Go-to dish: Pressed pig's head. Photo: Ken Irwin
Blame Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby, if you will; blame Boardwalk Empire and the current crush on retro Americana. Nuevo speakeasies are popping up everywhere but Neighbourhood Wine - housed in a clandestine gambling parlour once operated by the Black Prince of Lygon Street, Alphonse Gangitano - has them all jealously weeping into their whiskey sours.
Mr Gangitano is sadly no longer with us, but his den of iniquity stood more or less untouched above Woodstock pizzeria following its closure by the local constabulary 25 years ago. Its new custodians haven't erased the Underbelly past of these four rooms, the collective size of an inner-suburban house, but they've resisted the urge to turn it into a gangster theme park (take their sly typographical play on the word ''Neighbour-hood'' as a clue to the softly-softly approach.)
The full-size billiard table remains; the paintwork of musty green with maroon trimmings; the wooden stairwell with its cheery welcome from the community-minded Carlton Association (nothing to see here, officer). The main room has comfortable furniture wearing a patina of age, an open kitchen, and a broad wooden bar where a turntable plays a great collection of vinyl, from knockabout blues to Steely Dan.
Neighbourhood Wine's trio of owners Matt Denman, Simon Denman and chef Almay Jordaan. Photo: Ken Irwin
It's pretty cool, which doesn't preclude a natural affinity with winter nurtured by an open fire and its parlour cosiness. But aside from the comfort that comes with a place at ease in its own skin, Neighbourhood Wine embodies the virtues that make a great local. It's welcoming without getting all in your personal space about it, affordable, and they really care about booze.
The sommelier, who happens to own the joint with the chef, has made a remarkably strong wine list that plays continental leap-frog (now's your chance to try a cabernet blend from Inner Mongolia) and there's a thoughtful range by the glass.
The food is simple and familiar, blessed with chef Almay Jordaan's (ex-St Jude's) finely honed intuition about when to leave well enough alone. It's European in attitude, but completely unponcey - the sort of thing you'd find at the bouchon or osteria level. There are excellent, freshly shucked South Australian oysters still attached to the shell, for example, with shallot vinaigrette. A terrine of pressed pig's head is a thing of beauty despite being an ugly brute of variegated meat bound in a delicious excess of jelly. Celeriac remoulade with fried strips of zucchini and marinated globe artichokes is a nicely conceived, appetite-piquing trio, with the oil from the zucchini leaching tastily into its bed mates.
The menu, which changes regularly, slots together with consummate cold-weather ease. The segmented corn-fed chicken braised with a load of garlic, in a stocky sauce flavoured by bay leaves, lemon and cream, comes with roasted pumpkin and sauteed chicory. It's satisfying home-style cooking, although for $26 I challenge you to procure a bird of similar quality, cook it to a similar standard and finish by doing the washing up.
There's jumbuck - the fashionable term for ovine too old to be lamb, too young to be mutton - that looks disappointingly quotidian before the thick crescents of orange pumpkin reveal themselves as pickled quince. The jammy fruit is the perfect sidekick for the big-flavoured, aged meat on a coddling base of mashed potato. All that's needed is another hunk of the good house-made bread to mop up a red-wine reduced sauce with a flicker of balsamic.
Make sure you try desserts, because they're a snip at $9 and rather good. The fruit crumble is a proper, old-style crumble with firm chunks of apple and thick batons of poached rhubarb under a buttery golden crust. Thick cream melts into the volcanic heat as it hits the table.
It's only months old, but feels like it's been here much longer. Neighbourhood Wine slips easily into our Euro-leaning food culture with its attendant definitional problems: I'm not sure if it's a laid-back eatery or a great bar. Whatever the case, it's a damned fine local.
The best bit A great local
The worst bit Paper napkins
Go-to dish Pressed pig's head, $15
Wine list Eclectic, globe-trotting list with something worthy at every price point
We drank O. Fournier Urban Uco Torrontes (Salta, Argentina), $13/$57
Vegetarian: Two entrees, one main
Dietary GF catered for
Service Loose and cool
Noise A lively burble of voices and retro vinyl
Twitter: @LarissaDubecki or email@example.com
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 9486 8306
- Cuisine - European
- Prices - Typical entree, $15; main, $26; dessert, $9
- Features - Licensed
- Chef(s) - Almay Jordaan
- Owners - Almay Jordaan, Simon Denman and Matthew Denman
- Cards accepted - AMEX, Visa, Mastercard, EFTPOS
- Opening Hours - Wed-Mon, 4pm-late (from June 18, open Mon-Thurs, 4pm-late; Fri-Sun, noon-late)
- Author - Larissa Dubecki