“I’m totally obsessed with the European style of eating and the romance of food. It’s such a big part of day-to-day life and culture and family,” says Zowie Minchin, who opened new eatery Zsa’s in Northcote in July.
Since she was a kid helping with her family’s catering company, Minchin’s life has revolved around food. She’s worked in bars and kitchens in France and Spain; run events for Laneway Festival and managed bars at Dark Mofo.
“I’ve always wanted to open my own venue, I’ve just never had the time because I’m usually on tour,” says Minchin. “When the world stopped, I saw my opportunity.”
The name is a loose nod to the late actress Zsa Zsa Gabor (“a sassy European woman who’s super confident and not afraid to eat,” says Minchin), and the spacious room is part deli, part bistro and part bar, designed to transition from morning to night.
Stepping in off High Street, the light-filled front bar channels an old European bistro, with brass accents, mirrors and walls painted in a dark shade of pine green.
Pasta hangs drying on racks – Zsa’s sous-chef makes fresh gnocchi, cavatelli and fettucine every morning – and the charcuterie fridge holds ethically produced meats from local smallgoods suppliers including Salt Kitchen and Puopolo Artisan Salumi (think guanciale and smoked pancetta for making proper carbonara), and pates and terrines from City Larder.
Minchin’s obsession with tinned seafood means there’s a very decent selection of anchovies, sardines, sprats, mejillones (Spanish tinned mussels), and zamburiñas (small scallops), too, mostly imported from Europe.
But plenty of Zsa’s suppliers are from nearby; cheeses come from L’Artisan in Geelong, Ballarat’s Spud Sisters take care of potatoes, free range eggs are from Ararat’s Green Eggs, and spreads come from nearby Jams by Fiona.
“We love [Fiona],” says Minchin. “She makes so many delicious, mum-style jams – like her feijoa jam. She grows the fruit in her back yard in Alphington.”
Beyond pantry-stocking, you can pick up heat-at-home meals and takeaway here, too. There’s a shaved cabbage and fennel salad with peas and ricotta salata, and a panini selection that’s generating some buzz.
“People have been lining up for the porchetta roll,” says Minchin.
That roll is a Ned’s Bakery baguette stuffed with free-range pork that chef Robin Turner (former head chef at meat-centric Carlton North bistro La Luna) has slow roasted overnight. Turner then adds thick shards of crackling, greens and scarmoza (smoked mozzarella).
The muffuletta is house baked focaccia filled with mortadella, salami, prosciutto, olives, mozzarella and roast capsicum, and it’s ¬sold by the inch (choose from three, six or nine-inches), and there’s also a fish and chip panini, with fried whitebait, a creamy celeriac remoulade and fries.
Almond croissants and rhubarb danishes come from nearby Northcote Bake Shop and a daily crostata – a rough-edged tart that might come filled with jammy blackberries steeped in shiraz – is made in-house.
Wines, stacked by the entrance, include Italian nebbiolo, Spanish Tempranillo and a few local drops such as Yarra Valley cleanskins in refillable swing top bottles. There are bottled Negronis, Martinis and other cocktails from Starward Whisky and Melbourne Gin Company.
Design-wise, minimal and modern is not the vibe here. Minchin and her sister Brittany designed a warm, functional room filled with vintage furniture that – in usual circumstances – can seat up to 100.
Diners can also order from the bistro menu and sit at the long bar or in the back courtyard for cheeseboards, charcuterie, pasta and other European bistro classics.
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This article first appeared on Broadsheet on August 26, 2020. Menu items may have changed since publication.