There's a stacked trailer-load of century-old ironbark sitting outside the kitchen at Pontoon, the new ground-floor eatery at the Stokehouse, which opens in St Kilda tomorrow at midday. Chef Lance Cameron (late of The Press Club and Hawker Hall) is eyeing it off, hoping it will last him the week. Pontoon's menu and kitchen are both centred around a hungry, custom-made four-metre wood-fired grill, a smoker and a pizza oven - so, Cameron says with a slightly nervous laugh, "we're really going to be chewing through it".
The second of three businesses to open at the new $13 million Stokehouse Precinct (boardwalk fish-and-chippery Paper Fish was first; the Stokehouse fine-diner upstairs is expected to open in December), Pontoon takes its cues from Mediterranean seaside dining. The menu is full of seafood, vegetables and meat tossed on the grill. It's cooking, says Cameron, with "no nonsense, good produce and a touch of flair and technique".
Pontoon's four-metre wood-fired grill.
It's an appropriate brief for the St Kilda foreshore restaurant. It stands shielded from the street by a man-made sand dune and offers expansive sea views. In fact, they're more expansive than before - thanks to new regulations anticipating rising sea levels, the new building is a metre higher than its predecessor and, as a result, enjoys a more panoramic outlook.
It's a big space - 250 seats inside and more outside overlooking the boardwalk. But the high ceilings and walls of glass framed with blackened timber, and interiors from designer George Livissianis that include a rattan-panelled ceiling, skylights and concrete pillars bound in rope, keep the room feeling free-flowing and uncluttered.
The menu is simpático. Moreton Bay bugs are simply split in half, rubbed with chilli and garlic, tossed on the grill and served with a salsa verde. Nan's fry bread, a flatbread recipe from Lance Cameron's grandmother in New Zealand, is served with smoked salmon rillettes or hummus and pickles.
Spice-rubbed spit roast chicken.
There are larger dishes to share - a whole lamb shoulder rubbed with yoghurt and herbs, roasted in the wood-fired oven and served with lettuce cups, for instance, or a baby snapper, simply grilled and plated with a chermoula dressing and lemon wedges.
Vegetables get a grilling, too, with dishes such as charred radicchio and iceberg lettuce hearts served with a PX reduction and crumbled Valdeón cheese.
"The food's going to evolve all the time," says Cameron. "We're going to be pushing what we do with the grill and the smoker, but the customers are also going to tell us what they want, what's working. But whatever direction we go, it's always going to be loving, simple, approachable food."
Pontoon, 30 Jacka Blvd, St Kilda, Vic, (03) 9525 5445, pontoonstkildabeach.com.au; open daily noon-11pm