18 Corrs Lane Melbourne, Victoria 3000
Humour is hard to pull off in a restaurant. One person's hilarious ''schnitz and tits'' is another's chixploitation. Puns are risky too: Thai Tanic, Has Beans, Pho King and their ilk make some groan with delight while others simply lose their appetites. Brutale, a new laneway bunker with Croatian food, finds a little fun in the Balkans' troubled history with tongue-in-cheek war chic: a disco ball bomb, soldier helmet lightshades and a knuckle-duster logo. That's all softened by cheerful service, vibrant food and an enthusiastic approach to Croatian cooking. If you leave thinking Eastern Euro eats are all stodge then they'll be very sad. On the other hand, if you leave feeling anything less than overstuffed, please let me know how you managed it.
Chef Daniel Dobra (ex-the Aylesbury) channels his Croatian heritage, bringing in family dishes including his dad's oxtail goulash and chips with spiced mayonnaise. Homestyle techniques such as spit-roasting, pickling and cooking in the peka, a roasting dish with domed lid, add to the cultural incursion.
An appetiser of ''Pag-style cheese'' (rosemary-oil-marinated sheep's cheese) and pickles was sparky and occasionally mega-garlicky - I killed a few vampires on my way home. Peppers with paprika-tinged kajmak (curdy cream cheese) were gently smoky and super tasty. Sturdy, honest pierogi were stuffed with mushrooms and dolloped with sour cream. Spit-roasted pork made me swoon: handsome pig pieces were cooked on the bone then served with intense herbed jus and apple and rakiya sauce that cut the slippery, meaty richness.
A keen focus on rakiya, a spirit distilled from plum and other fruits, tips the Brutale mood from buzzing to brouhaha. The demon drink is served in cute genie-style vasettes and it's easy to build a snacky meal around a rakiya appreciation session with its attendant delights and dangers.
A DJ adds to the bar-room mood and seating is mostly on stools.
There were some little missteps: the peka lamb was painfully salty and the powdered stock, described as a magical seasoning, detracted from the food's subtle pleasures. Service was jaunty but attendance to basics such as water-refilling and bill-bringing was a little pot luck.
Respect, though: I like this place. It straddles the bar/restaurant line with aplomb and the food is simple, heartfelt and delicious. If this is Brutale, bring it on.
Rating: 3 and a half stars (out of 5)