18 Corrs Lane Melbourne, Victoria 3000
Culinary nostalgia has sure come a long way since Marcel Proust sighed plaintively over madeleines. Memories aren't always so sugar-coated, as the most casual observer will note at Brutale. A journey into the food and recent history of the Balkans, it's a meaty good time in a conflict-chic setting.
If a disco ball bomb, army helmet lightshades and the memory of Europe's most recent carnage suppress your appetite, best be on your way. A restaurant in bar clothing, Brutale doesn't try to appease the squeamish. It's targeting the younger crowd, the sort that treats politics with ironic detachment and appreciates the DJ box tucked into the corner.
And maybe Brutale has a point being armed and dangerous. You've got to put your flak jacket on to bring this food out of the bagel belt. It's no dispatch from the frontline of food fashion. On the other hand, cultural essays in food form are quite de rigueur, which is why it might just win an audience.
It's tucked down a Chinatown laneway, in a place formerly known, kind of appropriately, as Eurotrash bar. It's dimly lit and clandestine; the sort of place you'd meet a man named Igor to arrange an arms deal. Meat being the new art, there's a pig – a baby, free-range organic piggy – hanging behind glass. The porcine theme extends to life-sized potraits of swellegant people with imposed pigs' heads. They're possibly a warning to political enemies, or a statement about the meat-a-thon about to ensue.
Big flavours from repetitive ingredients can lead to palate wipe-out, but chef and co-owner Daniel Dobra, last seen at the most modern of restaurants, the Brix, has a Croatian background and an affinity with these sorts of things. He seems happy going home-style.
The Balkan way with minced meat – working it so the proteins become a sticky, grippy whole – makes possible those little skinless sausages known as cevapcici, a springy mix of pork, beef and veal that go brilliantly well with avjar, the region's sturdy pepper relish. The same meat technique produces the stuffed steak – really a mix of pork, beef and pork back fat bound with egg and spices and sandwiched around white cheese and a breath-hijacking amount of garlic. Dobra's right on the money when he jokingly calls it meat calzone.
There are roasted red peppers in a sweet-sour slick of oily sauce freshened with kajmak, the soured cream, and corpulent pierogi with slightly dry pan-fried skins and a ripe, heady mushroom filling. And a few dishes to remind you that Croatia spectacularly hugs the Mediterranean and boasts an island life to rival the Greeks. Like the cold plata marena with anchovies – the fat white pickled ones and the salted hairy ones – and kingfish with capers and lemon and a rather nice mousse made from cold-smoked ocean trout and mackerel. Slather it with little wisps of pickled white onion on the feather-light baguette, although beware that it's $4 a basket and they'll refill it without asking.
Get the iceberg lettuce wedges slathered in black vinegar and dried herbs, or the cabbage salad to add fresh crunch to the mains. Dobra's dad's oxtail goulash is the archetypal one-pot wonder, the meat co-mingling with red peppers and potato in a silken oil slick with fresh rosemary and a hint of cinnamon. The spit pork has spectacular toffeed crackle, a jug of meat juices and applesauce made with rakia, the fruit-distilled spirit.
Drinks-wise, you can hit the rakia hard, or dip a toe into central Europe's burgeoning wine industry and come away knowing a little bit more about plavac mali (the main red wine grape grown on the Dalmatian coast), posip (white wine) and cetinka.
The dessert menu is short – typical Eastern European indifference to the end of the meal. I'm not sure if the fried bready donuts spiced with cinnamon and dried fruit are the lesser for being cold, or because the last time I ate them was on the Dalmatian coast. I'm guessing the former. Ah, nostalgia isn't what it used to be.
The best bit A Balkans discovery tour
The worst bit Bring the infra-red goggles; it's dark in here
Go-to dish Oxtail goulash, $29