2019 was off to a pasta-heavy start, but things got more interesting as the year went on. Now we’re working our way through some seriously impressive Macedonian, Turkish and French fare, too. We’re putting caviar on our fried chicken, eating crab with ice-cream, sharing 14-day dry-aged whole ducks, and ordering shots of plum brandy with our claypots. Here’s what wowed us most.
Old Palm Liquor
You know there’s a generous whack of garlic in the flatbread – you can smell it as it hits the table next to you. It’s this combination of liberality, and restraint where restraint is due, that makes Old Palm Liquor one of the most exciting arrivals of the year. In a space with enough 1970s-style timber panelling to put Bunnings out of business, it’s by the owners of Fitzroy North’s Neighbourhood Wine. Chef-owner Almay Jordaan’s menu draws on her South African heritage with dishes such as a cider-brined pork chop; a grilled whole yabbie with preserved lemon butter; and a fried shallot with jalapeno all working nicely alongside a chilled Mac Forbes vermouth, or a lively Good Intentions pét-nat.
At 16-seat Gaea, a small but imaginative new diner on Gertrude Street, chef-owner Mo Zhou – who’s worked as commis chef at Attica and chef de partie at Vue de Monde – uses house-fermented and foraged ingredients to create intricate dishes that play with texture and temperature. Some arrive at the table in parts, such as the hand-picked blue swimmer crab with celeriac ice-cream. Others – for example, the barbequed cabbage – elevate unglamorous ingredients to loftier heights. Wildflowers hang along the walls and native flowers greet you as you walk in. And by day, the other half of the space, a coffee nook called Calère (Latin for “warm”), serves coffee and a handful of pastries.
On the surface, the old Press Club still looks a lot like its predecessor, channelling a first-class airline cabin with its beige leather booths and the occasional bronze highlight. But the fine diner’s had a discreet tousling-up, and executive chef Reuben Davis is forging a new path when it comes to the food (except for the tarama, which at Press came with loukoumades but carries over here, now piped along a salt-and-vinegar dusted hash brown). If you’re one for getting among the action, book the chef’s table in the basement kitchen. Dishes hand-delivered by the chef team might include leeks in vin jaune (a creamy white wine sauce), and roast monkfish wrapped in zucchini strands with a punchy XO.
Di Stasio Città
The refined new eatery from restaurateur Rinaldo Di Stasio (Cafe Di Stasio) is a concrete-heavy space that feels a little bit like an art gallery, with looping video works on the walls and not much else. This is a city diner that’s all about old-school Italian hospitality – you’ll feel so looked after, you might forget you’re a paying customer (you’ll remember at the end, though). Dishes include angel-hair pasta with briny hunks of crab; grilled radicchio served fanned out on the plate, dressed simply with lemon and oil; and paccheri (large, tubular pasta) with bolognaise.
The togarashi-dusted fried chicken at this Lygon Street newcomer is arguably the best salty snack in town right now. Order a plate – or two – and sit at the black granite bar to watch Lagoon’s two former Ezard and Longsong chefs in action. Snappy Japanese-leaning cocktails incorporate bitter lemon, sake, umeshu (plum wine) and yuzu soda, but the gingery, peppery Old Fashioned is our pick.
After a three-year renovation, King & Godfree’s gleaming glass doors have reopened to include new wine bar Agostino. Its compact menu will always include some salumi (such as culatella, a punchy Italian ham served with thinly sliced salted persimmon) and a handful of house-made pastas. Each dish arrives with one or two simple accompaniments; nothing is overly embellished. Staff in custom-designed head-to-toe white Japanese denim by Kloke flit back and forth with precision in a space full of olive leather banquettes, gunmetal-steel wine shelving and the occasional marble tabletop.
Pretty Little is more dinner party than restaurant, all crammed into a tiny 20-seat Balaclava shopfront. It’s so cosy, the huge communal table – made from old floorboards – had to be built into the room. The idea is that you’ll get chatting to your fellow diners as you traverse the menu, which will never be the same over two nights. Past dishes have included a single heirloom tomato in tomato consommé, scallop ceviche with pickled almonds, and liquorice-cured swordfish belly.
Frederic and Fred’s
Cremorne’s new European bistro Frederic – and its laid-back little bro Fred’s – live side-by-side, and both provide a sophisticated setting behind a shared heritage-listed brick facade. With the owners of L’Hotel Gitan and Bistro Gitan at the helm, there are some top-notch steaks on Frederic’s menu, which come served with house-made mustard. Fred’s is open all day – in the mornings there’s coffee, croissants, and croque monsiers, then later on there are $2 oysters.
Le Lee is for feasting. The cosy family-run diner in Northcote is serving Macedonian meze and 18 different types of rakia (a type of brandy) – get the plum, quince or pear. Every meal starts with a little cube of bread dipped in oil. It’s a small gesture, but it’s a sign of the generosity to follow. When the dishes arrive, they’ll be spread out across the table, because everything is for sharing. Expect hand-rolled leek and cheese pastries, vegetarian moussaka and clay pots filled with slow-cooked meat – all prepared by the owner’s mum, Vera, a chef with 45 years’ experience.
After a six-month pop-up on Toorak Road, Omnia has moved into its permanent home in South Yarra. Floor-to-ceiling windows run the length of the facade, with light flooding into a room full of greenery, emerald marble and slate-blue velveteen. Further back, there’s a moodier dining room, too. Executive chef Stephen Nairn (Vue de Monde, Matilda, New York’s Eleven Madison Park) spent the last few months of the pop-up visiting producers around Victoria, and he’s using their produce to create dishes such as duck-liver parfait with port jelly, steak tartare with waffle-cut chips, and a 14-day-dry-aged whole duck for two.
New Bridge Road Italian diner Oster is modelled on a traditional Northern Italian osteria, and was designed with the help of the chef-owner’s mum. It’s got a warm, welcoming vibe. But the dishes here propel the diner well into 2019. The casoncelli – a long, ravioli-like pasta that originated in Lombardy – comes filled with spinach and ricotta, topped with Grana Padano foam and burnt butter. It’s plated beautifully – the cheesy mass envelops the dumplings and is dotted with crisp, fried sage leaves.
This Sydney Road spot is by a former Doot Doot Doot chef and one-half of the team behind Fitzroy nightclub Glamorama. It’s got a relaxed, easygoing vibe, and lands somewhere between a restaurant and an – albeit well-off – mate’s lounge room, with exposed brick, high ceilings, comfy booth seating and shelves stacked with excellent wine. Try the fried chicken thighs with fiery house-made hot sauce and caviar.
This modern Turkish eatery first opened in 2016 to near-immediate acclaim, with chef Coskun Uysal’s fresh take on regional cuisine quickly propelling the Balaclava venue to many “best of” lists. Three years in, Tulum 2.0 has had a major overhaul, but still turns out an impressive array of house-made pastes, sauces, pickles and dried and fermented ingredients for dishes such as the chilled, toasted almond soup with kohlrabi, pickled grapes and flecks of bright green olive oil (which won over Nigella Lawson). Elements of the re-fit hint at the landscape of Cappadocia, a Turkish region known for its chimney-shaped rock formations. But the diner’s signature turquoise fish-scale tiles, handcrafted in Portugal, remain.
Margaux is both restaurant and bar, so it’s landed on our best bars list this year, too. From the folks who gave us The Everleigh and Heartbreaker, the subterranean late-night bistro has red leather banquettes, subway tiles and some of the city’s most forgiving lighting. The substantial French menu offers up steak frites; bouillabaisse; escargot; French onion soup; and a brioche cheeseburger with a rich bordelaise (a sauce made from bone marrow and red wine) that really deserves to be shared. After midnight, the supper menu introduces a lobster croque monsieur.
Good Times (a North Fitzroy diner doing $9 pasta, $9 Negronis and $9 carafes of wine), Panda Hot Pot (a two-level Sichuan DIY soup spot in the old Dracula’s theatre restaurant) and Citrus (a family-run all-you-can-eat Sri Lankan diner) were three of our most-read restaurant opening stories of the year.