It takes a certain maverick spirit for a chef to euthanise not one but two restaurants to make way for a new establishment. For the new establishment to feature the triumphant return of the lazy Susan and the puffy, gold-embossed red pleather (yes, pleather) wine list ratchets that maverick spirit up tenfold. It's a point not lost on Andrew McConnell as he nervously awaits Monday's opening of the Chinese-flavoured Ricky & Pinky at Fitzroy's Builders Arms Hotel. "Nerve-wracking", is his assessment. "Incredibly nerve-wracking, actually."
Dry aged duck, burnt orange, steamed bread, condiments.**
McConnell has a solid track record in anticipating the mood of the dining public - his Flinders Lane "eating house" Cumulus Inc ushered in the casual share-plates trend - and closing the Builders' bistro and attached restaurant Moon Under Water after only four years is a move calculated to stay ahead of the pack. "It was time for a change. I've been watching what's happening in the neighbourhood more broadly and a lot of pubs are doing similar things. It wasn't an easy decision to make to close two successful, established restaurants. It's that old thing of you don't change something if it's not broken. But eventually I thought, instead of just doing small tweaks, why not go the whole hog?"
Ricky & Pinky's live seafood tank.
Following a hectic four-week renovation by designers Sibling Architects, the 19th-century corner pub is virtually unrecognisable. A fish tank is stocked with live pipis, abalone and barramundi. The origami napkin stars in three boldly coloured photographic artworks by local Melbourne designers Tin and Ed. Tangles of gold piping create grand entrances and archways - "It's a design feature found in lots of Chinese architecture," McConnell says - and silver-coated skylights add more bling. The overall effect is a bit like being transported to a Canto barn in Box Hill, circa 1970. Only the front bar remains untouched in all its yesteryear glory.
Napkin artwork by Tin and Ed.
The choice of a Chinese direction was fairly straightforward. "It's my favourite food to eat in my downtime," he says. McConnell worked in Shanghai and Hong Kong for five years (Ricky & Pinky was the tattoo parlour where he was inked with a dragon), while head chef Archan Chan, who worked under McConnell at Cutler & Co, Golden Fields and Supernormal before heading north to Sydney's Moon Park, hails from Hong Kong. "In China and Hong Kong I worked with so many great Chinese chefs and she has that inherent skill," says McConnell.
Head chef Archan Chan and Andrew McConnell.
The menu is not the daunting encyclopedia typical of Cantonese restaurants. Following the Supernormal lead, it's a one-pager of 30 dishes divided into subheadings such as snacks, small dishes, and dumplings, rice and noodles. Garlic bread features under snacks; Chan says it's a staple served in Hong Kong steakhouses ("Here we do it as more of an Asian milk-bun recipe, like brioche but not as buttery, and Andrew serves it with seaweed butter - he likes to push the boundaries"), while classics such as sweet and sour pork and ma po tofu promise serious tweaking.
Interiors by Sibling Architects.
On the drinks front, sommelier Mark Williamson says the brief is "cheeky and fun but concise and serious… no pigeonholes, just great drinks". Cocktails include the Dragon Mary - a Bloody Mary blended with fish sauce - and the return of Midori in a Japanese Slipper, while the wine list leans towards chilli-friendly aromatic whites and Beaujolais over Burgundy.
Ricky & Pinky, 211 Gertrude St, Fitzroy, Vic, (03) 9417 7700, open Mon-Fri noon-11pm, Sat-Sun 11am-11pm, buildersarmshotel.com.au