Melbourne's bar culture had its Big Bang moment 23 years ago in a CBD laneway site renovated by then-fledgling architecture group Six Degrees. That game-changing bar, Meyers Place, closed recently and to prove, perhaps, that nature abhors a vacuum, a new bar designed by Six Degrees has just opened in a nearby laneway. And, yes, it's also something of a game-changer.
Arlechin shows how far Melbourne's laneway bars have evolved in two decades. For starters, it's an irony-free zone. A 40-seater with herringbone parquet timber floors, barrel-vaulted cork ceiling, backlit wine cellar, marble-topped bar, fully equipped kitchen and a young, well-credentialled team, it's as far as you can get from the punk DIY aesthetic of the early scene.
Second, Arlechin comes from the Grossi family, owners of Grossi Florentino, the landmark restaurant that backs onto the same laneway. The bloodline makes the reasoning behind the location (and the money available for the gorgeous fit-out) easier to trace, and it also guarantees that the food is as important here as the booze. The dishes on Arlechin's menu could still be categorised as bar snacks (they're priced that way) but describing a dish like Midnight Spaghetti as a mere snack verges on criminal understatement.
Chef Fabrizio Amenta, Guy Grossi and manager Adam Roderick
Midnight Spaghetti exemplifies Italian food at its best: maximum flavour with minimal ingredients. It's a snack-sized serve, sure, but the tight tangle of bang-on al dente spaghetti delivers a fat whack of flavour. It's tossed with a made-to-order sauce of chopped canned tomatoes, chilli, oregano, plump and assertive capers, and a sublime generous dash of colatura di alici, the fish sauce from the Amalfi Coast. That dish alone will get you back through the door, especially when you know the bar is open until three in the morning. True to its name, the dish's siren song in the small hours is irresistible.
The singing doesn't stop there. There's risoni, cooked risotto-fashion, perfumed with saffron, studded with bone marrow and finished with pangrattato. Or an Italian take on the Sloppy Joe, the buttermilk bun stuffed with baccalà mantecato and buttered leeks. Or cos, quickly grilled and served with smoky whipped ricotta and topped with bottarga and a crumbed and fried egg yolk waiting to be stabbed. Or surf clams, classic in wine, garlic and parsley cooking juices. There are oysters, too, and smoked-eel parfait capped with a dark amber Marsala jelly.
Sloppy Joe with baccalà mantecato and leek
Then there are the more solid dishes, seemingly targeted at diners who might've enjoyed a few cordials out on the town beforehand. Chopped, crumbed and fried prawn meat on skewers and ox tongue sandwiched in "bread" made from risotto before being crumbed and fried both lose something in translation if you're sober. But, pie-eyed or not, the ridiculously good Bolognese jaffle is everything you could hope and pray those two words would deliver.
Sweet stuff, often neglected in the rush to fat and salt, delivers, too, in the form of adorable, devourable little pistachio or raspberry ice-creams on sticks, and a classic jelly slice, all layers of raspberry jelly, sponge cake and cream.
Do not forgo the cocktails. Arlechin is a bar, after all. As with its snack menu, there's a discernible but not overt Italian influence at play. The Half Way brings mezcal, Cynar, orange bitters and a grapefruit twist together over ice, while the Jungle Bird does greatly refreshing things with rum, Campari, pineapple juice and lime. There's apt glassware, and subtle and necessary garnishing but then flimsy paper napkins masquerading as coasters crash the party. Sad.
For wine lovers, the full weight of the Grossi Florentino cellar is at your fingertips (more or less literally - Arlechin doubles as the wine storage facility for the Grossi restaurants), but there's also a site-specific list that's slightly more off-piste than you'd find in the marquee mothership. Playing to its tribe, it's easier on the wallet, too.
Drawing mostly from Italy, France and Australia, the list here includes inky Chalmers Project aglianico from Heathcote in Victoria, golden, politely funky 2011 Montenidoli Vernaccia di San Gimignano from Tuscany and the chardonnay-savagnin blend Côtes du Jura "Les Belemnites" Domaine Buronfosse. There's no radical boat-rocking, but still plenty to keep you awake.
The bar at Arlechin
Arlechin adds another layer to late-night Melbourne that immediately feels essential. It's a place that springs from the understanding that quality food and booze, a civilised, handsome environment and sharp service needn't stop at midnight. And while it may appear light years from that original bar in Meyers Place, it has landed with a similar sense of being in exactly the right place at exactly the right time.