Here's The Recreation's take on a tarte Tatin. It's pears that are poached in cider with cardamom and star anise, then doused in balsamic vinegar caramel. Spicy black pudding glistens on top, keeping the tarte's sweetness in check. A little hazelnut, watercress and celery salad brings refreshing crunch. It's rich for an entrée, so you might consider sharing it. Until you tuck in and decide there's not enough to go round.
Black pudding and pear tarte Tatin.
A meal at The Recreation might have you reconsidering your devotion to the whole share-plates thing more than once.
Spätzle sautéed with broccoli charred on a wood-fired grill and cabbage, topped with a salty magnificently retro Gruyère fondue sauce - like a mac and cheese that's done time in a Swiss finishing school - will also test your resolve. As will the little round cheesecake: mascarpone, cream cheese and vanilla perched on a ginger-biscuit base. The lid of confit apple, shiny with apple juice caramel, a scattering of snowy, perfectly pitched elderflower granita and a few fresh blackberries make it easier to convince yourself that devouring the thing solo is best for everybody.
The Recreation conjures thoughts of simpler times when everybody ordered their own plates of food and queueing was something you did at nightclubs. The approach is old-school and there's a firm grip on the fundamentals of hospitality at play here. It's the result of three blokes with fine-dining backgrounds deciding to do it for themselves in a former pub in Fitzroy North.
Vanilla cheesecake with blackberries and elderflower granita.
Joe Durrant and Mark Protheroe, most recently restaurant manager and sommelier respectively at Grossi Florentino's grand upstairs fine-diner, set the tone front of house. Durrant brings the same cheerful, nothing-is-too-much-trouble attitude that was so endearing at his previous post and it translates seamlessly in these less formal surrounds. He leads a team of well-drilled professionals crisply decked out in open-necked shirts and deep-blue aprons. They also sport a similar calm, alert confidence as the boss, even as the room fills and the noise levels get aggressive. It's relaxing being amid a team that knows its stuff.
Protheroe's wine talk is free of jargon and condescension, and has the effect of making you feel like you know more about wine than perhaps you really do. This is particularly handy at The Recreation, which reclaims some of its pub roots by including a bottle shop as part of the offer.
It's not exactly a tavern drive-though, mind you. This is a bottle shop in a smart bistro in a gentrified suburb with a communal table, meticulously organised bottles on custom joinery and indoor plants hanging about purifying the air. Less with the casks and RTDs, more with the small-scale, expertly collated wine store that provides direct access to Protheroe's wine brain.
Protheroe focuses on owner-operators from all over the world of wine so there's a beautifully constructed unfined and unfiltered blend of chenin blanc, viognier, clairette blanche and roussanne from Swartland producer David & Nadia alongside a cabernet franc called Gertie from Clare Valley winemaker Ben Marx, and a bring-me-another-straight- away Up the Mountain rosé from Yarra Valley winemaker Stuart Proud.
There's plenty for conventional and comfort drinkers, including a couple of remarkable pages at the back that list some of Protheroe's carefully cellared personal collection. It's put together with the sort of care that means the stuff from the more hands-on winemakers and the minimal-interventionalists sit together happily.
The bottle shop.
Add The Recreation's BYO policy (albeit at $20 corkage) and the mostly fair and reasonable prices, and it's clear The Recreation is banking on becoming a defacto clubhouse for wine-obsessed locals and the people who love them.
The food is certainly pitched that way.
Chef and co-owner Steven Nelson spent the past few years at Bistro Gitan, did time at Jacques Reymond and is a clear (but not hidebound) fan of classic French technique. There's pommes dauphine and mousseline here but there's also things battered in tempura and dressed with sesame, while chimichurri accompanies the steak. The Recreation's guiding theme is bistro, but no one's being doctrinaire about it.
Look at the hand-chopped veal eye fillet. A bistro classic, sure, but this one's seasoned with toasted sesame seeds, pickled radish, horseradish, and a fermented chilli paste, pear juice and soy dressing, and owes as much to Korea's yukhoe as it does the trad tartare. It sits on a wasabi rouille that tag-teams with the horseradish to bring a nicely calibrated background heat. It's a busy dish but the balance is bang on, and the texture and depth of flavour of the raw veal never get swamped.
The approach sometimes falters. Thinly sliced kingfish is given the ceviche treatment with coconut water, vodka, jalapeño and lime juice, and then teamed with a salad that tosses together pickled onions, jalapeños, avocado and cucumber. The flavours are good and strong, but they don't do any favours to the fish, which becomes little more than a texture.
Calamari is dusted with paprika, thyme, basil and lemon zest and arrives smoky from the wood-fired grill. Thrown together with fried tentacles and kipfler potatoes, snowpeas, rocket pesto and lemon juice, it's somehow both robust and refreshing.
The building housing The Recreation was built in 1876. Most of the "pub" has been stripped out since then and it hasn't been known as The Recreation for years. There's no public bar and the fit-out - timber floors, exposed brick walls, open kitchen - has more of a café-bistro vibe. The reinstatement of the name and the addition of the bottle shop bring it back to its roots, and so does the local-friendly vibe on the floor.
The dining room at The Recreation.
And even though the menu delves into technique, refinement and presentation that aren't always perfectly pubby, it's always grounded by comforting flavours. Tortellini stuffed with gently smoky duck, chicken mousse and pine mushrooms loll in duck consommé that's as deeply flavoured as it is expertly clarified, while beautifully roasted suckling pig arrives with crisp skin, dauphin potatoes and roasted peaches glazed in a mix of honey, verjuice and chicken stock.
If there's garfish on the menu don't hesitate. The fish hails from Lakes Entrance. It arrives boned with the head left on, arranged with an arched back like a piece of sculpture. The fish, vibrant and sweet as the truly fresh stuff always is, has been lightly grilled. It comes with a mix of wild pine mushrooms, sorrel and confit salad onions, and a "crumble" of walnuts, thyme and toasted crumbs made from The Recreation's house-made bread. The dish is finished with a classic Champagne sauce that ups the richness without overstepping the mark. It's a dish to inspire return visits.
Garfish with wild pine mushrooms, walnut crumble and Champagne sauce.
It seems about right that there's a crème brûlée listed, too, especially when it's made with Madagascan vanilla and teamed with a little cigar of pistachio-studded tuille. Apt, classic and given just the right top-spin.
Dropping in at The Recreation without a booking recently, I found the place hopping. The dining room was full and the defacto bar - the communal table in the bottle shop area - was being used for a wine tasting with a bunch of locals. A potted plant was whipped off a plant stand, stools were retrieved from somewhere, and drinks and snacks were organised without any sense of strain or hassle. It was seamlessly handled, the way only hospitality thoroughbreds can do it. And when a table became available and the food arrived, there was the tarte Tatin with the black pudding. It's how you want things to be in your dream local. Experience. Know-how. Old-school hospitality. Durrant, Nelson and Protheroe know the score. Being looked after thoroughly and properly never goes out of style.