Restaurant News

Opening today: Hero, Karen Martini’s first restaurant in the Melbourne CBD

Is the city ready to eat out and stay up late? The chef certainly thinks so, and she has a very good gilda to lure them to Federation Square.

By Yvonne C Lam
Karen Martini at Hero, her first restaurant in the Melbourne CBD.
Editor's note: This interview was conducted prior to Victorian Premier Dan Andrews announcing Melbourne would enter a five-day stage 4 lockdown, effective 11.59pm today 12 February.
When chef Karen Martini opened a restaurant in Ibiza in 2016, there was the language barrier to contend with, of course. And then there was the island's local mafia. "That was a very difficult [restaurant opening] for a lot of different reasons."
So in the hierarchy of difficult debuts in the chef's long career, Hero, the newly minted all-day diner in Melbourne's ACMI, might just come a close second. The biggest hurdle was the nine-month pandemic-induced delay, which begat a shortage of skilled hospitality staff. Even now the fresh produce deliveries are slower than normal, as the local network of producers and suppliers creak back to life. It's no wonder on the eve of Heros' grand opening, Martini is exhausted.
"It's been a real challenge just to get to this point. But we're here, and we're pretty damn excited," she says. "But it's been a hell of a ride, let's say."
Hero is the culinary star of ACMI's $40 million renovation, with Martini and business partner Michael Gebran tasked with developing a restaurant that runs from 8am till late, seven days a week. Architect Chris Connell's design combines oak timber with a grey-blue-white colour scheme; the dining room is lined with Christina Zimpel's broadstroke portraits of film and pop culture icons. (Martini is especially fond of the portrait of musician Nick Cave: "In my early punky days I listed to The Boys Next Door and The Birthday Party.")
The dining room combines oak timber with a grey-blue-white colour scheme. Photo: Pete Tarasiuk
Martini is especially fond of the Christina Zimpel's portrait of musician Nick Cave. Photo: Pete Tarasiuk
Breakfast is a grab-and-go remit of toasties and tarts; lunch and dinner are seated affairs, with a menu that's characteristic of Martini's modern-Australia-Mediterranean culinary stylings. The bottom end is rounded out with a Cape Grim bavette steak, blue eye cod, plus a brined and semi-boned roast chook with Angelina plum mostarda.
There's pasta, of course. "I couldn't not put pasta on," says Martini. Tubetti with pesto, cavatelli with crab; salads too. She sings the praises of a shaved zucchini number with bottarga and buffalo ricotta, and another with boiled King Edwards (skins off) with tarragon, dill, sour cream, and pickled cucumbers.
"It's a bit bistro-y. If you pare it back, there's fish, there's chicken, there's steak, and there's some tasty things to start," she says.
Clockwise from left: Cape Grim grass-fed bavette steak; frites; King Edward potato, cucumber, dill, salt baked white onion and soured cream; buffalo mozzarella, tomato, peach, pickled onion and aged balsamic. Photo: Pete Tarasiuk
Ah, the things to start – almost always the most fun and memorable items of a modern menu. At Hero there's a carb double-act of koulouri (Greek bagels) served with tarama, and Martini's take on focaccia Pugliese – a potato bread she's been baking for some 20-plus years. (Her grandmother baked it for many years before that.)
Meanwhile, Martini describes the gilda as a "mouthf*ck". Which is to say, the Basque snack-on-a-toothpick has all the trappings of a fine pre-dinner nibble: a little acid from the pickled fefferoni pepper, sweetness of roasted red capsicum, and a one-two-three salty hit from a caper berry, green olive and anchovy, all threaded on a mini-skewer. "They're a great appetiser," says Martini. "Everything's going off at once, and then it finishes with the sweetness of the red pepper."
Hero is Martini's first restaurant in the CBD – Mr Wolf, the pizza place she runs with husband Michael Sapountsis is a 20-minute tram ride south to St. Kilda. She's long-wanted to open in the city, and for all of the disaster wrought by COVID-19, lockdown was the breather she needed to balance her television, book and recipe commitments, plus family demands. "I have really cleared my diary and my focus. My two girls are a lot older now and are both in secondary school … Some chefs don't have the challenge of having children, or if they do, they're not the primary carer," says Martini. "My passion does lie in the kitchen."
The timing is right, and she's putting her faith in the return of that very Melburnian habit of eating out and staying up late. "We're hoping to ignite those memories of regularly dining out and visiting the city at the drop of a hat, which a lot of Melbourne used to do," says Martini. "And will still do."
Was set to open Thursday 11 February, prior to Dan Andrews' announcement
ACMI, Federation Square, Melbourne, Vic
Open seven days, 8am–late