It’s the upstairs sister restaurant to the pair’s Russell Street wine bar Embla, and has been on the cards for almost two years. When it finally opened, it didn’t disappoint.
Lesa is quite unlike most of the restaurants opening in Melbourne right now. The dining room is refreshingly quiet. Bookings are encouraged. Share plates are not.
McCabe says he wanted the space to feel lived-in, and has decked it out with rustic French kitchen tables from the 1700s and antique chairs.
The menu is fixed: four courses with three choices at each step for $78. Verheul’s dishes are beautifully, minimally plated, and nearly every one has spent time on or very close to an open flame, has been fermented on-site, or both. Potato flatbread comes with macadamia cream and a meaty, smoked shiitake mushroom oil. A beetroot terrine is made with purple and chioggia (candy stripe) varieties layered with fresh thyme. A leek dish almost brought our writer to tears.
Not everything is so complex, a deliberate move by Verheul to facilitate conversation in the restaurant – and not just about the meal.
The idiosyncratic wine list is stacked with young, unusual drops from France, Italy and Australia, as well as a few vintages of burgundy dating back to the ’80s.
The dramatic diner is just over the road from the Botanic Gardens. Inside, the red-brown ceiling is a colour reminiscent of Uluru. Native wood sits piled beside a long bar overlooking a busy open kitchen. Dining tables, by furniture maker Hugh Makin, are made from trees felled in the Otways. Glass cabinets filled with botanical installations, from flowering artichoke plants to fermenting persimmons, change with the seasons.
The menu is bold, contemporary Australiana. John Dory is steeped in grenobloise (typically capers, beurre noisette and lemon, given a native edge here with salt bush, desert lime and lemon myrtle). Spanner crab dressed in crème fraiche is studded with finger lime; the right mix of sweet and miniature explosions of sour. It comes with charred flatbread and butter dusted with dehydrated school-prawn dust. In some plates, flames and coal are obvious. In others, less so: such as smoked vanilla-bean ice-cream served with a pink-lady tarte tatin (Pickett says he tested this dish 600 times before nailing it).
On a quiet suburban street in Yarraville, Navi (pronounced “na-wi”, which means “local” in Cherokee) opened with very little hype a couple of months ago. It’s by chef Julian Hills, most recently of Paringa Estate, but who’s also spent time at The European and The Courthouse Hotel.
Hills is from the Strzelecki Ranges, where he and his brother were raised on a 40-acre farm by their American parents (his father’s Cherokee heritage inspired the name of the restaurant). On days off, Hills forages sea parsley and karkalla (a native succulent) from friends’ properties on the eastern side of the Mornington Peninsula.
Back at the restaurant, these ingredients form part of an eight-course tasting menu that combines European techniques, native Australian ingredients and Eastern philosophy, though the flavours are undeniably Australian. The elegant and intimate 25-seater dining room – designed to reflect both the industry of Melbourne’s west, and the Victorian bush where Hills forages for many of his ingredients – is small enough that Hills’s menu can centre around produce with limited availability, and from small local farms, such as wallaby tartare wrapped with cured egg yolk; and a macadamia cream, native thyme and bush-tomato tart.
Hills has a Bachelor of Fine Arts and is passionate about craft; a vital element at Navi. Using a pottery wheel on his back porch he spins the clay for every plate brought to your table.
Turin-born sommelier Cristina Flora spent three years as a senior sommelier at the Press Club and is on hand for pairings. Try the rice wine that smells of hard cheese and dried mushrooms.
Between Banjo Harris Plane, Casey Wall, Manu Potoi and Michael Bascetta, they own Bar Liberty, Rockwell and Sons and Above Board, and now they’ve taken over the old dive bar The Beaufort. Structurally, the drinking den is unchanged. But on top of those booze-soaked old bones, a refined and polished Italian-American diner has taken shape. Capitano has emerged.
Harris Plane is known for curating a solid wine list at Bar Liberty, and he’s done a nice job here, too. You’ll find a couple of minimal-intervention wines, but 95 per cent of the list is produced traditionally, and made in Italy or from Italian grapes. Everything is selected to stand up to rich, tomato-based sauces and big Italian cheeses. There’s a wide selection of Amari and a handful of American beer, too.
Underfoot, beautiful terrazzo floors. The walls are relatively unadorned, a stark contrast to the venue’s former life. Some tables are clothed, some not. Some diners sit at bentwood chairs, others lounge in banquette seating. ’70s and ’80s Italian disco comes courtesy of Sam Rogers, who spent time in Berlin as a music producer and now heads up front of house.
Dishes are unfussy and approachable, clever behind the scenes but simple on the plate. Start with antipasti: shaved prosciutto, pork neck gabagool (cured ham), spicy pickled fennel. A cheese pizza is a standout (with pecorino, and aged and fresh mozzarella), as is the clam pasta, with depth lent by reduced dashi broth.