Albert’s is a cosy neighbourhood wine bar hidden away in a Victorian-era building at the back of Armadale’s Kings Arcade. With tables that spill over onto the footpath like a European-style cafe, it’s become one of the hardest local spots to snag a seat on a sunny afternoon.
Recently, two new chefs joined the team. They’re expanding the food offering to include some larger options – like pan-seared flathead in velouté sauce, and pork-and-fennel pasta – in addition to the small plates Albert’s is known for.
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He’s joined by a new sous-chef, Steve Matthews, whose 10-year career includes a stint in London and 18 months under Michael Bacash at South Yarra seafood restaurant Bacash.
We took five minutes with the pair to talk about their plans for the Armadale favourite.
How would you describe your cooking?
Ferne: My cooking is obviously influenced by recent experiences in fine dining kitchens, but I really love to cook classic bistro food that I love eating when I go out.
Matthews: I’m classically trained in French cooking techniques, and my style is constantly evolving. My ideas come from numerous outlets, including my crazy cookbook collection.
What’s the kitchen set-up like at Alberts?
Ferne: It’s definitely cosy, but we’ve made it high functioning. I prefer the smaller set-up kitchens because you don’t have the room to clutter and over order. It keeps us in check. Plus it’s easy to pack down at the end of the night.
What effect does the size or set-up of the kitchen have on creativity?
Ferne: The limitations of the kitchen push me to be more creative and ensure that the menu is always evolving. Because we don’t have the capacity to offer countless menu items at once, the things that we can do receive a lot of attention and must be topnotch. We also get bored quickly, so we’re always changing and tweaking the menu, which our regulars appreciate. We’re always looking at ways we can develop and make the kitchen set-up more efficient, too.
Matthews: It challenges you to not just blindly create exciting dishes, but also think about how to effectively execute these ideas.
What are your ambitions for Albert’s? Is there a new direction you want to take it?
Ferne: I’m honestly just keen to keep cooking good, honest, tasty food. While Albert’s has been known for small plates, I’ve been introducing some larger dinner-style plates, such as larger pieces of fish or protein, and adding in daily specials too. The small plates are great for sharing and easy to pump out, so they won’t go anywhere, but there is demand for larger options and they’ve been received very well. I’ve been given an open book with the menu, so I'm having a lot of fun and feeling quite free to play around.
Matthews: To push myself to create as many outstanding dishes as I can while keeping them refined and well costed for the menu. Currently we’re steering away from buying premade produce such as chips and lavash crackers, and leaning towards making our own alternatives.
What’s on the menu? What are you most proud of?
Ferne: One of the smaller things I’ve added is crab-and-sesame toast, and the response has been insane. We’ve already gone through two benchtop fryers as they’ve been working overtime.
I’ve added some larger plates like pan-seared flathead in velouté sauce and grilled lamb backstraps with salsa verde, which are obviously old-time classics, but again the feedback has been great. It’s really good to know that our customers will appreciate those hard-working, classic items when done well.
The bar’s wine list is obviously really good and I know that’s a big draw card for a lot of the customers, so making sure those classics are there to support and help make that list shine is a fun and worthwhile process, too. There’s a lot of joy to be had in honest cooking without reinventing the wheel, and we feel that our customers are often thinking the same way.
Matthews: I’m currently working at putting on some seafood specials as well as constantly expanding on our pasta repertoire. We’re currently rolling with a tasty pork-and-fennel pasta number.
What dishes and ingredients are you excited to introduce in the coming seasons?
Ferne: I love cooking with seasonal veg, and spring is an exciting time for produce. I’m also playing with less popular or trendy ingredients, such as lamb sweetbreads.
Matthews: I’m pretty keen to get my hands on some blood oranges when they come in and maybe pair them with some calamari.