Simplicity. Now there's a word bandied about just a little in recent years, eh? How many times have you read about a chef and his 'simple' food? Heard restaurateurs saying they want to keep things 'simple'? Have you spotted food books with the title 'simple' in there somewhere? And don't think I'm overlooking the food media's role in all this by the way; guilty as charged. And yes, simplicity is a noble goal.
Con Christopoulos is not a chef. I'm not even sure he'd respond to the title restaurateur. But if any individual has done more to shape the way Melburnians socialise around a table with coffee, food and wine in the past 10 years, we'd like to hear about it. At places such as The European, Supper Club and City Wine Shop (we could easily go on), Christopoulos has played Pied Piper to a generation of Melburnians happy to have him define the aesthetic and vibe of their non-working, non-home lives. Christopoulos has provided that so-called 'third place' to so many of us, from dawn until… well, sometimes, dawn.
And he is, I'm afraid to say (for fear of falling in to the same trap as the rest), a man who understands simplicity. Christopoulos's message is characterised by its brevity, its clarity and purpose. And maybe this, when you've been so successful in a city for so long, is when you can afford to take the risks that simplicity - utter simplicity - imposes. Because to anybody hooked on the modern mantra of choice and diversity, Journal Canteen is, in many ways, a restrictive social space. This unique venture would present a risk too far taken were that Christopoulos's only market. But he and his business partner at Journal Café, John Vakalis, know there is another way and, yet again, the Pied Piper appears to have the right tune. Journal Canteen redefines simplicity. And it's utterly faithful to its concept: that of a canteen for CBD workers who want great, simple (there it is again) food and an interesting, affordable dialogue with their city some time between the day's first coffee and the evening's first glass of wine.
On offer daily: antipasto (whatever's good and seasonal); a soup; three 'mains'; a solitary sweet thing. Or the tongue in cheek 'degustation', a set-price $30 meal deal with a little of each. Choice? It's really not on the menu. This is a place you visit to complete a compact with the proprietor: I like food, you like food, let's share the interest.
But Journal Canteen is unique in more ways than that. Occupying a formerly vacant first-floor classroom, it shares in common with the smooth-groove Journal Café downstairs a landlord - Victoria's Centre of Adult Education. The Council's main library (hence the diner's title Journal) just happens to be at the centre of Melbourne's ongoing laneways renaissance, a kind of social G-spot where Centre Place and Degraves Street meet Flinders Lane, erupting in a youthful, sunny, caffeine-scented expression of everything that's great and fun about the city. Journal has been a must-stop fuelling spot for caffeine heads since opening three years ago. The Canteen is the latest extension of the franchise. And the deal? The Journal guys got the space upstairs, fitted it out (only Christopoulos knows how to make everything new look like it's been there for decades) and installed a kitchen for their simple daytime diner. But by night, the CAE gets the space back to use as a classroom and demonstration kitchen. Win, win.
And for those of us who get off on the whole 'sit down, we'll feed you something lovely as long as you trust us' approach, there's a third 'win' in that equation, because head chef Rosa Mitchell - a diminutive charmer with a big heart when it comes to Italian flavour - is treating her role here as something akin to providing Sunday lunch to an extended family. It's rustic but it's marinated in love, drizzled with care.
My first visit, Mitchell (who used to do the simple lunches at Brigitte Hafner's much-admired Gertrude Street Enoteca, and who sings in the kitchen with the subtly Sicilian accent of her birthplace) played a trump halfway through lunch: she followed a fine selection of antipasti, and a classic brodo with tortellini, with a plate of tomato-based honeycomb tripe. Oh, such tripe! Piquant with chilli, rounded out with potato and lima beans and finished with parmesan, Mitchell's trippa both carried the flavour of her sauce and its own unique offaly smell and slightly resilient texture.
Put the 'trust us' approach together with such a crowd-displeasing food-lover's favourite as Italian tripe and you can see how this chef took the hand so convincingly. And that was before we'd seen a little lemon-scented ricotta cannoli (made in-house every morning) and a short black just dripping with irony.
Irony? Between his clutch of cafés and bars, Christopoulos probably sells more espresso coffee than anyone else in Melbourne; the guy is a specialist/fanatic to the extent that he's connected to an import business (Romcaffè) and several of his places have not only two grinders (different beans, different applications) but two machines as well: one for latte-style coffees and another specifically for espresso. At Journal Canteen, the complimentary coffee comes out of a stove-top Bialetti machine, just the way it would in most Italian homes. Simple. You want a caffè latte, you go downstairs.
Second time around in this sunny, waxed-plaster corner room that celebrates classroom chic with its hotchpotch of carefully assembled utilitarian schoolroom furniture, there was no trippa; disappointing, in one respect, but invigorating in another, giving life to the notion that things really do change daily.
The $30 degustation starts with a shared plate of antipasti, good bread and a simple (sorry) Duca di Castelmonte Cavallina pinot grigio. Only six wines are offered - it makes it easy to close off the wine cabinets to the students and teachers at night.
Antipasto is a concept that has been used and abused by Australians for decades now; Canteen's moveable feast restores the dignity. Not with big-ticket items, but care. Eggplant smothered in tomato and finely grated parmesan; a soft pan-fried ricotta cake; new-season asparagus tossed with shaved parmesan and crumbled egg; a silverbeet fritter; petite wedges of moreish asparagus frittata; house-cured olives; a little cannellini salad; and a few slices of seriously fine salame-style Italian sausage. It's all served at room temperature. The composition varies from day to day, but the variety, balance and intrinsic quality of Mitchell's unfussed cooking doesn't seem to.
Her soup on this second visit - broccoli and potato jewelled with a few golden islands of olive oil - is the essence of great, cheap home cooking: proper stock, veg cooked just right, seasoned correctly. What a joy. On this occasion, three mains are available as part of the set-price lunch. We pass on pork and fennel sausages, served with potatoes and braised cabbage; good Italian sausages are not thin on the ground in Calabrian-dominated Melbourne.
There will always be a pasta; this one is tagliatelle, swimming in a bright, tomato-based braise of rabbit with carrot and celery, and crammed with clean, persistent flavour, the meat expertly cooked.
The other is bistecca - thin slices of scotch fillet - that come off the chargrill and into a salmoriglio (Sicilian dressing) of olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper and fresh oregano before plating. The meat is served moist but not wet with roasted wedges of potato: the flavour is fabulous.
The cannoli, stumpy like Tony Soprano's fingers and dusted with icing sugar, resist any temptation towards sweetness, that subtle Sicilian lemon touch being to the coffee, in one of those de rigueur and utterly home-style brown-glazed cups and saucers, what basil is to tomato. I'm in love.
As, indeed, am I with Casa Christopoulos, latest in such a long line of progeny from the mercurial and ever-intriguing man behind so much that is good in Melbourne's café life. Con Christopoulos' great skill is the creation of ideas and the forging of relationships that can make them happen; in this case, that relationship is with a woman - Mitchell - who is first to volunteer she's no chef but rather a passionate home cook. And her approach is exactly what's required for this most honest and satisfying of Italian eating experiences. Simple.