If the snacks are anything to go by, Etta has a firm grip on the concepts behind a neighbourhood local. Little cubes of pommes Anna made with Dutch cream potatoes are fried to crisp at the edges and served with a fermented black-garlic caramel and a flurry of finely grated parmesan. An oblong of Etta's house-made sourdough that's been soaked in fermented tomato juice is fried, then crowned with gorgeous flakes of cured hapuku smoked with applewood.
"Fried and salty" is in play, as is "good with drinks", and they leave you wanting more. Good qualities for a snack in any location. But it's the fermenting, curing and smoking that underline chef Charley Snadden-Wilson's understanding of the specific neighbourhood demographic. East Brunswick is a village that attracts a food-savvy clientele au fait with trends, and Etta knows how to give the people what they want.
Owner Hannah Green, who worked front of house at Attica before opening Etta two years ago, lives in the neighbourhood, so she already has a pretty thorough idea of what works. But recruiting Snadden-Wilson to lead the kitchen, a recent hire who arrives from stints at Embla and Ramblr, wasn't just a smart move, it was evolutionary for her restaurant. Particularly because his food is emphatically wine-friendly, something that plays to Etta's strengths in a way that's never been this apparent.
Green is a passionate and interesting wine communicator, one of the best in town. Her list is a constantly changing collection of mostly smaller wine producers making wines that express their varietal characteristics clearly and without too much intervention. There's nothing outrageously funky in the mix but a lot of gems get jammed into several pages, including an excellent brioche-y sparkling wine from the Yarra Valley, made for Etta by Dominic Valentine, alongside French Beaujolais, Austrian grüner veltliner and Mornington Peninsula pinot noir.
Combined with the sharp design of the shopfront bar area – curved marble counter, kindly lighting and intimate proportions – the drinks list here makes Etta one of the best places on the strip for a drink-and-snack pit-stop.
The rest of the food is equally worthy of attention. Slices of raw kingfish, simply flavoured with lemon and salt, are served in a pool of immensely flavoured mussel broth that packs a beautiful, forceful umami punch. The dish is finished with a generous topping of sliced sorrel leaves that add a clean, green, citrusy counterpoint to the salt and the seafood, and firmly lodge the dish in memorable territory.
Raw beef, roughly chopped and seasoned with white soy, is combined with a curious but satisfying mix of tiny pieces of salted cumquat, sprouted Mount Zero lentils and olive oil and is topped with lovage that adds both crunch and freshness. It's a dish where texture is as important as flavour.
Make the cabbage a priority. It's a head of savoy halved and doused in seaweed butter and cooked over coals so it sweetens and caramelises to a hefty, meaty richness.
Hand-shaped cavatelli arrives as a vision in tan and brown with pine mushrooms lolling about in a sauce made from fermented mushrooms and brown butter. Pork rack is cooked, off the bone, in multiple ways – first smoked above the fire (for the moment on a Big Green Egg barbecue), then grilled, then roasted. The meat is tender and sweet, the crackling a thin layer as brittle as the top of a brûlée, and the whole lot is glazed with an exceptional sauce that Snadden-Wilson makes from smoked pork bones.
Desserts seem to be something of an afterthought. There are just three, one of which, a too-liquid bread custard with pieces of slow-poached quince, was tasty enough but read as simplistic and a little underdone, more prototype than fully-fledged dish.
You'd be pretty pleased with yourself if Etta was your local. It's charming and well-priced and approaches food and wine with a spirit of adventure without being gnarly or egotistical. And they deliver a good time, the aspiration of all successful neighbourhood locals.