Address 313 Victoria Street, West Melbourne, 03 9329 7824, cleverpollys.com.au
Open Wed-Thu and Sat 3pm-11pm; Fri noon-11pm; Sun 3pm-10pm
Cost $70 for a five-course set menu; a la carte snacks $4.50-$17.
Drinks Traditional or wild wine match $50, but either way all wines are organic and minimal-intervention
You might have been to Clever Polly’s before. The North Melbourne wine bar has been slinging unusual, all-natural wines for four years – long before it was cool, certainly before it was so mainstream that bros have now started calling them “natchies” (the linguistic low of 2017, incidentally, although we might see friesling replace frosé as the drink of summer). You’ve also eaten god knows how many versions of raw kingfish as myriad carpaccios and ceviches. It’s the steak tartare of the sea. But neither of these experiences has primed you for the kingfish at Clever Polly’s now.
It arrives in a deep bowl, hidden under a shaggy green coat of tiny pomelo vesicles (aka the cellular level of the citrus segment for which there is no better term, unless you want to call them juice sacks). Beneath, raw slices, fresh and almost squeaky, are each curled around a heart of avocado like sashimi sushi, and dressed in a smoky and salty eel emulsion that gets electrified as the pomelo pops. It’s a big play, in parts too fishy, too salty and too bright, but together, a tight piece of balance work and part of a five-course set menu redefining how this venue rolls.
Earlier this year, owner Louisa Chalmer turned towards the proto-Estelle model (back when it first opened doing set menus on the cheap), or rather, that of tiny Japanese omakase bars.
Where once there was just an induction hot plate behind the bar, chef Sam Stafford, who has learned a thing or two about elegant compositions from time at the Town Mouse and Momofuku Seiobo, now presides over a real stove, a grill box and team of himself.
You can still drop in for a bottle-fermented pet-nat and a la carte snacks, but drinkers now fit between three sittings of up to six diners at a time taking in Stafford’s focused five-course menus for $70.
Before the kingfish you might kick off with two salty snacks. One, billed as steamed bread, is reminiscent of blinis, topped with a double fish hit of whipped mullet roe and darkened orbs of trout roe that have had a soy and dashi bath.
A Reese’s Pieces-shaped tartlet filled with sweet spanner crab and a blizzard of shaved hazelnut in a roasty shell half made of nori is a two-bite party of nuttiness and sweet ocean.
The setting is right for a minimalist party. Pale blue walls and sleek timber tables meet mid-century modern chairs with russet-coloured seats. The chopsticks you might use to twirl fresh noodles made with a 50-50 mix of farro and wheat flours, sauced with a smoky, salty and almost yeasty union of fermented black garlic, roasted chilli and a raw egg yolk, taper to fine spindly points and sit with perfect weight.
Moreover, anyone who’s questioned how well natural wine truly parties with, say, hot chicken, might find there’s more symbiosis here. That’s partly due to studious matching – those noodles are cereal-y in a way that triggers memories of your mum’s wheatgerm obsession, until a juicy, herbal and brambly trousseau from Smallfry in the Barossa brings the light. But it’s also down to careful selection of all wines here.
Natural winemaking, like all winemaking, renders good and bad results. Chalmer vets every producer and can separate the interesting from the interesting.
So while there might be her own renegade Yume with dessert, a shiraz that took so long to ferment it’s come out almost like a light, dry sherry, it might be a straight elegant and juicy 2015 Infidels Primitivo with your meat course you wouldn’t pick for “natural” without sommelier Jackson Evans telling you.
Speaking of, that meaty main helps prove the might of a minimal kitchen. Oyster blade steak is cooked sous-vide for two days, and while that’s often a shame for cuts that work best with a pure grilling, the stewing steak ends up with a texture of sweetbreads, the exterior given a final charcoal blaze for flavour. Its pairing with a miso sauce and furikake dust of broccoli rabe, kale and some crushed wasabi peas for mystery sweetness is full-on, but within five courses manageable.
And immediately the pacing shifts down to a whipped sorbet of slightly dehydrated rockmelon with a sake jelly and salty kombu caramel. Closure is a “moon cake” of chocolate ganache dressed in charred chunks of tangerine with orange blossom cream.
For anyone who has fallen for the tiny, mighty new eateries of Hobart lately – Fico, Dier Makr and the bedsit-sized Templo – Clever Polly’s joins them in proving you can do a hell of a lot with what you can barely call a kitchen, good wine and a strong vision unifying the two. Clever girl.
Pro-tip: Do dinner but don’t forget it’s also still a bar and bottle shop.
Go-to dish: Kingfish with eel emulsion and pomelo (part of the $70 menu).