If there's not a lengthy German word for the particular feeling of well-being you get from a restaurant with all its hospitality fundamentals in place there should be. Not that you'd be able to use it often. As with the Danes' "hygge", the concept would be tricky to pin down. But the word would come in handy when describing Epocha, particularly now a new kitchen crew is nudging it subtly but surely to higher ground.
Epocha opened four years ago pre-loaded with good features. It's housed in a well-preserved, high-ceilinged, double-storied Victorian terrace overlooking the Carlton Gardens, on the edge of Melbourne's CBD. Its owners, charming hospitality veterans Angie Giannakodakis and Guy Holder, know how to work a room with flair and wit. Features such as a timber trolley of ripe imported cheeses at the front door scenting the air and several op-shops' worth of vintage crockery and glassware (fact: a gin and tonic tastes better in a heavy-cut crystal tumbler) add to the impression of well-established comfort. It appears wise beyond its years.
Sara's radishes with whipped yeasted butter.
Epocha's food has always been Mediterranean-accented, big-flavoured, easy to share, generous. It matches the rambunctious taverna-like noise levels of the dining room, all timber floors, rush-seated chairs and timber tables with painted tile inserts. But where the cooking was once more about the broad-brush, in more recent times the menus are exhibiting a pleasing layer of nuance.
Tiny radishes (embryonic, says our waiter) arrive, stalks and leaves intact, in an attractive pile on a vintage-glass platter. They sit on a generous whack of butter whipped with natural yeast, their leaves shiny with a lemon and horseradish dressing. There's also a sprinkling of crisp shallot pieces. It's a French bistro classic updated: umami from the yeast butter, texture from the shallots, heat from the horseradish. Yes, please.
A chicken liver pâté similarly pulls the menu from Mediterranean into more classic-European territory. It's parfait-smooth, big-flavoured and complemented effectively by the intense, apricot-coloured blood-orange purée and the mushroom-shaped brioche that join it on yet another glass platter. The brioche is a little stingy size-wise, so pleading for another may be necessary if the pâté is to be - as it should - completely wiped from the plate.
Even a snack of scratchings-like crisp pigs' ears gets shifted up a notch with a salt made aromatic caraway, juniper and thyme. Team these crunchy little numbers with a beer sitting on the tiled front veranda gazing across to the park and the world will become a happier place, at least until the end of the bowl.
Executive chef Brooke Payne and head chef Alex Drobysz now lead the Epocha kitchen. Payne, who also oversees sister restaurant Elyros, was once head chef at MoMo and comes to Epocha from hospitality behemoth Zagame's. Drobysz last came to attention doing brilliant things with tapas at Bar Nacional.
Giannakodakis has had both chefs on her wishlist for a while and it's easy to see why. They get the place and its comforting, crowd-pleasing strengths. They're not there to change so much as enhance.
Drobysz, a classically trained chef and a GT Best New Talent finalist in 2015, has always demonstrated an acute understanding of how to give the familiar a nudge with a modern technique or an interesting choice of ingredient. He might bring a bit of sous-vide or dehydration to the party, but never makes either technique the focus of any dish so these flourishes mostly stop short of being annoying.
Pine-cured ocean trout with peas and beetroot-pickled shallot.
Take a dish of cured ocean trout, for instance. Instead of using a classic dill-and-salt cure, he uses a mixture of pine needles and salt that imparts a distinct but subtle earthiness to the flesh. The trout is poached low and slow, just enough to set the protein while still seeming uncooked. The texture is lovely, with a momentary firmness that quickly gives way. The fish is served on sweet, plump peas tossed with butter and beetroot-pickled shallots. The top of the trout is dusted with a powder made from dehydrated and ground pea pods. It isn't entirely necessary but neither does it detract from the overall experience.
Then there's a quite brilliant salad of shaved raw cauliflower tossed in a beurre noisette flavoured with charred lemon and mixed with smoked almonds, fried capers and topped with a sour-cherry and caper purée. This dish could never claim to be subtle but the balance and the contrast, the crunch of the raw, the surprising hints of citrus and smoke, the richness of the butter come together in a way that makes it clear every element has been given a specific job.
Epocha's dining room.
The wine list is pretty specific, too. An all-Old World collection that steers clear of natural-wine funkiness but embraces small and biodynamic producers, it mirrors the comfort-zone base line and the old-school restaurant moves that make Epocha tick.
This isn't to say that this is a grumpy old wine list shaking its walking stick at the advancing minimal intervention hordes. There's plenty of sprightly, interesting drinking to be had here, including several vintages of liatiko made by Yiannis Economou in Crete or Slovenian pinot gris by Dveri Pax or nerello Mascalese from Etna, made by Cantina Benanti. It's a list that matches the Epocha flow: timeless, approachable, safe even, but with an underlying, distinct sense of fun.
Hannah's Bar upstairs at Epocha.
Speaking of the Economou liatiko, the 2006 vintage is a great match with Epocha's beef tartare. It's made with roughly hand-cut tri-tip mixed with some of the familiar stuff - mustard, oil, shallots, capers, Worcestershire, a little ketchup - and is then served with an egg yolk gel and more egg yolk that's been cured in sugar and salt before being grated over the top. As a further flourish, the tartare is served with a generous pile of puffed beef tendon. Again, this a pumped up, big-flavoured dish but, also again, it effortlessly pulls it off while also making a good argument for having more attractively textured hand-cut tartares in the world.
Beef tartare with puffed tendon.
There's plenty of cooked meat on the menu, too, mostly roasted and basted with butter and aromatics, but Epocha is also vegetarian friendly.
Hand-formed cavatelli, made with both rye and 00 flour that give it an attractively elastic mouth-feel, is tossed with a clean green sorrel and nettle pistou, soft cubes of kohlrabi and rags of cavolo nero. There's some background heat via chilli and horseradish - it's a thoroughly satisfying dish, rich but with enough good green stuff to make you feel a little smug and virtuous for ordering it.
More satisfying smugness comes from charred asparagus dressed with a simple herb vinaigrette and teamed with sheep's milk yoghurt. The yoghurt is hazily flavoured with restrained amounts of honey and citrus, the whole dish topped with fresh marjoram, sorrel and chives.
A timber trolley of ripe cheeses sits by the front door.
Epocha's dessert list plays it classic. There's a good crème brûlée making all the correct moves without knocking your socks off and a changing version of éclair, perhaps a salted caramel and espresso crème pâtissière number that also doesn't disappoint. There's a regularly changing tart and trifle too. The desserts all seem to be there to play a supporting role to the respectfully treated, expertly ripened cheese. It's a good call. With this room, this service, this style, it seems almost imperative that cheese should be a part of any Epocha experience.
Those not overly familiar with Epocha may not immediately clock the recent changes. The room with its marble mantelpieces and oversized clock is as amiable as ever, the service as personable and often hilarious as always. The upstairs bar, Hannah's, remains an elegant place to order a cocktail and it's still surprising that the superb street-level seating at the front of the terrace is not swamped every time it gets warm.
The change is in the food. The game has been lifted. A formula has been finessed. Epocha has always had a groove but this latest is its most effective one yet.