There’s a slim and slightly futuristic Asahi beer keg sitting by the entrance at the new Supernormal Canteen. It might be the first thing you see when you walk in, and it might be the thing that tells you you’re in the right place. Unlike the CBD Supernormal, which beckons from afar with a lurid neon cherry sign, there’s no branding out the front of this newborn St Kilda sibling.
According to chef-restaurateur Andrew McConnell, the 90-seat rebirth of his 2013/2014 Gertrude Street pop-up – a preliminary test kitchen for Supernormal ahead of its opening in 2014 – is a “short, sharp, punchy” version of his pan-Asian CBD restaurant.
“We really wanted to make the space more intimate,” says McConnell, who started fitting out the space a couple of months ago with design help from Zenta Tanaka (Cibi). “Not just intimate but a space that people want to hang out in.”
You enter Supernormal Canteen through a wood and glass entranceway into a narrow, dimly lit space with finished concrete floors and thin, dark-mirrored panels running along the wall. Tables are set with plates, cutlery, glasses, small Ikea-style pencils (for ordering on a tick-a-box menu) and an Asian condiment arrangement with soy, seasoning mix and sesame seed grinders. The only thing that remains from the space’s former iteration, Luxembourg, is the long, white marble bar. Blue noren partition curtains hang overhead like flags declaring a conquered land.
McConnell brought Supernormal sous-chef Tim Geogan to head up the St Kilda kitchen, with an almost entirely new line-up of share-friendly pan-Asian oddities. As in the city, there’s a bit of this – Chinese – a bit of that – Korean – and a lot of Japanese.
The beating heart of Supernormal Canteen is the long and smoky charcoal yakitori grilling station that sits beneath a huge stainless steel vent. “It’s not designed to be a yakitori bar, says McConnell, who got inspiration when Tanaka took him to a local yakitori bar during a trip to Tokyo earlier this year. “It’s just a component of something that I really love to cook and eat.”
Chicken yakitori comes in skewered varieties of thigh, fillet, skin or tsukune (Japanese meatballs), and is made with a top-dollar breed of chicken called Sommerlad McConnell orders for his butcher, Meatsmith, from the East Trentham Milking Yard Farm. Geogan and McConnell serve them with a sweet soy-reduction dipping sauce, which comes with an egg yolk floating in the centre.
A few mainstays have made their way over from the CBD, such as duck leg bao and prawn and chicken dumplings. McConnell says he has “sadly” put lobster rolls onto the menu (lobster as many rolls as he has, and you’d be jaded too). Though, like at many of his establishments, there’s an evident tit-for-tat at play. His duck-heart yakitori, for instance, probably won’t win the same cult following. But then again, the carpaccio-style cobia fish with fresh and non-sadistic wasabi probably will.
The dessert menu is a brief four options, but definitely worth a mention. Dessert culture is slightly bizarre in Japan, and Supernormal Canteen seems to capture it well. Its taiyaki, for instance, is a fish-shaped pancake with a custardy amalgam of slightly undercooked batter and melted chocolate in the centre. The kakigori – another union of east and west – is a mountain of sweet shaved ice floating atop a base of crème caramel (or matcha) in a sundae glass.
Supernormal Canteen is pared-back in all the right ways. There’s a subtle yet essential and very conscientious pride in McConnell’s blueprint for the place, which ranges from low-light elegance to smoke-filled vibrancy. It’s perhaps no accident waiters leave your table slightly messy throughout your meal – a discarded shell or two on your plate (evidence of meaty, charcoal-grilled Pacific oysters), with their glistening mother of pearl surface, becomes part of the decor. Or the odd stray roasted peanut on your table, to remind you of your clumsy chopstick game and, still, how dull forks are by comparison.
This is Asian dining as it should be: rousing, gratifying, and damned tasty.
2/157 Fitzroy Street, St Kilda
(03) 9525 4488
Mon to Sun 5pm–11pm