There’s a romantic allure to stumbling into an unassuming restaurant and discovering something special. So it goes at Carnation Canteen, which opened on a tree-lined corner of Gore Street in Fitzroy in late May and looks more like a house than a restaurant. The 20-seat Euro-style restaurant is like so many of the best “if you know, you know” spots, including L’Area in Paris and Le French Diner in New York.

Behind it are Audrey Shaw, an architect-turned-chef who fell for restaurant life working at now-shuttered Michelin-starred Ellory in London at the start of 2017, and her husband Alexander Di Stefano. “At the time they’d just won their first Michelin star and it was all very new and exciting,” she tells Broadsheet. “The kitchen was tiny, there wasn’t really space for me, so I was perched between the pot wash and the pass. Those boys taught me everything. How to stand, how to cut, how to send it.”

Shaw then worked with her idol Ruth Rogers at The River Cafe in London for four months, and later spent a year cooking with Brigette Hafner at Tedesca Osteria on the Mornington Peninsula. “I’m drawn to the legacy of women who cook not just professionally, but as a vital part of family life," she says. “They approach produce with a different sensibility – serious yet playful – that translates onto the plate.”

Never miss a Melbourne moment. Make sure you're subscribed to our newsletter today.

SUBSCRIBE NOW

At Carnation, her menu rotates weekly and includes just a handful of starters, mains and sides, often featuring organic vegetables from the renowned Days Walk Farm in Keilor. You might eat Gruyere and thinly sliced potato on toast, spanakorizo (a Greek spinach and rice dish) topped with feta, or grilled calamari with parsley, capers and chilli.

One constant is a knockout King George whiting, served whole. “The fish arrives fresh every morning from a local supplier,” Shaw says. “We prepare it simply, chargrilled with a squeeze of lemon. We’re fine if it sells out; we begin anew each day.”

A list of vibrant Australian wines along with French sparkling, Spanish whites, Italian reds, and champagne, Shaw’s favourite, complement the menu. “The idea is that you can start with a glass of Blanc de Blanc and finish with Egly-Ouriet Ratafia de Champagne, a fortified wine made from the final pressing of grand-cru wine,” she says. Each bottle is thoughtfully chosen to champion sustainability and female winemakers internationally.

When you enter, a pink marble bar top and hand-made tables invite you into a space where the team worked hard to “preserve the bones and integrity of the space”. Shaw and Di Stefano bought the building in 2021 on terms with a year to get the finance sorted. The couple then spent 18 months readying the venue and the chef says they “begged, borrowed and called in every favour” they could to get it ready for opening.

Shaw designed the restaurant (naturally), did the architectural drawings, project and construction management, and helped on the tools. Her design was influenced by former boss Kerstin Thompson – with whom Shaw worked on the design for Sunda and Aru – as well as her mentor, restaurateur Con Christopoulos of Siglo, City Wine Shop and Kafeneion. “His philosophy was always, ‘Do less, let the building breathe, and you’ll be okay’.”

The same philosophy applies to Shaw’s cooking, too. “We want to honour the hard work of the producers we work with, who are doing really beautiful things,” she says. “That takes restraint and clarity. Working directly with farmers helps guide our menus. We stick to the seasons, some things are simply unavailable, and that makes us savour them more.”

Carnation Canteen
165 Gore Street, Fitzroy
No phone

Hours:
Wed to Sat 4pm–10pm

@carnationcanteen