Melbourne likes a wine bar. Two of its longest-running and most beloved hospitality businesses - Jimmy Watson's and the Florentino's Cellar Bar - belong to the club, and in more recent times the love affair has been kept humming by the hybrid bar-bottle shop model, pioneered by the likes of Gertrude Street Enoteca and City Wine Shop.
But even against the backdrop of this long-standing interest, the past 12 months have been notably fertile in wine-bar land. A bunch of notable operators such as Milton Wine Shop, Harry & Frankie and Clever Polly's have swelled the ranks, which invites the question: has Melbourne's thing for wine bars now become "a thing"?
Certainly, there's the rise of the Parisian cave à manger in recent years to bolster the trend-spotting theory. Many of the new places are displaying a marked interest in wines that are boutique, artisanal or made with minimal intervention, and they're all serving food at the flexible and casual end of the spectrum. All good fodder for speculation about generational change and challenges to traditional dining models.
But examine Persillade in East Melbourne and the CBD's Kirk's Wine Bar, two of the smartest operators among this new crop of wine bars, and it seems that what's happening is more evolution than fad.
For one thing, they're as notable for their kitchens as their cellars, one run by seasoned professionals, the other by first-time owners. They both make the right hybrid restaurant-bar-café moves while still keeping a foot in the old-school wine-bar camp. They're fresh but familiar, and the grape remains king.
Persillade is a marketer's dream of the neo-Melbourne wine bar. It's owned and run by fresh-faced husband-and-wife team Tanya and Aidan Raftery, who have an abiding love of lo-fi wines. (Aidan even makes his own wine, Vin du Patron, in his garage using classic natural technique.) It has a bar and bottle-shop licence, an easily mispronounced name and fashionably coiffed staff. The menu runs from eggs and Bircher muesli through to dinner via good soup and sandwiches at lunch. The mere idea of it is enough to make you swoon.
The light, airy, split-level dining room comes from the dash-over-cash school of interior design. Its cheery DIY sensibility is underlined by recycled painted and raw timber panelling, clusters of light shades made from wine bottles and the 1960s-influenced Oslo Davis illustrations of staff and regular customers that adorn walls and menus. Timber tables on timber floors sport little brown glass bottles holding sprigs of parsley. The kitchen is all white tiles, the dining area dark timber wine racks, and there's a minor but pleasant lack of seamlessness to the room that comes from a budget that didn't run to structural overhaul. The vibe here is love, not money.
The endearing enthusiasm of the dining room is echoed in the kitchen. Jake Scannell, in his first outing as a head chef, does a good job navigating the sometimes treacherous modern-take-on-classics path. His chicken Kiev is an exemplary case in point: a golden-crumbed sphere, perched on a plinth of very good potato salad (lots of bite and tang from spring onion and chives) surrounded by a vibrant salad of crushed peas and broad beans.
The biggest relief comes not just from the very welcome gush of tarragon- and garlic-flavoured butter that floods the plate when you slice into the sphere, but from the meat that still has the texture and flavour of chicken despite having been formed into a sphere.
Scannell is good with fish, too. A piece of Spanish mackerel is skilfully cooked and paired with marinated and grilled eggplant, chickpeas alive with mint, lemon juice and za'atar, and yoghurt flavoured with tahini and cumin.
There's more good stuff, too, with a pretty salad of burrata and shaved asparagus that's turbo-charged with the addition of a classically nutty beurre noisette and beautifully salty crisp fried capers. An equally attractive pea and confit red onion salad is sweet and tangy and comes topped with a dollop of dill-flavoured crème fraîche scattered with black salt.
Anyone who likes a salty snack should start the night with the seaweed-flavoured rice crackers that come to the table with a slightly funky but immensely satisfying bonito mayo. It's a nice twist on the genre, and handles the road-less-travelled flavours of the more unusual natural wines with true umami aplomb.
The crackers are also good with beer. The collection on the list may be small, but it doesn't want for interest, leaning, as does the wine, towards the small and the artisan, such as the saison from Denmark's Evil Twin that's brewed in New York.
Wine, though, is Persillade's raison d'être, and it's presented under three fairly self-explanatory headings: "The Road Well Travelled" is a selection of wines that mostly taste as you would expect them to taste, and includes chardonnay from the Yarra Valley and nebbiolo from Piemonte. "Where We're Going We Don't Need Roads" is pure lo-fi territory with multi-blends, cloudiness, spritz and tannins aplenty - the Tasmanian 2014 Domaine Simha Simla Field Blend, say. And then there's "The Road Paved with Gold", a section for those looking to splash out on 2006 Dubois Nuits-Saint-Georges 1er Cru les Argillières or a 2007 JJ Prüm Wehlener Sonnenuhr Auslese Goldkap.
The people selling the list and pouring the wine are unpretentious, appropriately enthusiastic about the natural stuff without being annoying, good at judging the mood of the table and accurate with the descriptions. All of this conspires to make Persillade a good place to step beyond your wine comfort zone if you've not already left it.
At Kirk's Wine Bar, meanwhile, comfort is the default setting. That goes not just for the wine list, but the food and the room too. It's not surprising, given that it's another partnership between Con Christopoulos, Josh Brisbane and Ian Curley, of The European, City Wine Shop, Siglo et al. Their shared and accumulated experience is reassuringly apparent here, making it an easy place to sit back and let the experience come to you.
The wine list is a user-friendly mix of good local producers - Curly Flat, Mount Mary, Luke Lambert, Craiglee - mixed with a solid showing of Old World wine, such as a 2012 Bernard Defaix Côte de Léchet Chablis. There are also a few minimal-interventionist wines, their place on the list driven by small but increasing demand.
It's certainly not as voluminous a collection as at big sister, City Wine Shop, nor is there a bottle-shop licence (yet), but there's much about Kirk's that makes the family lineage clear. The green tiles scrawled with daily specials are the most literal link, being carbon copies of the ones at City Wine Shop. The smoky-pink terrazzo floor, distressed white walls, framed vintage Italian booze posters and the sculptural timber-topped bar, on the other hand, play on the group's pre-aged aesthetic.
It's a compact space, made bigger by large corner windows and high ceilings. There is relatively limited seating capacity at small round tables, and the ergonomically curving bar is bolstered by a double row of French café furniture that shelters under a wide retractable awning on Hardware Lane.
The family resemblance is easy to spot in Curley's menu, too. Given that the group's HQ in Spring Street now boasts a grocer, a butcher (where all the charcuterie is made) and a cheese shop, Kirk's carte is built on solid - and familiar - foundations.
But while the menu reads as a straightforward list of European classic hits - steak tartare, duck and pork terrine, vitello tonnato, house-cured ocean trout - Curley is expert at adding something extra, a refreshing tweak that keeps the food interesting if not outright addictive.
His Caprese salad, for instance, has all the usual tomato, basil and mozzarella suspects, but gets a whack of flavour from the addition of fried capers. Oysters are served natural or with an excellent, fishy-fiery mixture of horseradish and bottarga. Excellent Fabbri amarena cherries are exquisitely matched with yoghurt gelato from the group's brilliant Gelateria Primavera. A breakfast dish of smoked salmon and (expert, lacy-edged and runny yolked) fried egg is matched with an excellent potato blin and a small tangle of snowpea shoots.
Then there are the pork and veal meatballs in an intense tomato sugo topped with both gremolata and labne, and a very fine free-range pork cotoletta that comes with discs of pickled apple and pale-pink pickled shallots.
Each of the dishes is plated prettily without getting ridiculous, none more so than the standout chocolate and salty caramel dessert, all smooth textures and intensely rich flavours, decorated with gold-dusted peanuts. It's a credit to how well-adjusted Kirk's is that the bling seems perfectly appropriate.
Kirk's Wine Bar and Persillade come across as well parented. There's a calmness and a confidence to them that's only achieved with operators who started with a clear vision of what they wanted. And while the legacy and the depth of the Melbourne wine bar scene have played a tangible part in the success of both places, they've also found something fresh and interesting to say. Viva la evolución.