Skydiving. Running a marathon. Learning a language. Everyone finds different ways to challenge themselves. For Tom Peasnell and Adam Goldblatt, it’s opening a three-storey barbeque restaurant on Swanston Street.
The two chefs – and Tom’s brother Sam – are behind Dexter, an unconventional “meatery” in Preston, and late-night bar Takeaway Pizza across the road. But Cheek, which opened last night, is their chance to stretch themselves further creatively.
“When we opened Dexter, we had to tone everything down,” Tom says. “Our original menu had a lot of brawn and head cheese [terrines made from the heads of cows and pigs] and stuff like that on it. It was really daunting and no one ordered it.”
They’ve learnt their lesson: Cheek doesn’t serve anything “daunting”. But the menu is a radical departure from Dexter’s little enamel trays of American-style barbequed meats. Or any menu in this space, for that matter.
You might start with moreish prawn crackers dusted with barbeque seasoning; a bowl of nugget-y fried cauliflower slathered in miso ranch; or Cheek’s take on empanadas, with mapo tofu and pork cheek. Sides are worth looking into early on – fried onion rings with coffee-spiked mayo are a smart choice at any point in the meal. Ditto the creamed corn dabbed with vegan XO sauce made with mushrooms and sun-dried tomatoes.
Later it’s onto the meat. A few years back Tom worked at a London butcher named The Ginger Pig and learned how to break down whole hogs. He’s doing the same at Cheek, using the prized Kurobuta breed (also known as Berkshire). Chops and boneless loins are left to hang and develop a “funky, cheesy” flavour in an illuminated dry-ageing cabinet that acts as a wall between the kitchen and the 60-seat restaurant, before being cooked to order in a Josper charcoal oven (rather than smoked for hours and hours before service). That dry-ageing cabinet also holds rib-eye steaks from one of Australia’s best beef producers, O’Connor. And ducks, which the kitchen ages for a week and serves by the half with smoked hoisin sauce.
Yeah, you’re not in Kansas – or Preston – anymore. That much might be apparent before the menus appear, though. A single fluorescent shoots the full length of the ceiling like a laser, throwing light on raw concrete walls for a kind of futuristic brutalist beauty. Running alongside it, a wall of illuminated wine bottles acts like vivid wallpaper. Andrew Barry (ex-Gingerboy) is largely responsible for the list, which is quirky without being overly challenging. Expect young, bright bottles from Jamsheed, Manon, Patrick Sullivan, Good Intentions, Travis Tausend and Sigurd.
Dessert might be the biggest surprise at Cheek. The two chefs concede they’ve never been very good at sweets. So they found someone who is: 22-year-old Alex Webb, who has been working in kitchens since he was 15 and recently decided to give pastry a shot. Any restaurant in Melbourne would be happy to have his work on the menu. A refreshing yuzu ice-cream with ginger granita and treacly ginger snaps positively ricochets around the mouth. And a brioche ice-cream with white-chocolate soil, Hundreds and Thousands and a tangle of fried, lightly salted parsnip shavings evokes childhood memories of sugar-dusted cornflakes. There’s mouth-coating milkiness, loads of crunch and just a hint of malt.
This finale solidifies the feeling that builds gradually from the moment you walk up the soon-to-be-iconic peach stairwell: Dexter was just a warm-up for Cheek, which is more ambitious, well-executed and distinctive.
“Everyone told us we shouldn’t open in Preston – all our mates, everyone we ever met in the industry. We had really experienced people who we’d consider mentors say, ‘Are you going to be able to do two sittings out there?’" Sam says. But when they eyed a CBD spot, they were told it was just as tough a location to crack. "The same thing happened when we talked about the city. Everyone was warning us about the city.”
We’re glad the trio didn’t listen, or go in too cautiously. Next month they’ll open the floor above Cheek – a dreamy-looking bar named Peaches, also designed by Pierce Widera. And before the year’s end, the rooftop tentatively named Cream, where Melburnians will undoubtedly be spending plenty of time this summer.
Level 1/301 Swanston Street, Melbourne
(03) 9994 8582
Tue to Sat 5pm–late