37A Springs Road Clayton South, Victoria 316903 9544 9929
|Opening hours||Wed-Sat, 6-9pm; Fri, noon-2pm|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard|
Been to Clayton Bowls Club lately? You should - just head past the ''do not leave children in cars'' sign and the ''bleep bleep'' glitz of the pokies, and slip through the fine-dining wormhole to Champion's Grill.
Here, with its patterned carpet, butcher's paper over veneer tables and the emerald backdrop of the bowling green, is where young gun, former Vue de Monde chef Clinton McIver, 27, was hoping to stay under the radar.
''It's definitely not a career move,'' says McIver - twice - sounding disappointed the secret is out. The plan was to go low-profile before heading to South America next year with his Brazilian girlfriend Ali Rolim Correa, one of Champion's three-person kitchen team and also former Vue de Monde.
Mates of his - bowlers at the club - convinced him to do a couple of consultancy shifts and McIver saw the potential for more. Since he took over the kitchen three months ago, social media has been a'Twitter.
''I've got regulars who come in two or three times a week,'' he says of the steadily growing dinner crowd, and the Saturday night $50 degustation is filling fast with bookings until the end of the year.
It's one of the most bizarre bistros in town with its classic bowlo setting - big, well-spaced tables, bog-standard cutlery, zero ornamentation - and deconstructed, prettily plated fine dining food, highly influenced by four years working under chefs Shannon Bennett and Cory Campbell at Vue de Monde.
''It's been a big part of his career,'' says Campbell, who favours a natural approach to cooking.
McIver has a similar focus, foraging in the club's surrounding parkland for wood sorrel, wild turnips and mustard leaves.
The sorrel might appear in a lush dessert of parsnip ice-cream, strawberries and silky buttermilk curd.
There are two vegie plots out the back, lemons are donated ''by a lot of the Greek people that come here'', turned into lemon curd and whizz fizz for the lemon meringue pie and another club member sources fresh scallops from Batemans Bay in NSW. The menu changes often but those scallops might be lightly seared on one side, cooked just so, sitting amid dobs of parsnip puree, celery gel and a scattering of micro celery. So pretty.
Jamon is a standout, thinly shaved, arranged in a loose, artful tumble around a slow-cooked egg that leaks deliciously when cut, with confit garlic, a brown butter sherry sauce, garlicky wild shoots and smoked almond microplaned over the top adding nutty texture to the dish.
The gnocchi - if it's on - is great; squashy little potato pillows tossed with spring peas, wild garlic butter and slow-braised lamb, the legs pot roasted whole and the meat picked off the bone.
From the grill comes classically treated, top-notch cuts, aged in-house, from a 250-gram serve of grain-fed sirloin to superb rump cap wagyu to a 600-gram juicy thumper of Gippsland grass-fed Black Angus, the rib served on the bone ''tomahawk'' style - carve and share. All steaks come with thick, beer-battered onion rings, salad greens and a sparky green peppercorn sauce.
How much? Two courses for $35, three for $40, not including the grill. It's a splurge but still within cooee of ''under $30''.
Get in quick, though: McIver heads overseas at the start of February and it's unclear whether the bowlo's kitchen will maintain the same focus. The club has offered him a kitchen lease but McIver is set on opening his own place. Shame - seems like he's on a driving shot, as they say on the green.
''It could be good to play bowls before dinner,'' says former colleague Cory Campbell. ''Might have to put a lawn bowls in Vue de Monde.''
Do … Book for the $50 degustation.
Don't … Forget your bowls.
Dishes … Strawberries.
Vibe … Unpretentious fine dining.