Restaurant Reviews

Review: On paper, Brunwick East's Old Palm Liquor screams hipster, but inside it's all low-key charm

From the folks behind Neighbourhood Wine comes a fine local bistro with wood-fired dishes that reference the chef's South African heritage, and a sweet and smoky pork chop that just won't quit.

By Michael Harden
From left: Co-owner Simon Denman, co-owner and chef Almay Jordaan, and co-owner Marc Banytis.
If the core value of a neighbourhood local is to reflect its location, then Old Palm Liquor is local to its core. On paper, the new business from the folks behind Neighbourhood Wine could have been assembled by a Brunswick East focus group keen on mining the inner-north neighbourhood's hipster allure. There's the emphasis on minimal-intervention wine and craft beer, the food cooked over fire,the vinyl-driven soundtrack and décor that's mad for a retro, second-hand flourish.
But step through the front door and cynicism evaporates. There's no self-conscious posturing here. Old Palm is a true local at heart and it knows how to get the job done.
Co-owner and chef Almay Jordaan is South African and while her menus at Neighbourhood Wine in nearby Fitzroy North lean European bistro, at Old Palm Liquor she's bringing more of her heritage to the table to great effect.
Barbecued corn with sugarsnap peas. Photo: Willem-Dirk du Toit
At the centre of the open kitchen is a braai-style wood barbecue, the source of many of the menu's greatest hits.
Asparagus spears are grilled over wood before being teamed with a tarator-style sauce made with roasted almonds and topped with gorgeously textured salsa made with pickled green almonds.
Then there's the corn that's barbecued before being blitzed as a foundation for crunchy pieces of sugarsnap peas that are sprinkled with finely grated mimolette and smoked chilli. It's a truly inspired combination: salty, sweet, crunchy, smoky, creamy elements working together.
Carnivores must not miss the cider-brined pork chop. The chop sits in a brine that also includes ginger, lemon juice and brown sugar for about 14 hours before being tossed on the braai and basted with maple glaze as it grills. It lands with a dark, sweet, smoky crust and is topped with fresh peas and mint. Seriously, order it.
St Bernard's cider-brined pork chop. Photo: Willem-Dirk du Toit
Then there's the Spanish mackerel, flavoured with a turmeric-heavy spice blend called Cape Malay that originates from Cape Town. The fish is grilled and arrives unadorned save for a lime cheek, the warm, lingering, curry-like spice mix allowed to do most of the talking.
The glow from the kitchen barbecue works well with the general 1970s wood-panelled rumpus-room vibe at Old Palm. There's a lot of timber in the front room–bare tables, blackwood bar, ceiling fans, exposed roof joists framing rattan panelling and bar joinery displaying a good selection of Old Palm's impressive wine collection behind glass.
The bar area. Photo: Willem-Dirk du Toit
Out the back, the mood's larger and lighter, with painted brick walls, concrete and terrazzo floors and hanging ferns. There's a fireplace too, so it has its own perfectly fine character but, if you're picky, ask for a table in the front room when you book.
The back dining room. Photo: Willem-Dirk du Toit
Co-owner Simon Denman is responsible for the décor, and he also looks after the wine list: a strong collection of natural and minimalist wines that concentrates on output from Australian, French and Italian producers. There's some classically made stuff too, but it tends to be in a higher price bracket so if you're on a budget and not a fan of natural, you might need to consider your options.
There's an extensive offering by the glass that includes a bit of everything: organic gamay and syrah from France, savagnin from the Adelaide Hills and non-filtered prosecco from Italy. At the beginning of the bottle list there's a page called "Everyday Wine" that lists reasonably priced options – such as a delicious textured skin-contact white blend called Doppelgänger from Brave New Wine in Western Australia – that provide a short cut for those more interested in chatting than reading the whole list. Wine service is excellent so don't be afraid to ask for help.
Biltong-spiced beef tartare. Photo: Willem-Dirk du Toit
There's more than a whiff of wine bar about Old Palm and that's emphasised by the excellent snacks that lead the food menu. There's a biltong-spiced beef tartare served on a buckwheat cracker and topped with an anchovy, plus a crunchy little gem that consists of a tempura fried shallot served with sherry vinegar-spiked cashew cream and incredibly good house-made jalapeño pickles.
Good sweet stuff, like a dense, moist pistachio cake served with honey yoghurt, grilled rhubarb and the slightly aniseedy sweet cicely expands Old Palm's local credentials by making it a decent place for a nightcap, too.
Old Palm Liquor is very much of its Brunswick East location. But it's so charming, low-key and skilled at what it does, you'd be happy to stumble upon it wherever it landed.