2019 was off to a very pasta-heavy start – whether handmade, high-end, or handed out a window in a quiet Collingwood backstreet, the city is undeniably coated in cacio e pepe right now. But things have gotten more interesting over the last few weeks, with a couple of wildcards entering the ring. At the year’s midway point, there are some pretty interesting newcomers on the horizon, but for now we’ve rounded up the spots we want to send all our mates to.
Bar Margaux – from the folks who gave us The Everleigh and Heartbreaker – goes well beyond just a bar. It's a subterranean late-night bistro with a substantial, unapologetically French menu. And with its red leather banquettes, subway tiles and forgiving lighting, and it's the kind of place you could lose a whole night in.
Here you’ll find all the textbook Gallic offerings – steak frites, bouillabaisse, escargot and French onion soup – alongside more Paris-via-NYC fare. A milk-brioche cheeseburger with a rich bordelaise sauce (made using bone marrow and red wine) really deserves to be shared. The late-night supper menu amps up Melbourne’s 4am dining options with a lobster croque monsieur.
As at The Everleigh, cocktails lean classic. There are “snack size” (half-serve) Martinis and Manhattans, but the Black Velvet, which is Guinness and champagne, is a bit more polarising. The tight wine list by Made in the Shade group manager Marty McCaig expertly unifies French drops and locally made French varietals on one page.
Di Stasio Città
At Di Stasio Città, too, time will escape you. The refined new eatery from restaurateur Rinaldo Di Stasio (Cafe Di Stasio), with long-time restaurant manager Mallory Wall overseeing the floor, is 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).
It’s a brooding, brutalist, concrete-heavy space that feels a little bit like an art gallery, with video art on the walls and not much else. There’s a real minimalism to the menu, too, with dishes such as 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. Parmesan hits the table alongside your pasta but is rarely required. Salt plays a spirited role here.
After a three-year renovation, King & Godfree’s gleaming glass doors reopened at the end of last year, presenting us with an Italian deli, an espresso bar and a rooftop with views across Carlton to the CBD. Now, wine bar Agostino joins the troupe.
Modelled on a classic Italian enoteca, the compact menu will always include some salumi (such as Wagyu bresaola or culatella, a punchy Italian ham served with thinly sliced salted persimmon), a handful of house-made pastas – spaghettini with crab and chilli, maccheroni with vodka-tomato sauce and whipped ricotta – and a few larger plates. Each dish arrives with one or two simple accompaniments. Nothing is overly embellished. A classic Venetian dish of salt cod comes served on two slabs of polenta and dusted with grated bottarga. It packs a powerful fishy punch.
Staff in custom-designed head-to-toe white Japanese denim uniforms by Kloke flit back and forth with precision in the cosy space, which opens onto the bottle shop next door. Select a wine here and drink it in the dining room for $20 corkage, or explore the wine list that spans natural and not-so-natural wines from Italy and Australia, with a few harder-to-find drops sourced from the old bluestone cellar below the restaurant.
Neutral, earthy tones and textures are seen in olive leather banquettes, gunmetal-steel wine shelving and the occasional marble tabletop, or in the hint of an original bluestone wall, in a space by award-winning architect and interior designer Chris Connell (Bar Carolina, Dukes).
More than 10 years ago, Shane Delia gave us Maha, its refined Middle-Eastern fare turning it into a city institution. Next, he gave us fancy kebab joint Biggie Smalls. Now Delia’s doing something somewhere in the middle – and he’s keen to prove he can still throw a pan around.
Low-key Middle-Eastern wine bar Maha East opened a couple of weeks ago on Chapel Street. The 40-seater has a wine list that spans new and old-world wines from Israel, Turkey, Lebanon and Morocco, alongside a few local drops. The menu, executed by long-time Maha sous chef Simon Lillico, deftly balances heat and spice. Some dishes borrow from East’s older sibling (the slow-roasted lamb shoulder, the Turkish delight doughnuts, the Pomegranate Sour), but elsewhere you’ll find Moroccan-spiced French fries with house-made za’atar and kefalograviera (a “Greek salty parmesan”, according to Delia), savoury doughnuts filled with taramasalata and topped with dill and caviar, and burnt young corn charred over coal and served with a smoked-almond vinaigrette and salted ricotta.
The handsome fit-out, by the design team at Studio Y, converts the Technē-designed former kebab shop into a snug little eatery, with earthy tones, brass edging and dark wood finishes. Music-wise, expect anything from Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin to Motown, hip-hop and R’n’B.
The dining room is unrecognisable and the mandatory set menu is no more, but at the all-new Tulum, chef Coskun Uysal’s inventive Turkish fare is more vibrant than ever.
Tulum opened in 2016 to near-immediate acclaim, with Uysal’s (Attica, Vue de Monde) fresh take on regional cuisine quickly propelling the Balaclava venue to many “best of” lists. Three years in, it’s been completely transformed. Tulum 2.0 is almost twice the capacity of the original, but the kitchen is still small. Even so, it manages to turn out an impressive array of house-made pastes, sauces, pickles and dried and fermented ingredients.
Clarence River prawns pair with the restaurant’s namesake cheese (a soft, slightly crumbly white goat’s variety), olive dust, yoghurt crisps and a bright capsicum sauce. A dish of chilled, toasted almond soup with kohlrabi, pickled grapes and flecks of bright green olive oil won over Nigella Lawson, and a melon sorbet comes with salty cheese, spritzed with raki (an anise-flavoured spirit) at the table. More substantial is the lamb rump with carrot, pickled apricot and Turkish coffee, and the beef short rib with smoky eggplant and date jam. As each dish hits the Victorian ash dining table, staff talk diners through its origin story.
In place of the stark white walls of old, exposed brick hints at the landscape of Cappadocia, a region in Turkey known for its chimney-shaped rock formations. But the diner’s signature turquoise fish-scale tiles, handcrafted in Portugal, remain.
Good Times (a Fitzroy North eatery doing $9 bowls of pasta, $9 Negronis and $9 carafes of wine), Chotto Motto (an eclectic Japanese diner specialising in gyoza) and Pelicana Fried Chicken (the first local outpost of a Korean restaurant chain) were three of our most-read restaurant-opening stories of the year.