Photo: Simon Schluter
TALK about raising the stakes. You set up shop in one of the busiest, most competitive dining strips in Melbourne, on the increasingly stylish Gertrude Street, home to an intimidating line-up of fashionable bars, enoteche and eateries. You do it with a concept that's not an entirely easy sell: a menu featuring native ingredients, and a staff comprising disadvantaged, mainly indigenous young people. And you haven't even got a hysteria-inducing celebrity chef such as Jamie Oliver to hang it on.
That's been the test for Charcoal Lane since it opened three years ago. Even the much-feted Oliver knows the sympathy vote will only get you so far: ''It's got to be a f---ing good restaurant to survive in this city,'' he prophetically remarked when launching the Melbourne arm of his socially enterprising Fifteen restaurant chain in 2006. Fifteen has since closed, as has its successor, The Kitchen Cat, run by that other affable and ''as-seen-on-TV'' chef Tobie Puttock.
Charcoal Lane's new head chef, 31-year-old, English-born Andy Bedford, doesn't have the crowd-pulling profile of a Puttock or Oliver (although he's just as photogenic) - he is reliant on his skills in the kitchen, and people's interest in supporting a restaurant that trains disadvantaged youth for a career in hospitality. But, as the wise young Oliver advised (albeit more colourfully), no amount of tugging at customers' heartstrings will draw them back if the food doesn't cut it. And at Charcoal Lane, it does.
Bedford, who became head chef in February, has reinvigorated the indigenous focus (previous chefs began to stray from the idea, but the shift wasn't embraced by customers). It's a tricky task devising a menu around native ingredients - there's the danger of tokenism (which Bedford can't always avoid) and the risk of overpowering dishes with the intense flavours of produce such as lemon myrtle or rosella flowers (which he avoids masterfully). He uses native ingredients subtly, but that doesn't stop him from slipping some show-stopping items on the menu, such as a starter of wallaby tartare - a brilliantly flavoursome, mound of finely sliced marsupial, served with crisp breads, a smear of mayonnaisey egg-yolk gel and some lovely sweet-sharp chutney. The dish exemplifies Bedford's meticulous touch - and, for me, it's a standout. In fact, I'd like to see more such daring fare on the menu.
But let's look at the building. It's a Gertrude Street landmark, a big, whitewashed bluestone number, strong and streamlined, built in 1865, originally as a bank, before becoming a post office, a medical clinic and, finally, in the 1970s, an Aboriginal health service, which it remained until 1992. The redeveloped interior, designed by Tandem architects, has a modish black-and-white colour scheme and a striking diamond-design bamboo floor.
Fittings are contemporary without being lavish, and the subtle placing of indigenous art alludes to the building's recent history and its ongoing role in Aboriginal health. (The restaurant takes its name from an Archie Roach song about an Aboriginal meeting place in the Fitzroy-Collingwood area.) It's a bright, spacious room, with body-cradling, black plastic Eames chairs, soft charcoal banquettes along the front wall, bare wooden tables, statement light fittings, such as a gorgeous, elongated eel trap suspended from the ceiling, and some distinct artwork, notably the graphically abstract black-and-white panels on the ceiling, by indigenous artist Gayle Maddigan. A large room, it can feel a tad cavernous when it's not full; when it's crowded, the noise levels can creep up. Nevertheless, there's a sense of warmth about the place, which might have something to do with the service. There's little affectation here. And cheers to that.
To the food. The oyster starter features four plump, briny beauties, from Coffin Bay, served au naturel with a dash of delicate rosella flower dressing and Yarra Valley salmon roe. A starter of mushroom, spinach and Persian fetta encased in a buttery brik pastry and served with pepperberry pickled beetroot defies expectation - it is full of flavour and lush, creamy texture in the mouth. A spiced root vegetable soup is also very good, warming, smooth and packed with the punch of cumin, allspice and clove - although I'd be stretched to pick the native ingredient. I had the same difficulty with a main of sumac-crusted lamb backstrap, with confit cabbage, shiitake mushrooms and a smoky baba ganoush - an excellent dish, the lamb wonderfully tender, and rare. (The native ingredient, I later found out, was lemon myrtle in the eggplant dip.)
The two signature dishes here are worth seeking out. A main of paperbark-smoked barramundi features amazingly smoky and moist fillets on a bed of fennel, pea and native mint ''risotto'', which is really more like a lovely, creamy mash, and scallop-sized morsels of potato fondant. It's fabulous. So, too, is the wildfire spiced kangaroo loin - seared, rosy-centred slices of roo with a pomme puree of an amazingly velvety texture, winter vegetables and a cherry and espresso jus. But I can't say I am overly impressed by a rather monotonous-tasting risotto of pumpkin, spinach, pine nuts and Persian fetta.
More to my liking is a clever interpretation of the classic Italian dessert tiramisu - a bowl of crumbly shards of chocolate and biscuits, marsala-soaked Savoiardi, mascarpone, macadamia nuts and wattle seeds, served with creme fraiche. It's fresh, fun and I wolf it down.
Charcoal Lane doesn't need my sympathy vote. It gets my well-satisfied-stomach vote.
Where 136 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy
Phone 9418 3400
Cost Starter, $18; main, $34; dessert, $15; two-course lunch, $35, including glass of wine; three-course lunch, $45, including glass of wine.
Wine Thoughtful two-page list of accessibly priced, interesting Australian wines.
Owners Mission Australia
Chef Andy Bedford
Vegetarian One to two starters, one main, three to four sides
Dietary Gluten-free readily available; for other needs, best to phone ahead.
Noise Can get noisy when busy
Service Unpretentious, capable.
Wheelchairs Yes, and disabled toilets
Parking Limited street parking
Cards AE MC V eftpos
Hours Tues-Sat, 10am-3pm, 6-10pm
- 9418 3400
- Prices - Starter, $18; main, $34; dessert, $15; two-course lunch, $35, including glass of wine; three-course lunch, $45, including glass of wine.
- Features - Licensed
- Chef(s) - Andy Bedford
- Owners - Mission Australia
- Cards accepted - AMEX, Mastercard, Visa, EFTPOS
- Opening Hours - Tues-Sat, 10am-3pm, 6-10pm
- Author - Gabriella Coslovich