I think everyone has one of those restaurants where you immediately feel at home, and you wonder how you ever lived without it. For me that place is Huxtable. Maybe it is the menu that does not tie itself to one cuisine, in a world where many eateries are choosing to focus on one type of dish, not just one cuisine. Maybe it is the comfortable, retro-tinged aesthetic that lets you settle in for a leisurely meal. Or maybe it is the Moorilla ‘Muse’ wine with the naked, grasping lovers on the label. For whatever the reason, Huxtable has become one of my favourite places to while away a few hours, grazing through the menu and sipping my way through the drinks list.
Opened in 2010, by chef Daniel Wilson, a previous winner of The Age Good Food Guide Young Chef of the Year, Huxtable was one of the first to take up residence on Smith St (being joined by Rockwell & Sons, Easy Tiger, Josie Bones, Masak Masak and Gorski & Jones). Of course since the opening of Huxtable, the rise of the Huxtaburger has taken Melbourne by storm and there are likely many who do not know the original eatery behind the brand. In fact, on one visit we were wondering where our dining guests were, when we looked over the road to find them sitting outside Huxtaburger waiting for us.
Named after the Huxtable family in 80s sitcom The Cosby Show, it should come as no surprise that the room has a contemporary take on 80s design aesthetic. A juxtaposition of the slate grey booth seating and modern lighting, with the tan brown chairs and the brick lined bar and kitchen. It is a cosy restaurant, with tables dotted around the room, but for many the highlight will be the bar seating around the open kitchen. These voyeuristic seats put you to face-to-face with the chefs, allowing you to watch them work and plate up, with chit chat when they are able. The service is laid-back, without lacking attention to detail, and fits with the concept and the Smith Street vibe. The drinks list is concise and to the point, and, like the food, offers you a tour around Australia and the world. One of my highlights was the 2010 Moorilla ‘Muse’ pinot noir, offering a lascivious label, matched by the smooth wine inside.
The food picks and chooses elements and flavours from around the world, but never comes across as confused or ‘fusion’. The menu begins with ‘bites’, mostly single serves, but with a couple of shareable items like the foie gras parfait. The jalapeño and cheddar croquette has become a firm staple of the menu, crisp exterior with a rich cheese filling, packing in a chilli kick that leaves you wanting another; the perfect match to a glass of wine or beer. The XO bun is soft and warm, with a subtle, possibly a little too subtle, XO flavour coming through, but the filling of tender crab and fragrant thai basil mayonnaise is mouthwatering. Another favourite on the menu is a punchy lamb puttanesca wrapped in ribbons of crispy filo, offering a contemporary, refined take on finger food. The accompanying lemon yoghurt is thick and creamy, but offering enough acidity to cut through the richness of the slow-cooked puttanesca.
We then move into the larger dishes ‘to share’, broken up into sea, land and earth. Over a few visits, the menu has revised itself based on the season, but with some old favourites remaining; so some of these dishes may not appear on the menu on your visit. The kingfish has a pungent smokiness, playing off the earthy notes of beetroot and the sweet batons of pear; a horseradish cream strikes that fine balance between overpowering and barely there. A stir-fry of squid has that smoky je ne sais quoi of the wok (wok hei), with thick rice noodles and a fragrant warmth coming from the chilli and curry leaves. The steak is immaculate (coming from someone who rarely orders steak) with a rich and sweet onion butter melting over it, and pickled king brown mushrooms to add a light kick of acidity.
Another permanent fixture are the Korean BBQ pork ribs, likely to cause a riot if they were ever taken off the menu. The sticky, unctuous ribs are simply delicious, with the chilli pickled gherkins offering a perfect counterpoint. Not to be outshone by its partners on the plate, the accompanying spicy slaw is light, not heavy, and the dish sings in balanced harmony. An autumnal highlight on the menu is the roasted duck breast; thick slices of rosy duck, rich and smooth cauliflower puree with lightly spiced, ruby red poached quince. The duck and quince are a wonderful marriage, with just enough sweetness and tartness in the quince to balance the rich duck and puree.
It is the ‘earth’ section of the menu that holds many treasures, which should make any vegetarian delighted, with each dish well planned, well executed and artfully plated. Tender baby carrots are draped with ribbons of zucchini, with satin-smooth goat’s curd and bursts of pomegranate; a tarragon infused dressing shows restraint and ties the dish together. Cauliflower is roasted to within an inch of its life, giving a caramelised colour and nutty flavour; paired with the sweetness of raisins, crunch from almonds and salty tang of preserved lemon. A warm salad of sweetcorn, bursting with freshness, and black beans is brought alive by the tangy, smoky and spicy chipotle and lime creme fraiche; one of my favourite dishes and one which I have shamelessly stolen to cook at home. Replacing this salad on the menu at the moment is a pimped-up macaroni and cheese, a wickedly good combination of smoked mozzarella and chipotle, with just the right amount of smoky heat. Their version of a caprese salad features various hues of sweet heirloom tomatoes, milky buffalo curd and micro basil with a strong umami essence from the black olive oil.
On the sweet side, a coconut mousse is feather-light, joined by the sweet citrus flavour of pomelo and a rum sago; a palm sugar drizzle adds a note of caramel sweetness. Another dessert has a decadent dark chocolate cake, infused with orange, served with a light milk chocolate cream and shards of freeze-dried raspberry and a crumb for texture. The standout on this dish was the buttermilk sorbet, instantly melting in the mouth, which, along with the mint, lightened the rich chocolate dish. If you think you are too full for dessert (who are we kidding), a selection of petit fours is a perfect choice, you might get a a scoop of chocolate mousse with freeze-dried orange segment and a couple of morsels of cake.
Huxtable is one of those restaurants that offers innovative dishes, packed with flavour, in an inviting and comforting atmosphere, with no pretension. If you have only visited Huxtaburger, then you owe it to yourself to visit Huxtable. The dishes are stripped back and unfussy, focusing on great ingredients and executing flavour combinations and techniques perfectly. It has become one of my favourite spots for a lazy weekend lunch, and the globally inspired food and evolving menu ensure that it is always engaging and, more importantly, delicious.