What makes an Australian bistro? For Henry Crawford, Joseph Ho and Alexei Taheny-Macfarlane, at least, it’s a place where casarecce pasta can sit beside a classic American cheeseburger, bubbling French onion soup and beer-battered Spencer Gulf prawns with Southeast Asian aromatics. Where a pint of tap beer might precede a bottle of aged Mount Mary red or a gin Martini.

That’s how things go at Bistra, the trio’s new Carlton hideaway, which opened on Elgin Street last Wednesday. The narrow and intimate double-storey space is bucking trends to deliver a good ol’ fashioned restaurant that takes you back to dining rooms past – white tablecloths and all.

“The original idea was to do something French leaning,” says Crawford, who’s also a part owner at Brunswick’s Bar Romantica. “As that concept evolved, we realised that type of restaurant – trying to refer to the restaurants of Paris and London and New York and Rome – wasn’t particularly meaningful for us.

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“So it evolved into this inward-looking, nostalgic concept, where we wanted to do something ‘Australian’, or what that meant for us. For me, growing up in Sydney and going to the great bistros at that time … a lot of them were in dining rooms of pubs, a lot of them had white tablecloths, the menu was a bit British, a bit French, a bit Italian, and service was quite casual; the rooms were warm and welcoming but not overly styled. ‘Timeless’ is a word we’ve used a lot.”

He’s summed up the scene at Bistra, where friendly waitstaff ferry scallops baked with garlic and parsley butter, or lychees with coconut custard and lime granita (a spin on a dessert from Ho’s childhood) between closely packed tables dressed in white linen and paper. “The thing about dining on paper is you can make a mess. It’s kind of celebratory, it’s also very bistro, and there’s a ceremony to it,” says Crawford.

The mostly traditional menu is a collaboration between the trio and young head chef Alex Nishizawa, who has done stints at Bar Liberty and Falco Bakery, and spent three years as a sous-chef at Attica. As we chat through the menu, the group lights up when talk turns to those battered prawns. “It’s so aromatic. I walked past the other day and I was like, ‘Alex, what’s going on in there? It smells like my kitchen growing up,’” says Ho. “It was a really lovely moment.”

Alongside the food is a 460-strong wine list the trio has amassed over 10 years. Ho and Taheny-Macfarlane have worked in the Victorian wine industry for years – at many times together – and are leaning on local producers (Garagiste, Joshua Cooper and Oscar Hermann among them). There are also back vintages from stalwarts like Mount Mary (where Ho and Taheny-Macfarlane previously worked), Wantirna Estate and Crawford River, as well as premium old-world drops like beaujolais, burgundy and chianti, and Rutherglen fortifieds to finish on.

The understated space, which looks like it’s been there for decades, belies the work that’s gone on behind the scenes. The former clothing boutique’s staircase was reconfigured, and what was once a courtyard is now an extension comprising the kitchen and corridor (with a newly added skylight letting in plenty of natural light).

The team also worked with interior designer (and Ho’s wife) Pip McCully of Studio Wonder to source works from local artists such as Darren Sylvester, Riley Payne, Ben Mazey, Carol Crawford (Henry’s mum) and Billy Vanilli, which are scattered throughout the space (there’s a ceramic tile work in the bathroom you should keep an eye out for).

Bistra
157 Elgin St, Carlton

Hours
Weds & Thurs 5.30pm–10pm
Fri & Sat 12pm–10pm
Sun 12pm–5pm

@bistra.carlton