Good news for Brunswick East locals lamenting the closure of landmark brunch spot Pope Joan in 2018 – founding chef-owner Matt Wilkinson is back in the neighbourhood with a new project.

Although Pope Joan was recently reincarnated in the CBD, after nine years Wilkinson has decided to move on.

“Nearly a decade since founding Pope Joan, it’s time for me to hand over the baton,” says Wilkinson, who’s giving the reins to restaurateur David Mackintosh (head chef Jake McWilliams will continue running the kitchen). “I couldn’t be prouder of what we’ve achieved, and I know it’s in capable hands.”

This frees Wilkinson to head up new British-leaning eatery Crofter Dining Room & Bar, which opened on Friday in the former Hellenic Republic space.

The chef’s approach here is bound by a very 2020 philosophy. It's veg-centric and snack-heavy, with most dishes costing between $8 and $18, so you can take a pick’n’mix approach to ordering.

“I wanted to have a real focus on vegetables and salad,” Wilkinson says. “And actually have the proteins as the sides.”

Try sweet golden and green zucchini, lightly charred and stacked on parmesan clotted cream with a roughly chopped salsa verde, or a dish of tiny potatoes and charred corn tossed with green goddess dressing and grilled chillies – an unexpectedly spicy way to make spuds a headliner rather than a supporting act. Summer beans come with a house-made vegan XO, and unconventional house-made breads include a pickle-infused sourdough, and a garlic naan.

When meat does make the menu, former Hellenic devotees will be pleased to note it involves slow-cooked lamb shoulder – though Wilkinson’s take is more Middle Eastern than Greek, riffing on a Greg Malouf recipe. There’s also a plate of Four Pillars gin-cured fish, made with rosy-hued saddletail snapper set on punchy green harissa with a scattering of nuts, spices and seeds.

Wilkinson describes two dishes as “naff as, but delicious”: a Country Women’s Association cookbook-inspired salad, which combines iceberg, beetroot and a mustard and condensed milk dressing; and potato gems served with gin salt and a mild house-made curry sauce inspired by those at fish’n’chip shops in the UK.

The Brit influence carries through to sweets, though Wilkinson says he hates fussy desserts (“just give me a wedge of tart,” he says, laughing).

Two Commonwealth icons – Eton mess and pavlova – meet in a light, bouncy roll of meringue, pastry crème and mascarpone served with a delicate sea-green basil ice-cream. This week’s grilled seasonal fruit is a tumble of strawberries, their flavour intensified from light charring, served with coconut-milk ice-cream threaded with lime zest. Next week might be clingstone peaches or heirloom plums.

Dishes like this are a masterclass in proper handling of seasonal Victorian produce, cleverly intensifying each ingredient’s flavour. Most vegetables are cut and cooked to order, so the flavour is preserved as much as possible. And while menu descriptions might stay the same, the exact makeup of each dish will vary based on what looks good on the day of service.

“If you look at what’s growing around you and what’s seasonal, it’s just going to taste better,” Wilkinson says.

Crofter’s interior isn’t much of a departure from Hellenic’s, but there is a cosy new bar area in dark blue tones, and a colourful botanical print covering the back wall. A large communal table is made from materials salvaged from the former tenants and the original Pope Joan.

Booze-wise, there’s an emphasis on independent Victorian wineries such as Mac Forbes and Crawford River. There are also Stone & Wood brews on tap, a gin-centric cocktail list (Wilkinson recently took on the creative director role at Four Pillars) and house-made amaro and limoncello.

The restaurant is by Made Establishment, which is also behind the remaining Hellenic Republic in Brighton, Elektra (formerly Press Club) on Flinders Street, the recently-opened Hotel Argentina in Williamstown, and seven Jimmy Grants souvlaki restaurants. Until recently, Made was fronted by celebrity chef George Calombaris, who is now heading up the kitchen at Hellenic Republic Brighton.

Crofter Dining Room & Bar
434 Lygon Street, Brunswick East
03 8419 8822

Tue to Fri 5.30pm–late
Sat 11.30am–late
Sunday 11.30am–2pm