"Modern British" is one of the more obscure labels you could attach to a restaurant in Australia. Intriguing in a what-the-hell-are-we-going-to-be-eating kind of way. Those with visions of suet pudding, well-hung pheasant and dripping sandwiches spruced up with a coriander garnish will find their trepidation eased, however, by the small, calming space that is The Commoner. The laid-back serenity that pervades the place behind a wood and glass door on Fitzroy's Johnston Street makes it difficult to imagine anything happening here in the way of culinary terror.
Inside, it's lovely nougat-coloured terrazzo flooring, a large wooden communal table (often strewn with flowers or herbs) in the front window, bench seating scattered with cushions and a collection of decidedly individual art on the walls. Industrial metal light shades, a collection of colourful enamelled pots hanging from one wall and a sculptural shelf stacked with a theme-resistant collection of books, silverware and knick-knacks give the room a unique, personal touch. Quirky perhaps, but in a restrained and light-hearted way. The courtyard holds several more tables, but is also home to an impressive sturdy black metal wood-fired oven, nicknamed Sergio by chef Zoe Roy. It's a prominent feature of more than the décor, its smoky charms a fixture of the menu.
If this all sounds more in the mode of the Mediterranean than the British Isles, it's because the Mod-Brit thing speaks more to the philosophy of owner Jo Corrigan and Roy than to prevailing attitudes about what Modern British is and isn't. Rather than emulating a Fergus Henderson-like reworking of traditional English dishes, Roy and Corrigan have taken an approach - similar in many ways to a modern Australian one - of utilising far-flung ingredients that arrived on either trade or migratory routes. So while a menu bristling with harissa, pomegranate, manzanilla and semolina may seem to have a seriously tenuous connection to Britain, it actually reflects a style of cooking that has become prominent in many present-day British pubs. Corrigan, originally from Trundle in country New South Wales, spent many years living and cooking in the UK, and Roy has shaken the pans in England, Ireland, Scotland, Turkey and France. It's this pooling of experience that drives The Commoner's kitchen. Pig's ears and corned beef it ain't.
Take the sublimely homely combination of a soft-boiled organic egg teamed with an expert aïoli. Sprinkled with house-made celery salt and smoked paprika and finished off with fried celery leaves and exuberantly flavoured lilliput capers, it's a dish admirable for its simplicity and tight focus. Best-quality carrots, tops on, skins off, cooked to smoky sweetness in the wood oven, travel a similarly humble path. With boiled egg, aïoli, house-made harissa and a crunchy sprinkling of dukkah on the plate, it's a surprisingly effective combo. Try to remember when you've ever felt this rapturous about a dish centred on the common carrot.
Making magic with common and seemingly pedestrian ingredients is a theme. Pork neck, pan-fried with morcilla and little sweet peppers, finished with a jus flavoured with manzanilla and sweet onions, sparkling with a hefty splash of extra-virgin olive oil, shines. Pickled anchovies on crostini loll across silky goat's curd stained with a feisty green oil flavoured with parsley, dill, shallots and garlic. Confit ocean trout is teamed with poached batons of salsify and instantly addictive creamed spinach flavoured with shallots, chicken stock and nutmeg.
Fish is a mainstay, but it changes according to what chef Roy feels will best suit the Commoner treatment. Simplicity is, once again, the key. A superb rock flathead, for instance, fin and skin left on, comes pan-fried and served on a minty, rough-hewn fattoush salad, tossed through with crunchy pieces of flatbread crisped in the wood-fired oven.
Some of these dishes appear on The Commoner's à la carte menu, but many of them will only come to those who choose the Feed Me option, the best way to get a true Commoner experience. Feed Me means you discuss with your waiter what you will and won't eat and any pesky dietary requirements you might have and then food starts landing on your table until you call a halt. It's an option that, without skilled service, could easily see the wheels falling off the caboose. The relaxed and competent staff are up to the challenge, though, guiding the experience with grace and a sense of humour so that you feel cared for rather than processed or ordered about.
On Sunday evenings, The Commoner becomes a Feed Me-only zone, a wonderfully liberating experience for those who feel life is too full of choices and are sick to death of making decisions. Sunday is also the day of the Commoner roast, and at lunchtime Sergio the oven really gets to fly his colours, whether it's with wood-roasted snapper or a leg of pork that has spent three days rubbed down with oil and fennel salt. Or - best of all - kid flavoured with lemon and rosemary or marinated in a Middle Eastern-style wet onion marinade.
The interest and philosophy continues into the sweet end of the menu. If there's no sign of the buttermilk pudding - a panna cotta-like creation made from set buttermilk, lemon and vanilla and served simply with fresh fruit, perhaps a whole passionfruit emptied out on top - ask for it. Any no-buttermilk disappointment can be averted with the crazily rich chocolate mousse served with spiced cherries, bitey house-made yoghurt and pomegranate molasses.
Obscure labels aside, The Commoner is one of Melbourne's unique and individual dining experiences. Add a reasonably priced wine list that spends time in the Old and New Worlds (favouring Spain, France and Portugal) and you have a remarkably well balanced and truly hospitable restaurant. You may leave the place still unable to define modern British cooking, but that's the perfect excuse to return and do it all again.