The Palace by Luke Mangan has closed.
There's nothing particularly zeitgeisty about a pub getting serious about food, but it's hard not to start trend-spotting when three chefs more associated with high-end dining (Michael Lambie, Luke Mangan, Paul Wilson) suddenly do the revamped pub thing. It's even harder to avoid flagging a trend when these pubs - Barkers Wine Bar and Bistro in Hawthorn, South Melbourne's The Palace by Luke Mangan and the Middle Park Hotel - open within months of each other, all with retro-leaning menus and a predilection for the meaty side of things.
Admittedly, Lambie, of Taxi Dining Room fame, had already dipped his toes in the pub pool at Lamaro's and Paul Wilson's last major gig was at Botanical, but there's no denying that these three freshly overhauled pubs are all reading from a similar script, one advocating a return to traditional pub food values. Not that there's anything wrong with that. What's not to love about menus loaded with updated versions of oysters Kilpatrick, prawn cocktail, devilled eggs, steak with peppercorn sauce or Café de Paris butter and sherry trifle, particularly when quality produce and skilled cooking are also in the mix?
But while all three certainly channel nostalgia, none of them gets stuck in a retro theme-park rut. Lambie, Mangan and Wilson may be playing with history but they're not repeating it.
Lambie comes from a pub-owning family, and his latest venture within the genre, Barkers Wine Bar and Bistro - and its immediate popularity with locals - shows that he knows what makes a good pub tick.
Barkers Wine Bar and Bistro (formerly known as the Beehive Hotel) is a pub that is proud to be a pub, eschewing designer flourishes and tricked-up food. The décor is textbook modern pub, complete with a large public bar sporting clusters of couches, a carpeted dining room with moulded plywood chairs and a pale grey banquette, and a timber and brick beer garden. It's familiar and comfortable, the only jarring note the fluorescent light spilling into the dining room from the open kitchen.
As befits a nouveau-pub, Barkers' wine list is well-priced, ranges widely and, as evidenced by the presence of three sauvignon blancs from Marlborough, aims to please the crowd. The service from the young butcher's-aproned staff is also crowd-pleasing and particularly good with the many kids who cluster earlier in the evening, obviously drawn to the very good, thin-crust, polenta-dusted pizza coming from a woodfired oven.
The pizza, with a delicately charred rim and toppings such as cherry tomatoes, Ortiz anchovies, goat's cheese and basil, isn't the only food to emerge from that oven. Lambie and head chef Tony Twitchett's version of oysters Kilpatrick is also given the woodfire treatment, which adds a faint and appealing smokiness to the plump Pacifics and Worcestershire-splashed bacon.
Despite the presence of prawn cocktails and terrine, Barkers' entrées have a mostly Asian bias. A cube of nicely cooked, firm and not-too-fatty pork belly with a brittle, salty lid of crackling is teamed with a sprightly Chinese coleslaw, all torn mint and finely cut carrot and cabbage, while salty calamari, slightly purple from (and almost overpowered by) five-spice, comes with an excellent green papaya salad that has tang, sourness and crunch in all the right measures.
It seems that a steak list is de rigueur if you want to join the name-chef pub crowd. The Palace and the Middle Park both have one, as does Barkers, though the four different cuts of varying weights on its list have less detail about ageing and origin than the other pubs', perhaps tapping into Lambie's desire to keep things simple. Certainly other main courses, like a supersized and very juicy veal schnitzel, accompanied by a traditional crunchy coleslaw spiced up with some hot mustard, stick to the "good ingredients, simply cooked" mantra.
Desserts, such as the comforting-bordering-on-bland citrus panna cotta, are not Barkers' strong suit, but with the very generous portions of both entrées and mains, skipping dessert is not such a heart-rending decision.
The desserts over at The Palace by Luke Mangan are similarly less inspiring than the rest of the menu. The list of greatest sweet hits (chocolate fondant, crème brûlée, mango trifle) taps into the general gist of Mangan's vision for his first Melbourne venture - good-quality, carefully cooked pub food - but seems to be a bit flimsy on flavour and portions. Perhaps it's all part of the traditional pub legacy, but the real flavour interest at The Palace comes with the first two courses.
The best seats in the house in which to enjoy those courses are at the extremely comfortable banquette, upholstered in textured blue wool, which runs along two walls of the fairly stark dining room. Aside from some prominently displayed copies of Mangan's latest cookbook (and branded olive oil on the tables) there is little else in the way of decoration in the carpeted room, making the kitchen, framed by floor-to-ceiling windows, the focal point.
The room certainly feels less pub-like than either Barkers or the Middle Park, and the wine list, a smart collection encompassing both popular and more boutique labels with a lean to the New World (including four sauvignon blancs from Marlborough) is firmly in restaurant territory. But the food, cooked by head chef Marjon "MJ" Olguera, has much of the modern-day pub about it.
A crab omelette is an absolute winner. The silky folds of soft egg wrap around beautifully delicate and sweet crabmeat and are topped with a salad of enoki, crisp-fried onion rings, thinly sliced chilli and torn mint leaves. The omelette sits in a subtly salty, pale-brown mustard and miso broth that adds a level of fortifying goodness.
Also good, though slightly odd, is the kingfish carpaccio lying beneath crumbled goat's feta, a powerful, textured ginger and green onion dressing and a swirl of rocket leaves. The excellent fish struggles a little with all the robust flavours but manages to hold its own, particularly in the texture stakes.
The Palace's steak menu lists six different cuts of both grain- and pasture-fed meat of various ages and provenances. A 250gm pasture-fed eye fillet is expertly cooked and, with its very good, mustard-coloured version of the classic Café de Paris butter (you can also have Madeira jus or mushroom or béarnaise sauce) and a generous pile of green beans, is reason enough to consider a return visit.
A fine steamed barramundi falters a little in the face of all the ingredients sharing its plate - slightly sweet spiced eggplant, hefty slices of powerful chorizo, a fennel salad, a splash of curry sauce - though a rocket (or "roquette"), pear, walnut and blue cheese salad has all its earthy and sweet parts in just the right proportions.
The Middle Park Hotel has its proportions right too, achieving an ideal balance of traditional and modern pub moves, both in its feel and its food.
An obviously pricey refit, courtesy of architects Six Degrees, has given the Middle Park a cosy sporting-club feel. It's a clever move in a pub that wants to be known for its love of sport (the public bar has several screens switched to whatever ball is being kicked or whacked that day) but is also serious about the dining and drinking experience.
In the dining room, there are mounted deer heads, monogrammed red, blue and gold carpet, pre-loved wood panelling (salvaged from the Long Room at the MCG), an open fireplace with a mantelpiece stacked with bottles of Calvados and Cognac, and walls laden with framed and artfully placed sport-themed art and memorabilia that ranges from signed cycling jerseys to 18th-century-style paintings of racehorses.
It's a cosy space and one that works very well with Wilson's big-boned, robustly flavoured food. Wilson is the consulting chef to the Middle Park, and his menu, cooked by head chef David Marshall, caters to the meat and offal fans of the world, to lovers of retro classics (scallops Provençal, pavlova) and to those who like a bit of Italian rusticity in their lives.
Main courses are mostly about meat, but among the entrées there are some excellent alternatives, including a vibrant salad that teams quality tuna sashimi - all dark pink and gently shining - with delicate slivers of radish, whole basil leaves, chunks of black Russian tomatoes and flecks of horseradish. Also good, and pretty, is a white asparagus salad that tosses together toasted hazelnuts, quartered baby figs, shavings of Meredith blue cheese, witlof and a slightly creamy vinaigrette.
There's a list of five steaks, meticulously footnoted and itemised, that are wood-barbecued and served with a salad and béarnaise, but there's plenty of fun to be had eating other beasts.
A dish of pork cheek (tender, glistening, crisp salty skin) and tongue (grill-striped, juicily textured) is accompanied by a slice of beautifully rich black pudding and a pale disc of Lyonnais sausage, all of which sits on a supremely comforting soup-like mix of slightly salty lentils and green sauce.
Wood-barbecued blue-eye, gloriously smoky and topped with a tumble of broad beans, dill and parsley, comes with a simply dressed salad of snow pea shoots.
The Middle Park's desserts, cleverly updated versions of old-fashioned classics, are similarly good, such as the cute stack of raspberry shortcake, not-too-sweet Melba sauce, peaches and fresh raspberries that lands on the table looking like a scale model merry-go-round.
A nicely selected all-Victorian wine list and service that rarely misses a trick add to the Middle Park Hotel's considerable charm.
Three pubs with similar pedigrees and outlooks might signal coincidence rather than trend. But if Barkers Wine Bar and Bistro, The Palace and the Middle Park Hotel's appealing blend of quality, casualness and nostalgia indicate what can happen when you cross a name chef with a traditional pub, here's hoping for a movement that takes Melbourne by storm.