The dish on paper: venison tartare hand-chopped and dressed with sesame oil and rice wine on house-cultured cream flavoured with shaved ginger, studded with yuzu-pickled radish, tiny croûtons and carved circles of nashi pear, finished with a wasabi snow made from wasabi oil and baby coriander leaves.
The dish in the mouth: a wondrous, cohesive blend of excellent textures - the tender meat, the croûton crunch, the pear's snap. Popping flavours that, despite the labour and the crowd of ingredients, taste simple and logical, without a wasted move. It's the sort of dish that can have you seriously contemplating going another round before you're done with the first.
This intriguing gap between how things read and how they're experienced is explored in truly interesting ways at Carlton newcomer The Town Mouse. Formerly the site of Nic Poelaert's Embrasse and, before that, Andrew McConnell's Three, One, Two, it follows in its predecessors' footsteps by dishing up intelligent, ingredient-focused food with modern techniques, but does so in a space where the restaurant part of the décor equation has been ditched for an emphatically bar-like feel.
It's an effective transformation of a familiar room; darkly dramatic with shiny, glittering black tiles reaching three-quarters of the way up the walls, and an elegant curved American oak-topped bar, stained dark and overhung with a curved metal screen its focal point. Clean-lined Scandinavian-influenced timber stools and high tables are strangely compatible with the nanna-chic frilled and frosted glass light fittings.
The ceilings are high and butter cream-coloured, a good match for the original nougat terrazzo floor.
Maybe it's just the awareness that there are New Zealanders in the house - foremost, co-owner Christian McCabe and chef Dave Verheul (both ex-Wellington's Matterhorn), and a Kiwi architect, Allistar Cox, also designed the place - but the room feels original, even a little exotic, in Melbourne. It's free of the industrial-chic design tropes that have become familiar with this kind of home-grown bar-restaurant hybrid in recent years, but it maintains the genre's aversion to noise baffling. When the place fills up it can get shriekingly noisy. But overall there's the feeling that a small chunk of that glamorous, dark-hued, genetically hip part of Wellington has taken root in the backstreets of Melbourne's Little Italy.
Designing The Town Mouse to look like a bar is not just some perverse New Zealand ruse to put people off the scent of Verheul's complex, restaurant-style food. McCabe, who has lived in Melbourne before and was once a partner in the fabled Honkytonks nightclub, has designed the business on the casual-flexible model, and so there are no hurdles for anyone keen to use it as a bar, except perhaps for the limited number of stools in the compact shopfront. Most of these get snapped up by diners, many of them giddy with the novelty of being able to book a table in a place that looks like it might scoff at the thought of taking reservations.
Still, outside traditional dinner hours, the space operates well as a sophisticated saloon with a barfly-friendly drinks list that includes subtle, fruity cocktails (a refreshing mix of fortified and infused wine flavoured with cinnamon, vanilla, strawberries and orange, for example), a compact list of mostly craft beers and a decent selection of wines by the glass.
There are good small snacks too - oysters served with a tangy-sweet chardonnay vinegar sorbet, and fried Padròn peppers accompanied by a tarragon cream. Then there's the salty-sweet crunch of goat's cheese profiteroles. They're sold by the piece, so they should be ordered whether you're parked on a stool for a quick drink or the long haul. The pastry is flavoured with pepper and parmesan, baked, then popped into a dehydrator to become extra crisp. It's then filled with goat's cheese mousse and topped with honey (from The Town Mouse's rooftop hive) and sprinkled with caraway salt and thyme leaves. Salty, earthy, sweet and crunchy, they're bound to inspire return visits.
It's pretty obvious, given the presence of reinterpreted, multi-layered profiteroles, that chef Verheul is not one to shy away from shows of technique and unorthodox flavour combinations.
No shock, then, to learn that he cites his time at Sydney's Bentley Restaurant & Bar, working under Brent Savage, as the most influential of his career so far. The lesson he's best learnt seems to be about pushing boundaries, so long as everything on the plate is there for a reason (that is, tasting good).
Verheul takes calamari pulled from Port Phillip Bay, cooks it sous-vide for 20 minutes before freezing it and then shaving it into noodle-like ribbons that are served with fermented apple juice, oyster cream, salted cucumber and dill oil. That's a lot of balls in the air for a small starter dish but there's also a balance of textures, a flash of acid, some soft saltiness that's all successfully simpático. The dish, all whites, greens and shimmer, is also a looker, which never hurts.
There's more of this good stuff with the blackened pork jowl, marinated in miso and Dijon mustard, and cooked slowly overnight before being fried. It's then roasted and served with a corker of an Asian-style salad that includes a lightly fermented and fiery carrot kimchi, slivers of daikon, pink radish, peanuts, apple, tamarind, fish sauce and lime juice. Steamed New Zealand diamond-shell clams and Spring Bay mussels, meanwhile, are topped with a foamed and full-flavoured clam bisque, shaved fennel and rosemary oil.
With flavours popping in all directions, it's little wonder that the wine list, a tight two-page document updated weekly, leaps around the place, too. Orange from Campania and natural red from Mount Etna, German riesling, Spanish godello and Burgundy share space with Victorian pinot noir (2011 The Wanderer from the Yarra Valley) and James Erskine's biodynamic Jauma from South Australia. If you had to name the list's bias, you'd have to say French.
In sync with The Town Mouse's flexible approach, the wine list is democratically priced too. A good percentage of the labels hang out in the $40 to $80 bracket, but if you want to splash out on Champagne you get the chance to do that, too.
An earthy duck dish certainly warrants a little splashing out: breast pink and rolled after being slow-cooked and roasted to order, served with a rollcall of accompaniments - caramelised yoghurt, sprouted (or as some might say, "activated") wheat, yeast purée and golden elk leaves, alongside wonderful slices of roasted pine mushrooms. It all works a treat, the yoghurt almost curd-like and slightly sweet, the wheat softened in water, adding both subtle sweetness and textural interest, the elk leaves' flavour falling somewhere between pepper and mustard, and the yeast adding a savoury-salty backbeat. Once again, it's impressive how well all the parts meld together so that the whole comes across most clearly.
It's there again with the smoked barramundi served with a lemon verbena purée and topped with tiny pieces of lime pulp that brighten the dish with acidity. Some matcha green tea powder represents one of the few times an ingredient doesn't really add to the proceedings, which can't be said for the salt-baked celeriac and the sweet baby onion shells.
Though there aren't many misses on Verheul's ledger, corn polenta balls flavoured with pine, lime and pecorino must be relegated there. The odd combination, with bursts of slightly medicinal sweetness, appears as though it's been given a bum steer about the dress code.
The same can't be said for desserts, which have a strike rate deserving of praise. From the no-brainer ricotta doughnuts flavoured with lemon zest, coated with crushed fennel seeds, sugar and salt, and served with mandarin custard, to rooibos-poached quince served with walnut praline, chopped walnuts, lemon verbena cream, rosemary flowers and white ale ice-cream.
Then there's a lemon and yuzu curd dessert, a set-piece of molecular tricks that includes spiced rum jelly, pastry crumbs dyed black with coconut ash, shards of white chocolate and an Italian meringue tube filled with coconut sorbet. It's slightly ridiculous, as many good desserts are, and a lot of fun to eat.
The Town Mouse is the latest instalment of the New Zealanders-in-Melbourne tale that already includes the likes of Attica's Ben Shewry, Daniel Wilson (Huxtable), Greg Feck (Crabapple Kitchen) and Alric Hansen (Small Victories). It's a story that's certainly entertained Melbourne diners with all kinds of originality, style and good-humoured hospitality, but it would be over-egging the pudding to position The Town Mouse as part of some sort of Kiwi new wave. Still, if such a wave means more places as tight and polished as this one will wash up, then let it roll.