Pope Joan

75/79 Nicholson Street, Brunswick East, VIC

All Details
Pope Joan's dining area is lively by day, candlelit-cosy at night.
Pope Joan's dining area is lively by day, candlelit-cosy at night. Photo: Eddie Jim

Roslyn Grundy

If you didn't eat chicken kiev in the 1970s, you weren't there. Like prawn cocktail with Marie Rose sauce and crepes suzette, deep-fried chicken breast crammed with garlic butter was the last word in chic suburban dining in the 1970s. It's been on a downward slide ever since.

So here I am, four decades on, scanning a menu at the epicentre of Hipsterville – Brunswick East – when the words "chicken kiev" catch my eye.

I haven't eaten chicken kiev in years. But I figure if anyone can rehabilitate this most daggy of dishes it's Matt Wilkinson, whose CV includes stints at the stoves of Edinburgh's Michelin-starred Restaurant Martin Wishart, Vue de Monde and Circa the Prince.

Pope Joan's chicken kiev and slaw.
Pope Joan's chicken kiev and slaw. Photo: Eddie Jim

Three years ago, Wilkinson teamed up with long-time Kent Hotel manager Ben Foster to open Pope Joan, a daytime cafe on an unlovely stretch of Nicholson Street. Last year, Wilkinson and Foster punched through the side wall to add a bar, continued their march down Nicholson Street in February with food store Hams & Bacon next door, and early this month began serving dinner Monday to Friday.

The pitch is flexible – drinks, snacks and shareable meals based on the seasonal-local doctrine. The Pope at night is less bustling, more candlelight-cosy, with a compact, oft-changing menu larded with personality (dishes for "nippers" might be "fish finger or spagbol", and cheese comes with "bits 'n' bobs"), cheffy ingredients – pig's ears, tongue, bottarga – and a touch of retro.

Which brings us to the kiev. Fine crumbs form a crisp shell shielding Milawa chicken breast meat, from which oozes garlicky, parsley-flecked cultured butter. The cleaned wing bone juts out like a handle, which greedier diners pick up, the better to gnaw the last skerrick of juicy meat (guilty, your honour). An Italian-style slaw – finely shredded cabbage, red onion, parsley and chives in a bitey vinaigrette – provides balance.

Pope Joan's banoffee pie.
Pope Joan's banoffee pie. Photo: Eddie Jim

Before the chook there are snacks such as cheese fondue made with a touch of blue cheese and served with crunchy raw vegetables and char-striped toast for dunking, and croquettes flavoured with garlic snails or smoked eel.

Entrees mostly take the form of composed salads. A primal wood fire aroma wafts from the "smoked plate", a tumble of hot-smoked beetroot, sliced chestnuts and eel, bacon in smoked maple syrup, nubs of smoked brined tongue and a creamy smear of labne. It's a celebration of smoking, full of contrasting textures and earthy flavours. Another is a delicately flavoured combination of sweet picked spanner crabmeat and bottarga scattered through mustard and spinach leaves, with samphire (sea asparagus) lending a crunchy sea tang.

The half-dozen mains include a curry, a pasta dish or two, a steak – maybe bistecca with caper and raisin dressing and chubby battered onion rings or slow-cooked topside with Yorkshire pud – and a fish dish, perhaps flaky, pearly white Chatham Island cod with a herb crust, a scattering of chopped hazelnuts and roast fennel – and the soon-to-be signature kiev.

It's honest, intelligent cooking that lets top-quality ingredients take the spotlight without drawing too much attention to the kitchen. Considering the roll-call of producer names (Warialda beef, Seven Hills goat, Myrtleford butter), prices are fair – mains max at $26 – although a side dish ($11) wouldn't go astray.

The 50-strong wine list maintains the locavore mantra – of about 10 wines by the glass, only the fizz comes from outside Victoria. Craft beers and ciders come from near (Barkly Street, Brunswick East) and far (Mildura) and there's an impressive range of gins.

Desserts are of the genus comfort: rice pudding made with lashings of cream, steamed mandarin and date pud, a daily-changing "bit of CWA cake" (perhaps Victoria sponge, pineapple tarte tatin or jammy louise cake), and the epitome of English naffdom, banoffee pie.

Wilkinson says it was the first dish he learnt to make when he left home at 16. His reimagined version starts with a choc chip and peanut butter biscuit base, then layers on banana mousse, caramel made from sweetened condensed milk, bananas tossed in strawberry balsamic, cream and torched Italian meringue. It's ridiculous and slightly degenerate, but also strangely appealing.

So there you have it: an all-day cafe that's a little bit country, a little bit rock'n'roll, put together by two blokes with the skills to create a shrine to fine dining and the business smarts not to.


The best bit The kitchen garden's out the back

The worst bit So are the loos

Go-to dish Chicken kiev

Wine list Locavore list with a focus on boutique labels

We drank Crawford River riesling and Quealy friulano

Vegetarian One main

Noise Reasonable at night; lively by day

Service Engaged and congenial

Value Good

Parking Street

Larissa Dubecki is on leave. Her husband, Ben Foster, co-owns Pope Joan.

Roslyn Grundy is co-editor of The Age Good Food Guide 2014.

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.

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75/79 Nicholson Street, Brunswick East, VIC

  • Cuisine - Contemporary
  • Prices - Typical entree $18; main $23; dessert $14
  • Features - Licensed, Gluten-free options, Wheelchair access, Outdoor seating
  • Chef(s) - Matt Wilkinson & Vanessa Mateus
  • Owners - Matt Wilkinson & Ben Foster
  • Cards accepted - AMEX, Diners Club, Mastercard, Visa, EFTPOS
  • Opening Hours - Mon-Fri, 7.30am-9.30pm; Sat-Sun, 7.30am-4pm
  • Author - Roslyn Grundy
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6 comments so far

  • The go-to dish is chicken Kiev? Wow ....Makes me feel like starting with chicken and mushroom vol au vents, and then finishing off with a charlotte russe....whilst wearing my wide collar polyester shirt, bell bottoms and platforms, and if its chilly a connie jacket.....

    Date and time
    July 30, 2013, 2:06PM
  • Do we really need another review of this place? Seriously Age, your food writing is so tiresome. And can you please disclose that there is a relationship between the owner of this place and an Age food reviewer? Any conflict of interest should be disclosed as it does bias the writer, and the reader should all information to be able to judge whether a review is biased.

    Date and time
    July 30, 2013, 3:14PM
    • Hello, thanks for your comment. The relationship between Larissa Dubecki and the restaurant is disclosed at the end of the piece. Larissa did not write this review, Roslyn Grundy did.

      goodfood.com.au team
      Date and time
      July 31, 2013, 4:32PM
  • Are readers' interests sufficiently served by a menu of staff relationships recited at the end of a restaurant review? Although a fan of Pope Joan and a regular consumer of Epicure's spicy diet of provendore and eaterie advice, I cannot help but feel contempt for the luke warm attempt to wash away the stain of conflict of interest here.

    If Ben wants to run a restaurant and Larissa wants to be a staff writer for The Age, then good on both of them for the successful career choices they have made. But once they want to share an Aga oven, then they both need to accept her stable mates will not offer comment on his place in the pages of Epicure. And The Age needs to enforce this too. 3 out of 20

    Date and time
    July 30, 2013, 9:22PM
    • Don't journalists have some sort of code of conduct to stop this nonsense? Fairfax should know better (well at least ...The Age) and treat its readers with more respect. Stating there is a conflict doesn't excuse it, especially when the statement appears at the bottom of the article.

      Pope Joan: 7 out of 10 for food.
      The Age: 1 out of 10 for integrity.

      Date and time
      July 31, 2013, 8:54PM
  • What a load of rubbish. I for one am really pleased to hear that Pope Joan is open at night times now and to read about what kind of food I can expect to eat. Matt Wilkinson's businesses deserve support from the locals and the local media not only because he's an ace cook, but also because he champions locally sourced, ethically produced ingredients. I'm sure he could earn much more money by using cheaper, imported or unethically raised produce.

    So cheers to Matt and his team, regardless of whom his business partner is married to. I support his business cause he supports my ethics. Not because his business partner is married to someone who works at The Age (who didn't even write the review - derp!)

    Date and time
    August 01, 2013, 3:10PM

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