter meal – this is what these three hospitality pros would like to eat themselves.
With a bar menu that includes pig ear scratchings, whipped cod roe and steamed mussels, and a well-priced wine list by sommelier Campbell Burton, this team understands their location and who they’re serving. It’s fancy, but it’s still a pub in the true sense, with good beer on tap and rotisserie out in the courtyard.
“We love this method of cooking for its simplicity,” says Murphy. Each morning Mallee root is set alight to create white-hot coals by lunchtime, over which they cook free-range chicken and plump quails. “The exposure to the Mallee root coals imparts a beautiful flavour through the meat,” Murphy adds. The rotisserie was custom-made for the pub, based on the space they had and what they wanted to achieve.
“The menu has a steak, a fish pie, roast chicken…it’s simple food,” says McConnell. “Simple things done really well can be the best things.”
The Builders Corned Duck with Brussels Sprouts
Serves 6 as an entrée
You will need to brine the duck overnight before serving, 12 hours.
6 duck legs, thigh and drumstick intact
Zest of 2 oranges
Zest of 1 lemon
2 teaspoons coriander seed
1 teaspoon fennel seed
1 teaspoon black peppercorn
1 garlic clove
1 sprig each thyme, bay leaf, parsley stalk
Raw Brussels Sprouts Salad with Prune Vinegar
10 baby organic Brussels sprouts
2 small Lebanese cucumbers
4 tablespoons chopped parsley
3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon chardonnay vinegar
1 tablespoon crème fraiche
200ml pure olive oil
200g pitted prunes
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
Place all brining ingredients (excluding the duck legs) in a pot and bring to a simmer. Once salt is dissolved, remove from heat, place brine in fridge and leave until completely chilled. Remove pot from fridge and strain, separating the aromatics from the brining liquid.
Place aromatics in a muslin bag and tie with butchers twine. Place duck legs in the pot of brining liquid, return to the fridge for 12 hours.
The following day, remove duck legs from brine and rinse gently in cold water. Discard the brining liquid and keep the aromatics. Place duck legs in a pot with the aromatics and cover generously with cold water, simmer gently for 2 hours. Remove the cooked duck from stove and place pot in fridge and bring down to cold. When duck is completely chilled, remove legs gently from liquid and place on paper towel to drain. Leave the duck to cool until you are ready to cook.
When ready to serve duck
Heat oven to 180C. Heat a little cooking oil in a large non-stick pan. Place duck legs skin side down in pan and fry over a moderate heat for 3 minutes or until skin is crisp and golden. Transfer duck legs to a tray and cook in the oven to warm the meat through to the bone, about 7 minutes. Remove from oven and serve skin side up.
In a large bowl mix mustard, vinegar and crème frache. Slowly whisk in olive oil to emulsify. Season with black pepper.
To construct salad
Finely shave the Brussels sprouts on a mandolin or as fine as possible using a knife. Add a pinch of salt. Slice cucumbers into very thin discs. Peel and finely slice shallots. Add the cucumber, shallots and parsley to Brussels sprouts and toss with 4 tablespoons of mustard vinegar mix (or enough to coat). The remainder dressing will store in the fridge for up to 3 days.
Place prunes in a pot of water and simmer for 10–15 minutes or until completely soft. Once soft, strain the prunes. In a blender, puree prunes with sherry vinegar, add a pinch of salt. Serve this at room temperature.
To assemble the dish
To serve, share salad among 6 plates, place duck leg to the side (skin side up) and finish with a spoon of prune puree.