At the second venue from Mabu Mabu chef-owner Nornie Bero, you’re greeted by a pink neon sign that says “Big Esso”. Fitting, as it’s the venue’s name, but it also means “the biggest thank you” – to everyone who’s supported Mabu Mabu from its beginnings as a South Melbourne Market stall, through to its launch as a Yarraville cafe. The thank you also extends to this continent, for its abundance of native produce and ingredients.
“More and more people are exploring the idea [of native ingredients] and I'm wondering why we haven’t been eating more indigenous foods and natural foods from Australia – why have we put that aside?” Bero tells Broadsheet.
Making indigenous ingredients and cuisine more accessible – particularly from Mer Island in the Torres Strait, where Bero grew up – has always been her aim. And when Mabu Mabu Big Esso opens on Saturday July 31, she gets to do it in a new way.
The all-day bar and kitchen is at Fed Square, beside the Koorie Heritage Trust and right across from Acmi, on Wurrundjeri land. Here, she’s drawing from the food of her childhood, with shared plates of local seafood.
“I really want to showcase the native [ingredients] and the island life that I grew up in, and really show people these amazing seafood elements, from sea urchin to abalone,” she says.
Highlights include a bucket of chargrilled prawns with sea succulents and Bero’s own hot sauces; pipies with fresh tamarind, chilli and Neptune’s beard (a fine stringy seaweed); ginger-poached periwinkles (sea snails) with chilli aioli; and fried crocodile with saltbush, pepperberry and pickled karkalla (a sea succulent).
There’s also namas, a coconut-cured kingfish that’s similar to ceviche, and a dish called zurra. “That’s basically an island broth, like a fish consomme, but how we grew up eating it,” Bero says. “We’re bringing some of those traditional names forward and bringing back the old traditions of cooking.”
The indigenous focus extends to the drinks menu, too. Her Yarraville cafe doesn’t serve alcohol, so this is the first venue where Bero gets to highlight local booze. The entire beer, wine and spirits list is Australian, except for a few conspicuous outliers.
“You have to have a reserve list for your mother-in-law, who likes a bit of French champagne,” Bero says, laughing.
There are wines from Tarrawarra Estate and Giant Steps in Victoria; Unico Zelo, Bird in Hand and Alpha Box & Dice in South Australia; and Vasse Felix in Western Australia. Stomping Ground beer is on tap, supported by tinnies from Stone & Wood and Two Birds.
The cocktail list features a Green Ant-tini made with Seven Seasons Green Ant Gin (and ants as a garnish), plus a Davidson’s plum Gimlet with Brookies Slow Gin and fresh lemon juice. Island Spiked Tea is made with wild hibiscus flowers, strawberry gum leaf, lemon and cinnamon myrtles and Axel vodka.
On the booze-free side there’s Non’s lemon myrtle and hibiscus spritz, Strangelove’s coastal tonics, non-alcoholic beers from Indigenous-owned brewery Sobah, and wattleseed and native mrytle sodas from Sydney’s PS Soda.
When the front beer garden opens in spring, Big Esso will have a total of 130 seats. For now, there’s the welcoming diner, with its timber furnishings, woven accents and green bar tiles. There’s a mural to one side by Indigenous artist and activist Aretha Brown, and original art by Gunditjmara and Torres Strait Islander artist Lisa Waup has been printed onto some tables. A bamboo tiger shark sculpture from Moa Island also hangs from the ceiling.
A small retail area offers products from Mabu Mabu’s Indigenous-owned partners, as well as house-made hot sauces, seasonings, spice mixes and teas to take home.
“We really want to bring that island vibe of opening conversation, enjoying the space and trying something you may not see anywhere else,” Bero says. “More people have used native ingredients in everyday cooking, and that is exactly the goal that I've been trying to do and what I focus on.”
Mabu Mabu Big Esso opens on Saturday July 31.
Tue to Thu 11am–10pm
Fri to Sun 11am–late