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A cut above

For Andrew McConnell, the only way is up, judging by the fun food at his latest venture. Michael Harden ascends to the new wine bar above its famed sibling, Cumulus Inc.

When Cumulus Inc. opened five years ago it was a game-changer that exploded the distinction between restaurant, café and bar. With Andrew McConnell's flexible breakfast-to-supper menu putting the diner in fine dining and Pascale Gomes-McNabb's design seamlessly mixing designer bling with industrial heft, something unique had arrived.

Was this Flinders Lane eating house, as they called it, the first to embrace this sort of label-defying eating and drinking model? Few would dispute that Cumulus Inc. was the most influential of its ilk, with the echoes of its food and design ideas still heard loud and clear across the dining scene in Melbourne, if not the whole country.

So, now that Andrew McConnell, having opened businesses in St Kilda (Golden Fields) and Fitzroy (Builders Arms/Moon Under Water), has moved into wine-bar territory in the space directly above Cumulus Inc., is there going to be a similar ripple effect in the culinary pond? Or will Cumulus Up simply be seen as a part of a trend where notable restaurateurs open stylish standalone bars?

Certainly if you consider recent openings such as Rinaldo Di Stasio's winning new St Kilda bar or Guy Grossi's super-cute, designer-rustic salumi bar Ombra, you could see Cumulus Up as a card-carrying member of the club. All three are good-looking and design-conscious and have flexible menus packed with great ingredients and wine lists swimming with quality labels.

But where the Di Stasio and Grossi bars celebrate great Italian tradition and style, Cumulus Up takes its cues from a broader field. This is particularly the case with the menu, where McConnell, true to form, takes advantage of both European and Asian ingredients and techniques in what otherwise seems like a Mediterranean carte. It's here, in dishes such as an excellent octopus, mussel and bread salad, that you can detect a flutter at the edges of the zeitgeist.

It's a handsome dish. Pale discs of poached and grilled octopus and tawny-coloured mussels are tossed with rough-cut pieces of heirloom tomatoes in deep and bright reds, yellows and greens. Basil leaves - four varieties in all, including a lovely lemon number - add interest for both the eye and the palate, and superb croûtons have been soaked in mussel juice before being pan-fried. Crunchy, salty, fishy - yes.

But what really lifts this dish is that everything in it has been mixed with a Korean fermented chilli paste that not only carries its own hot and pungent punch but seems to inspire all the other ingredients around it to greater efforts. Fusion? Who cares when there are so many cartoonish pow! whack! boom! flavour and texture sensations going on that all you think about is how much fun it is to eat.

There's no shortage of fun on the compact menu (a single page with about 20 or so items all up, including the sweet stuff), be it the old-school profiteroles served with chocolate sauce and vanilla ice-cream or the dish destined for cult status (and, one suspects, multiple incarnations across the city), the duck waffle.

A simple idea deftly executed, the waffle in question starts with batter with a little buckwheat flour added for extra texture. The batter is mixed with confit duck and skin, then popped into a waffle iron, and when it comes out, golden and gridded, foie gras parfait is piped on top and it's finished with a sweet, sticky blob of prune purée. It's a cracker, a sort of well-balanced high-end stoner food.

It's this lightness of touch and sense of humour that gives Cumulus Up much of its considerable charm. It's there in spades in the poised, humorous and knowledgeable service. And it's mostly there, too, in the approach to the wine list and wine service.

Given that Up is billed as a wine bar, and given its pedigree, there was always going to be some serious wine to be had. And there is. Co-owner Jayden Ong is largely responsible for assembling the 15-page list and the reasonably generous by-the-glass offering, and he plays to the strengths of the Old World - French sparkling, German riesling, Italian nebbiolo - while mixing things up in terms of the benchmark and the boutique. Orange wines - from Australia, Italy and France - get a look in, as does Australian sémillon (a surprising rarity in these parts), and there's plenty of good stuff from far and wide for lovers of pinot noir. It's a list full of interest, with a measured amount of quirk, and it has entry points for novices and buffs alike.

It does favour bottles of the $100-plus mark, however, and there are surprising leaps beyond that, as in the German riesling, say, which has an entry level around $80 and then pole-vaults to $120 and beyond. It's early days, but the approach to wine pricing comes across as a little exclusive at the moment, at odds with wine service that stays firmly unpretentious and relaxed.

There's more relaxation to be had from Pascale Gomes-McNabb's design for the high-ceilinged space with its bank of metal-framed windows running the length of the room. Whether it's the inclusive presence of the open kitchen, the soothing dark palette, the cleverly concealed but effective sound baffling (including an acoustically treated two-tone oak floor) or the playful, humorous collection of capsule-shaped "pill" lights overhead, there's something about the space that seems to make your shoulders relax the moment you enter the room.

It's more multi-textured than Cumulus Inc. - two-toned parquetry cladding on some walls, backlit mirrors in abstracted cloud shapes angled to reflect different parts of the room, the enormous central timber communal table that once graced Carlton's Mrs Jones, the silvery-gold leather upholstery on some of the stools and chairs - but there is still a lineage that binds upstairs with downstairs.

Most prominently there is the trademark Gomes-McNabb blackened mild steel used for the bartops, which is wonderful to look at and excellent to rest elbows on. And then there's the leather banquette seating stretched along one wall, this time in the form of a giant couch in a lovely green-blue colour with diamond stitching detail and turned wooden legs, plus a mix of timber and marble tables, including one in a figure-eight shape.

There's glamour, for sure, but the room also has a subtle humour and, most importantly, keeps its bar intentions in plain sight. It does a great job because it feels both right and comfortable sitting in this room eating food that's similarly in tune with the spirit of the wine bar.

At the snack end of the spectrum there's a nod to downstairs in the Ortiz anchovy toast, the fish sitting on thin toast with a dollop of creamy cow's curd, fennel seed and dried chilli powder providing the backbeat to the salt and crunch. Also good are tempura-battered zucchini flowers, the petals showing bright through the lacy batter and working nicely with the side of coarsely textured romesco sauce.

A don't-miss moment comes in the form of an Asian-influenced dish of raw bonito dressed with an admirably balanced blend of ginger vinegar and light soy and mixed with slices of several kinds of radish, including the cheery watermelon variety, red on the inside. The whole lot's topped with sheets of crisp Korean laver, the uneven, crisp seaweed sheets full of toasty sesame flavour.

There's an excellent offal salad with a roster of good stuff (stuffed, rolled, crumbed and fried hock, grilled tongue, fried cockscombs or pig's ears) arranged around a tangily dressed herb salad, or New Zealand diamond-shell clams shucked and mixed with a béchamel-like sauce flavoured with cayenne and mace before being put back in the shell, crumbed and baked. Then there's grilled scampi basted with crème fraîche that's been seasoned with lemon zest and white pepper, the best part being the brain: it melts under the heat of the grill and blends with the crème fraîche into a beautifully textured flavour bomb.

An ever-changing five-strong cheese list that favours the northern hemisphere (Ossau-Iraty from France sits alongside Perl Las, a blue cow's milk number from Wales) joins a small list of desserts that includes an excellent tart filled with crème pâtissière and lemon curd and topped with caramelised figs and wild blackberries. There's also a deconstructed pavlova-type beauty in the mix, its meringue perfectly poised between crisp and chewy, with apricot and yoghurt.

Cumulus Up may not have the game-changing feel that its downstairs sibling had when it opened, but it does exude a confidence and poise that's remarkable in one so young, even with its enviable genes. And it pushes some food and design boundaries in a way that will make it an influential and emulated player on Melbourne's bar and restaurant scenes. Walking past the door of Cumulus Inc. and heading up the stairs instead may feel a little strange at first, but once ensconced in the dark and moody world of Cumulus Up, you won't feel you're missing a thing.


CUMULUS UP

Level 1, 45 Flinders La, Melbourne, (03) 9650 1445, cumulusinc.com.au.
Licensed.
Cards AE MC V EFT.
Open Tue-Thu 4pm-midnight, Fri-Sat 4pm-1am.
Prices $5-$38.
Vegetarian One small dish, one larger dish.
Noise Lively.
Wheelchair access No.
Plus A beautifully realised wine bar.
Minus No bookings means an inevitable wait.

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CUMULUS UP

Level 1, 45 Flinders La, Melbourne, (03) 9650 1445, cumulusinc.com.au.
Licensed.
Cards AE MC V EFT.
Open Tue-Thu 4pm-midnight, Fri-Sat 4pm-1am.
Prices $5-$38.
Vegetarian One small dish, one larger dish.
Noise Lively.
Wheelchair access No.
Plus A beautifully realised wine bar.
Minus No bookings means an inevitable wait.

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