It is all too easy for a city’s dining scene to get stuck in a loop of endless trends. Not that trends are bad per se, they are popular for a reason, but seeing Mexican eatery after Mexican eatery open, pop-up after pop-up, ‘dude food’ after ‘dude food’, it all becomes a bit staid and boring. Which is why it is exciting for a new opening to break the mould and push boundaries rather than trying to fit into a trendy box. The Town Mouse promises to bring a dash of Kiwi inspiration and experience to Melbourne’s dining and bar scene, and it definitely delivers.
There are always people who disagree with the whole chef hat and ratings of the Good Food Guide and similar award systems, but for me they are mostly spot-on and such a system is always going to be needed in some shape and form. Yes, there are always some long-standing restaurants who cling onto their string of hats when the spark has long been extinguished (although they do still deliver quality, if uninspiring, food and service). There are also those crowd favourites that have lines out there door every night but never reach that pinnacle of 15/20 to gain a hat (just because they are popular does not mean they hit the mark, otherwise we would be awarding hats to fast food chains). However this year the one disappointment I had in the Good Food Guide was The Town Mouse only sneaking in at 14.5/20 and just missing that hat, when, in my opinion, the food and service stand above many of its higher-rated peers.
For anyone who has been to the space before, in its previous incarnations as Nicolas Poelaert’s Embrasse or Andrew McConnell’s Three, One, Two, the change in style is stunning. The ceiling rises higher, there is a new bar installed in the centre of the room, with bar-height tables and stools circling. There has been much contention about stools being the only place that you can park your behind, in my opinion they are perfectly comfortable and on my last visit I was there for over three hours (although the couple of stools around the bar itself do look a little less comfortable, but then they are designed for a quick drink and nibble not a lengthy meal). The black glossy tiles lining the walls and the high ceiling make the space both contemporary and stylish without feeling claustrophobic. This is one of those restaurants that blurs the line between restaurant and bar (like Cumulus Inc/Up, Neighbourhood Wine and Ombra amongst others), but please let us all make a pact never to make a portmanteau of the words ‘restaurant’ and ‘bar’, especially as the most obvious one is ‘brestaurant’. A place where you can drink and nibble or settle in for a long graze and peruse through the menu and drinks list.
Key to the success of any hospitality venue are the staff and here they strike that perfect balance between professional and feeling like you are dining at a friend’s house. Front of house is in the capable hands of co-owner Christian McCabe (who opened Wellington’s well-loved and acclaimed Matterhorn before selling the business in 2010 to skip over the ditch to Melbourne), his sister Amber McCabe (Matterhorn and Yotam Ottolengh’s NOPI in London), her husband Jay Comeskey (NZ’s Caffe L’affare, and St. Ali) and other amazing staff (I blame the rum and the election results for forgetting your name). They are all knowledgeable, passionate and, above all, approachable and easy to distract with conversation (especially choosing to dine on Election Night 2013) and just as capable to lead you astray with the allure of Smoke & Oakum’s Gunpowder Rum (a dangerous 52% rum flavoured with peppers, calumet ‘tobacco’, a tobacco substitute smoked by Native Americans, and traditional black gunpowder).
The wine list is an ecletic and playful journey around Australia, New Zealand and Europe, with some possible Asian wines coming in the future (just the minor problem of how to write the names of the wines on the menu to be solved). Concise without lacking variety, the list avoids falling into any cliches and provides ample opportunity to move outside the comfort zone and try something barely pronounceable (the knowledgeable factor of the staff comes in handy when navigating and matching). Over a couple of visits we try the Kurt Angerer Zweigelt, Moric Burgenland Blaufrankisch and Mengoba Flor de Brezo Mencía, none of which disappoint.
Not to be outshone by the service, the food by chef Dave Verheul, is technical, adventurous, without disappearing into retro molecular mayhem, and, most importantly, delicious. Verheul started at Wellington’s Martin Bosley’s before setting sail to London (as so many Kiwis and Australians do), working at The Savoy Grill under Marcus Wareing, then landing in Sydney with Brent Savage at The Bentley, before returning to Wellington as the head chef at the Matterhorn, working alongside McCabe. This background gives that strong classical technique but a sense of whimsy and quirkiness that is not constrained by any sense of classicism.
The menu begins with small nibbles (‘To Start’ and ‘Raw’), perfect companions to a cocktail, which might be crispy school prawns, well-seasoned and dusted with sesame, with a pool of unctuous rouille to drag them through. The ‘russian roulette of chilli peppers’, the padron, are grilled until succulent but not falling apart, smoky and served with a subtle tarragon cream. However the perfect bite has to be the profiterole, crisp choux pastry filled with creamy and tangy goat’s cheese, with a divine thyme-infused honey (from their own hive); it is the perfect balance of flavour and texture.
Designed to be able to try most of them on the menu are the ‘To Share’ plates, appetiser-sized but probably the most adventurous on the menu, turning secondary cuts into exciting dishes. Squares of lamb belly, with that immaculate taste of crisping lamb fat, dehydrated carrots that look like charcoal but have a vivid carrot flavour are lightened with artichoke and a light dressing of goat’s milk. Veal breast is, again, perfectly cooked, with a rainbow of heirloom cauliflowers, a crackle of puffed wild rice and smoky parsnip. Beef cheek is slow-cooked, lightly coated and then flash-fried into crispy chunks that flake apart at a nudge from the knife, but it is the dots of black garlic puree and a tangle of parsnip threads brought to life with a yuzu dressing that jump across the palate. A similar burst of flavour is found in the smoked carrot kimchi on another dish, paired with crisp green apple and miso- and Dijon-marinated pork jowl, slow cooked and then fried until meltingly crisp (the current iteration of this dish sees the pork married with charred octopus).
There is a definite trend and reverence towards turning humble vegetables into explosions of intense flavour throughout the menu, but more obviously in the ‘Vegetables’ section of the menu, where these are dishes in their own right not shunned as side dishes. Textures of kale (crisp, sautéed) and comté foam (one of the few molecular tricks on the menu) hide a slow-cooked egg; the burst yolk oozes its way though the dish making a decadent sauce to coat the crisps of kale. This was easily a highlight of the meal, but held strong competition from an unapologetically large hunk of red cabbage, slow roasted, with chunks of prune and apple and rich, salty parmesan. Both of these dishes are worth running down to the restaurant right now for, before spring hits and the warming winter dishes give way to lighter, more appropriately seasonal ones.
On the more substantial side are the ‘Meat & Fish’ dishes which range from large (the 900g slow roasted saltgrass lamb shoulder and the 600g roast half wagyu rump cap) to more main-sized dishes which work well after grazing through the earlier half of the menu. Autumn and winter is still visible in the curls of pink duck breast, matching well with pine mushrooms and the nutty tones of caramelised yoghurt and sprouted wheat (an ultra-trendy ‘activated’ grain but easily forgiven because the crunchy and chewy texture adds layers to this dish). Moving into spring is the Hapuka, flakingly well cooked, with peas and pistachio, brought together by sweetly acidic buttermilk and verjuice.
Many restaurants fall at the final hurdle but The Town Mouse ends the meal on a high, and for many the desserts will be their highlight of the meal. Pear is poached in buttermilk and paired with shards of fresh pear, the crunch of walnuts, ribbons of ‘dulce de leche’-esque caramel and a refreshing fermented pear sorbet that cuts through the richness and cleanses the palate. A chocolate tart, sadly not on the menu at the moment, has impossibly thin, buttery pastry and a luxuriant chocolate filling, with Thai chilli, herbs and fruit that, again, rise the dish out of being too heavy and leave you aching for another spoonful. A ring of ricotta doughtnuts, warm and spongy, circle a fragrant fennel and mandarin custard; trust me, one serve will not be enough to share after you swipe that first doughnut through the citrus cream and bite into it. However the standout dessert is easily the lemon and yuzu curd, creamy and tart, with a nest of textures from white chocolate curls, burnt coconut and cubes of spiced rum jelly; a cylinder of paper-thin meringue encases a coconut sorbet. This has to be one of Melbourne’s finest desserts and a perfect end to the meal, showcasing the balance of flavours, textures and techniques evident throughout each dish.
In a highly competitive year, The Town Mouse is one of the best new openings in Melbourne, the perfect answer to an evolving dining scene looking for more casual options but without losing the adventurous nature and precision of fine dining. You will feel as at home having a few drinks and nibbling on some of the smaller dishes as you will settling in and grazing through the many highlights of the menu. This is one of those restaurants which brings together the perfect marriage of amazing food, exciting drinks and down-to-earth but professional service. For me it is almost impossible to choose a ‘Best New Restaurant’ this year in Melbourne (although I do have my final two), but the good news is that I do not need to choose, for gems like The Town Mouse are there to make everything else fade away into the background and to make life better (although hopefully next time without the gunpowder rum-induced sore head the next morning). And yes, the business cards do glow in the card.