Epocha restaurant in Carlton. Photo: Eddie Jim
FIRST-TIME RESTAURANTS FROM LONG-time restaurant industry folk - they're the ones to watch. Show me an individual who has toiled for years in the service of others and I'll show you someone with resolute opinions on the way things ought to be done and maybe, over knock-off drinks, where the boss is going wrong.
It's like a long, slow marinade: all that time learning, watching and considering what they would do if they owned the joint. With a bit of luck it adds up to the hundred small touches that elevate an eatery into something special.
Epocha is a case study for the good things that happen when two lifers of the hospitality industry get together and open their own restaurant. Angie Giannakodakis, long-time face of Press Club, and Guy Holder, who did his tour of duty at the city's finest, have taken a deep breath and jumped, and the Melbourne dining scene is the better for the fad-free result.
Lamb kalmaki at Epocha. Photo: Eddie Jim
The site is a grand old terrace on the edge of the city centre. The outlook over the Carlton Gardens feels European and the fantasy continues up the wide stone staircase, where the best of the old - soaring ceilings, weathered timbers and other non-twee examples of Victorian grandeur - marries the peasant chic of wooden tables inlaid with tiles, green-framed wicker chairs and a collection of floral crockery that speaks of serious hoarding.
It wears its makeover lightly - the room feels lived in, not superimposed by overpaid designers, and I defy the flintiest of hearts not to be won over by additional touches: the little loaf of bread, warm and malty dark, that arrives in a knotted sack with house-churned butter topped with salt crystals; the creaky old wooden trolleys carting dessert and cheese (a savvy move, Epocha: empirical evidence suggests it's harder to resist when it's all laid out before you); and the dedication to going off-script when it comes to serving wine by the glass from a list bursting with European boutique mojo. Combined with Giannakodakis' mighty powers of persuasion - she's a clever somm inculcated in the dark arts of the half glass - and this is a place where it might be best to leave the car at home even if you don't plan on nipping upstairs to the bar for a nightcap.
The two owners have the floor purring like a kitten, and the kitchen, headed by Michael Bolam (ex-Sanctuary in the Hunter Valley), is holding up its end with a classic Euro menu that transcends fashion. The enduring joys include a farmhouse terrine - pork and chicken mousse dotted with dried apricot and pistachio and girdled by a ring of fat - and a gravlax of glossy salmon with potato salad. Lamb skewers - kalamaki - perfectly charry/pink, arrive with caramelised pieces of poached pear and melting gorgonzola. If peasants eat like this, you can count me in.
The more refined end of the spectrum holds up well, too. Raw meat doesn't come much daintier than the venison carpaccio, a pretty ring of rich gaminess undercut by baby veg, hazelnuts and pickled enoki mushrooms, punctuated by the bracing alcoholic pop of sherry jelly spheres.
In the way of modern restaurants, there are no mains per se but ''larger shares'', under which heading is a proper pie of potato, calcot (a type of spring onion) and gruyere. It's a fortifying farmhouse lunch dish with a sturdy shortcrust pastry and burnished top sprinkled with nutmeg and snipped chives.
Like the menu says, you won't want to keep it to yourself - it could easily go six ways, besides - but I was tempted to snarl protectively over the plate of pig. There's a long and perfectly cooked strip of belly with textbook crackle, a fall-apart bit of slow-cooked neck and gelatinous jowl, with a sprightly sauce gribiche and a pot of cooking juices that gently enhance the porkiness. Order a side of the kale for some yang to all that yin.
The menu's European inflections continue at dessert, when crostoli wrapped around a lemon cream does a great impersonation of cannoli. Or, if you're like me, the roquefort with house-made lavosh might beckon from the trolley - an early breaking of a New Year's resolution (eat less cheese, damn it) but, as I said, they're persuasive.
The food is the sort of stuff any sane-minded person would be happy to eat, but the service is the lasting memory of Epocha. A meal here will remind you why it's called the hospitality industry. Other lifers might want to drop by to pick up a few pointers.
The best bit Savvy, non-sucky service
The worst bit Drinking more than expected
Go-to dish Lamb kalamaki
Wine list Interesting Euro-leaning list verging on the obscure, with the expertise to back it up
Vegetarian Three smaller, one larger
Dietary GF available
How we score
Of 20 points, 10 are awarded for food, five for service, three for ambience, two for wow factor.
12 Reasonable 13 Good if not great 14 Solid and enjoyable 15 Very good 16 Capable of greatness 17 Special 18 Exceptional 19 Extraordinary 20 Perfection
Restaurants are reviewed again for The Age Good Food Guide and scores may vary.
- (03) 9036 4949
- Cuisine - European
- Prices - Typical entree, $16; main, $32; dessert, $12
- Features - Licensed, Outdoor seating, Gluten-free options
- Chef(s) - Michael Bolam
- Owners - Angie Giannakodakis and Guy Holder
- Cards accepted - AMEX, Mastercard, Mastercard, EFTPOS
- Opening Hours - Mon-Sun, noon-4pm; Mon-Sat, 5.30pm-lat
- Author - Larissa Dubecki