Pope Joan's dining area is lively by day, candlelit-cosy at night. Photo: Eddie Jim
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. 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. 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
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.
- (03) 9388 8858
- 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