Restaurant Reviews

Review: Navi, the high-detail Melbourne restaurant where the chef makes his own ceramics

At Navi, Julian Hills’ creative focus is evident from produce to plate, writes Michael Harden.

By Michael Harden
Navi chef-owner Julian Hills.
The attention to detail at Navi becomes apparent the moment you're seated. Those ceramic napkin rings holding artfully disarrayed oatmeal-coloured napkins? Julian Hills made those. Navi's chef and owner, who has a degree in ceramics, also made all the plates and bowls, five to eight courses worth for everyone in a 25-seat restaurant that often does two sittings a night. The man's been busy.
Hills brings this intense, personal focus to every aspect of his Yarraville restaurant, his first solo project after a successful six-year stint at Paringa Estate on the Mornington Peninsula. He was involved with designing every facet of the dimly lit, moody room, with its polished concrete floor, charcoal walls and cork-tiled ceiling. Every week, he drives to the Mornington Peninsula to pick up ingredients from the producers he developed relationships with while working there.
Julian Hills' handmade ceramics. Photo: Ed Sloane
Inside Navi. Photo: Ed Sloane
Not surprisingly, this detail-focused approach also turns up on the plate – the snacks that get the ball rolling being a case in point. There are pitch-perfect macarons, pearlescent grey and funky-sweet from dehydrated black garlic and squid ink, sandwiching trout roe and crème fraîche made in-house. Then there might be sugar- and salt-cured wallaby, slightly nutty from spending several days in sake lees, teamed with a dehydrated egg yolk dusted in nori salt, an emulsion made from local capers and topped with pickled broad beans and fermented nasturtium flowers.
Taken together – the ceramics, the weekly ingredient pilgrimage, the multi-stage process, even for dishes that are gone in two (sometimes brilliant) bites – it's possible that Navi could come across as obsessive and a bit weird. What comes across instead is that Hills is enjoying himself, doing as he pleases with an enthusiasm that's apparent in the food.
Squid-ink macaron, trout roe. Photo: Ed Sloane
Witness the duck fish, a pretty, tiny gem of a dish. The fish is salted, then slightly smoked, then joined by sun-dried capers, crème fraîche mixed with horseradish, grated bottarga and a fabulously tart green-tomato sorbet, and finished with sea blight and black nasturtium leaves. It's a great balancing act of numerous ingredients coming at you in well-orchestrated pops and crunch, creaminess and whiffs of smoke.
Then there's snapper, slow-cooked to an admirable level of tenderness and served with fermented potatoes, a mussel emulsion and a dot or two of finger lime that reins in the richness. Similarly pork, topped with crisp, crackling-like pig's ears, is combined with caramelised radicchio and a powerful, chutney-like native-fruit ragù that includes quandongs, muntries and wattleseed. A backbeat of eucalyptus almost, but not quite, oversteps the mark.
Duck, caramelised radicchio, native elderberry. Photo: Ed Sloane
The service team has been well trained, understanding that too much interaction with a multi-course meal in a small, dark room like this will get irritating. Explanations are kept to a minimum unless you ask.
The wine talk – and list – also err on the side of brevity. The drinks list is democratic, with one eye on trend – kombucha, some minimal-intervention labels, a lean towards small producers – and another on giving the people
what they want via geographic spread, reasonable pricing and an understanding that there are those who will only drink classically made wine.
Navi's list includes some excellent Victorian pinot noir, storied names including Cullen and Mount Mary, and some semi-outliers, such as a pinotage from Ravens Croft in Queensland and Sonoma zinfandel by Seghesio.
The sweet stuff is as strong as the rest of the menu. Hill's desserts don't emphasise sugar – the sign of a thoughtful kitchen that understands the demands of multi-course dining.
Best in show is a mandarin sorbet, teamed with a butterscotch made from reduced mandarin juice, olive-oil custard and a crumble flavoured with coffee, cacao nibs, black sesame and almond.
Mandarin sorbet, coffee, black sesame, chocolate. Photo: Ed Sloane
Navi's appearance in a back street in Melbourne's gentrifying west could be interpreted as a sign of the times. But what Hills is achieving isn't attached to trend or neighbourhood; he's going his own way, and that's Navi's greatest strength.
  • undefined: Michael Harden