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The people’s Pope

Boisterous flavours and an uninhibited menu underpinned by an easy charm lend virtue to Melbourne’s refashioned Pope Joan, writes Michael Harden.

Chicken Kiev. Two words to make people either reel back in horror, hissing and crossing themselves, or get all dreamy and nostalgic about oozing garlic butter and gentler, less politically correct times. Either way, popping it on your menu - even a free-range Milawa version with smoked and confit garlic butter, and house-made breadcrumbs, accompanied by a shaved asparagus, fresh herb and parmesan salad like Pope Joan's - is a gauntlet thrown down, a declaration that this is a place not in the thrall of fashion, nor the Heart Foundation.

Rather, Pope Joan embodies the spirit of great local eateries and classic corner pubs - especially at night when it now slips out of its daytime café persona into candlelit restaurant garb. It's a place where skilled cooking and comfort food are not mutually exclusive, and there's an ease to ordering and eating.

The Pope by night is a place that's geared for comfort, be it in the form of said chicken Kiev or a super-virtuous biodynamic rice salad, all sweet dried fruit, crunchy nuts and seeds, and salty feta. It's an easy menu to negotiate, full of things you want to eat. It gets the fine balance of keeping it interesting and keeping it familiar that all successful local restaurants, reliant on repeat custom, understand.

This isn't to say that things are tricky at Pope Joan in its more familiar daytime café persona. The crowds that have been hovering on the Nicholson Street waiting for tables every weekend for the last three years would attest to that. But when chef and co-owner Matt Wilkinson and business partner Ben Foster decided that they would open the place at night as a restaurant (as opposed to opening a night-time restaurant in another location entirely, which was the original plan), they decided that Pope by day and Pope by night would have two distinct personalities.

They've done this literally: with a daytime head chef, Jason Newton, and a night-time one, Vanessa Mateus. But they've also drawn a line in the sand with an evening menu that's distinctly restauranty and devoid of all-day breakfasts, sandwiches and cinnamon bagels. The distinction is further helped by the fact that Pope Joan works so well at night. The three distinct spaces - the split-level bar (formerly known as the Bishop of Ostia), the now glassed-in and heated terrace, and the original Pope Joan café space with its open kitchen and shelves full of knick-knacks - all come up a treat under the flattering influence of dimmed lighting and flickering candles.

Add fresh flowers on the tables, tea towels as napkins, cut-glass tumblers and bone-handled cutlery, flowery farmhouse crockery and slightly mismatched furniture, and you have a space that's both delightful and relaxing. You understand that it's been carefully engineered to feel like the dream of a local restaurant, but there's such an easy charm to it all that the manipulation feels benign rather than cynical. Personable staff who know their stuff help and so does Wilkinson's food.

If there's a link between the day and night menus of Pope Joan it would be that Wilkinson's restaurant food has been distinctly influenced (for the better) by his café cooking. There's less straining for effect, less feeling that there's one eye on what he should be doing and the other on what he wants to do that was always present, to a greater or lesser extent, when he was cooking in other people's restaurants. The food all arrives looking good, but there's nothing deliberately artful about the presentation, no smears or swirls. There's a strict seasonality to the ingredients being used and, it seems, a deliberate plan to keep it looking as homey and unaffected as the décor.

No doubt the precise cooking of Mateus influences this calm, more relaxed approach, but there's also a noticeable impression that Wilkinson has become a chef comfortable in his own skin, cooking the stuff that he personally likes to eat.

The list of snacks, as easily adapted as appetisers as they are bar snacks to accompany the short sharp list of cocktails, illustrate the point perfectly. There are deep-fried dumplings, filled with prawn mince flavoured with ginger and soy, coated in a pleasantly textured rice crumb and accompanied by a green tea salt. Or the brilliant - and rousingly robust - combination of biltong (salty-hot, jerky-like cured beef from Warialda) with radishes pickled in a mix of oil, chilli, soy and black vinegar. Or grilled asparagus spears dipped in eggwhite and coated in sesame seeds, then served with a Michel Bras-inspired miso emulsion.

Though there are obvious influences in the mix - some European, some Asian - there's also a lack of any kind of distinct thematic statement or label.

It's menu as philosophy rather than cuisine showcase and that makes for a fun ride.

Take the smoked plate. It combines grated pot-smoked beetroot, cold-smoked labne, cold-smoked and grilled tongue, hot-smoked chestnuts, smoked maple bacon and smoked eel (Victorian, from near Ballarat). It's a dish that plays on the current ubiquity of the charcuterie starter and on Wilkinson's ethnic background, Yorkshire being the land of smoked foods. Better yet, it's a whole lot of fun to eat, a mix of textures and techniques that invite comparing and contrasting. It's entrée as participation sport.

Spinning the cultural wheel again there's Pope Joan sashimi with the pale, lightly cured fish (often the much overlooked boarfish), sharing a plate with an acidulated miso emulsion, pickled radishes and grilled nori. Like much of the menu here, it's not going for subtlety of flavour, and the emulsion will probably feel intrusive to purists, but as a nicely textured, well-presented version of comfort food using quality ingredients it's hard not to award it points.

Then there's the impressive sugar- and salt-cured wallaby, flavoured with star anise, juniper, cinnamon and cloves, char-grilled to order and served with rhubarb, a classic celeriac rémoulade and cornbread. The slow-roasted Flinders Island lamb rump could perhaps have spent a little more time hanging out in the oven, but is punchy with flavour and accompanied by a brilliant house-made sheep's milk beurre noisette labne flavoured with lemon.

There's good pasta, too, perhaps spaghettoni tossed with spanner crab, mussels and soft herbs, or heftily flavoured squid-ink gnocchi lolling about in a prawn and tomato sugo, topped with polenta-coated fried calamari rings. The gnocchi would win no prizes for beauty - especially with the rather gauche-looking calamari rings perched on the top - but once the eating starts and the salty deep-red sugo wraps itself around all the smooth and crunchy textural elements, neglected presentation aesthetics fade into the background.

It becomes obvious pretty quickly at Pope Joan that Wilkinson is not one for shy and retiring flavours. They're more likely to confront you head on and give you a piece of their mind. Even the dressing on an iceberg lettuce salad, a bracing balsamic-based number, is not content to be a background presence. It sounds as if it could be exhausting, all this clamour for attention, but Wilkinson has a great knack for (mostly) pulling back just when you're about to cry uncle.

Admirably, the wine list is well up to the task of meeting the food on equal ground. On a refreshingly brief and well-curated four pages (two of Victorian, one of "visitors from the Old World" and one for Sherry and sparkling combined) there are muscular reds like the chewy 2010 Ben Haines Syrah and aromatic whites such as the 2012 The Wanderer Upper Yarra Chenin Blanc facing off against tempranillo, nebbiolo, riesling and verdicchio from the Euro list. They're all good food wines that have obviously been chosen with one eye on the price. It's a smart move in an aspiring local.

Another smart move is to offer a "bit of CWA cake" for dessert. It's irresistible, this daily-changing special, and a great fit with the décor's nostalgic drag and a repertoire that includes a classic sponge with whipped cream and jam, apple cobbler, bread and butter pudding, jam roly-poly and orange poppyseed cake. Some of the other sweet stuff is a little more complex and less deliberately retro, but Wilkinson shows a steady hand by not descending into the needless theatrics that often afflicts the dessert end of the meal in restaurants.

A banoffee pie (Wilkinson's favourite dessert, a ridiculous mix of everything from Milo and diced bananas to condensed milk and chocolate) might keep the dial set on blokey, but a dessert of lime meringue, orange curd, and anise- and verbena-flavoured parfait is a good-looking, refreshing winner. It's mostly about the citrus but, with some dehydrated meringue thrown into the mix, it's also about layers of flavour and texture.

Pope Joan at night is the story of things falling into place. Matt Wilkinson's evening venture might be different to the one he'd envisaged but such a thoroughly enjoyable, good-natured and relaxed result underlines the wisdom in letting things find their own ground. This isn't to say that Pope Joan has not been meticulously tweaked, but those doing the tweaking have waited for the right moment and opened just the right business.


Pope Joan
77-79 Nicholson St, Brunswick East, (03) 9388 8858.
Licensed.
Cards AE MC V EFT.
Open Mon-Thu 7.30am-11pm, Fri 9.30am-midnight, Sat-Sun 7.30am-5pm.
Prices Entrées $15-$19, main courses $22-$29, desserts $8-$14.
Vegetarian Two snacks, two entrées, one main.
Noise Civilised.
Wheelchair access Yes.
Plus A perfectly pitched local, right down to the kids' menu.
Minus Boisterous flavouring can overwhelm some dishes.

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Pope Joan
77-79 Nicholson St, Brunswick East, (03) 9388 8858.
Licensed.
Cards AE MC V EFT.
Open Mon-Thu 7.30am-11pm, Fri 9.30am-midnight, Sat-Sun 7.30am-5pm.
Prices Entrées $15-$19, main courses $22-$29, desserts $8-$14.
Vegetarian Two snacks, two entrées, one main.
Noise Civilised.
Wheelchair access Yes.
Plus A perfectly pitched local, right down to the kids' menu.
Minus Boisterous flavouring can overwhelm some dishes.

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