Friday night, 6.10pm. I’m dashing off a text to Nick Buckley, Broadsheet Melbourne’s assistant editor. “I’ve been at OPL for five minutes and I’m already in love,” I type.

Nick was meant to write this story but forgot he was going camping with his girlfriend. I’m glad. As I sit at the varnished timber bar sipping a chilled vermouth by Yarra Valley winemaker Mac Forbes and listening to Evans Pyramid’s funky I Want Your Body, the record spinning on a high-end Technics SL-1100 turntable, all seems right in the world.

I suspect this’ll be a common feeling at Old Palm Liquor, the sequel to North Fitzroy’s six-year-old Neighbourhood Wine.

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The two venues have a lot in common – not least a well-worn aesthetic that puts you at ease right away. But where Neighbourhood Wine suggests “gilded speakeasy” (the gangster Alphonse Gangitano once ran an illegal casino on the site), Old Palm Liquor is a strangely coherent mix of golden-brown timber panels, stretched rattan ceilings, fans with blades like canoe paddles, vintage pokies-room padded stools and genuine ’80s brown tiles. If a post-war Italian social club took over a plantation-style home, this might be the result.

Here’s the incredible thing. The owners – Neighbourhood Wine’s Almay Jordaan and her husband Simon Denman, plus long-time manager Marc Banytis – didn’t employ an architect or designer. “We just kind of … winged it,” Denman says when we catch up for coffee the next day.

Am I putting too much emphasis on how the place looks? Maybe. But when paired with Jordaan’s unfussy cooking, and Denman’s wine list and record collection, this vaguely brown, vaguely subtropical, vaguely nostalgic room is liable to melt the tension right out of your shoulders.

Then again, that could be the three wines I had. The list here is really outstanding, whether judged by range (300-ish bottles), geographic diversity (wines from Japan? You bet), value for money (the house red and white come from Koerner in South Australia, and they’re nine bucks each), or adventurousness (try a glass of Sigurd’s unreal blend of riesling, sav blanc, semillon, vermentino and gewürztraminer).

Unless you’re undyingly loyal to Penfolds and other legacy labels, there’s something here for you. The bar even has Guinness on tap, alongside several good local beers.

On that note, you could easily drop into Old Palm for a drink and nothing else. But as is the case at so many wine bars in this city, you’ll probably want to eat once you get here.

You might start light with a couple of oysters, some grilled asparagus with mild pickle-infused butter, or purple sprouting broccoli with pureed cannellini beans, but the short menu is at its most interesting once you hit mains.

Riffing on her South African heritage, head chef Jordaan is working with a grill that’s halfway between a more rudimentary, charcoal-powered braai and an Argentinean parrilla, which typically has adjustable-height hot-plates, to imbue king oyster mushrooms, meat and fish with a delicate smokiness.

“The menu is a reflection of how we cook at home, and how she’s always cooked at home in South Africa,” Denman says.

That means thick rockling fillets densely crumbed in Cape Malay spices (a Malaysian-Indian blend brought to South Africa by immigrants) then crisped on the grill. And pork chops brined in cider, marinated in citron melon and soy sauce before getting the same treatment.

Here’s how I ate the pork chop: I sliced off all the largest pieces of meat and ate them. Unsatisfied, I turned the knife 90 degrees and spent five fruitless minutes hacking at the bone horizontally, trying to get more from it. Finally, I gave up, took the bone in my hands and gnawed at it like a caveman. I wanted to text Nick or someone else and say, “Try the pork chop at OPL,” but my fingers were too greasy.

Old Palm Liquor
133B Lygon Street, Brunswick East
(03) 9380 2132

Hours:
Tue to Sun 12pm–midnight

oldpalmliquor.com

This article first appeared on Broadsheet on October 1, 2019. Menu items may have changed since publication.