The Animal, Newtown Hotel, 174 King Street Newtown. Photo: Edwina Pickles
"Thank you for being our first guests at the Newtown Hotel & The Animal'' reads the form that comes with the bill. ''We value your opinion & would like to know your thoughts.''
Gone are the days of a dictatorial restaurateur standing over us, telling us how to eat. These days, dining is collaborative and restaurants are collectives in which we get together and have fun. As entrepreneurial business blogger Seth Godin says, it's the end of ''should''.
''Banks should close at 4, books should be 200 pages long, blogs should have comments, businessmen should be men … '' he writes. ''Find your should and make it go away.''
Go-to dish ... Wood roasted lamb from the spit. Photo: Steven Siewert
So instead of writing the review I should be writing, I decided to fill out the form instead.
''What do you think of the new venue?''
I think it's very cool. The story here is that The Keystone Group (the team behind Gazebo, the Winery, Manly Wine, the Sugar Mill etc) has taken a 130-year-old Newtown institution of a pub and given it back to the neighbourhood, complete with the magnificent wraparound balcony it had been missing. Not to mention a private cinema, games room, heaving beer garden, live music venue and, on the first floor, a loud and lively Greek restaurant called The Animal, with whole animals on the spit, and its own private dining room - in a caravan.
''How did you find our staff?''
Universally young, smiley, busy, dressed down rather than up, and just as likely to plonk themselves on the seat next to you to chat through the menu options as they are to stand.
''What did you think of our range of drinks?''
Cheeky. The coloured taps at the bar upstairs list everything from a fresh, light house chardonnay from the Yarra Valley at $9 glass/$27 for 500 millilitres/ $40 a litre to a ''Fancy Pinot''. And you have to like the sound of a Keith Richards Coconut Incident (Laird's Applejack, coconut, lemon and blue curacao) cocktail. Even the wine list goes by rounded-off price points of $55, $65, $75 and ''Over One Hunjie'' rather than by grape or region.
''How did you find the quality, timing + value-for-money of the food?''
Blimey, what am I, a restaurant critic? (Oh, yeah.) It's a clever idea, well-executed. You know you're in for a good time when there's a giant wood-fired spit rotating away in the open kitchen, and skewers of lamb, beef and chicken sizzling away over hot coals. The house specialty of wood-roasted lamb ($40) is available daily from noon and from 6pm until it runs out, and you'd be mad to miss it. It's a seriously big plateful of meat for sharing - a smoky, steamy, pull-apart treat of chunks and hunks, with a goodly shard of fatty skin.
To start, taramasalata ($12) is seriously good, although the pita bread is a bit oily. A village-style Greek salad (tomato, cucumber, fetta, olives and red onion, $15) is bright and crunchy, and lamb skewers, served with grilled pita, tzatziki, lemon and a plastic tub of tomato salad ($18) make easy, relaxed eating. The highlight is a sweetly colourful dish of mixed roasted baby vegetables stuffed with a soft mix of rice, mint, raisins and pine nuts ($17).
I reckon exec chef George Diamond's Greek family background stops him from getting too fussy, so a dish of octopus ($17) is good and scorchy, hot off the grill, with onions braised in red wine. On the dessert front, the baklava rolls ($13) don't really need duding up with salted caramel sauce and fig cream, but it doesn't hurt. Timing is fair, and value-for-money is good, especially if sharing.
''What do you think of the vibe of the new venue + do you find it fitting for Newtown?''
It feels part of the street already, in no small part due to the street art, commissioned from the likes of Skulk, Birdhat, Resan, Nico and Terhor (possibly not their real names), that doesn't come across as buying cool credits. I can't speak for the locals, but they look happy.
''How did you find your overall experience?''
Very relaxed and easy, with heaping helpings of fresh grills and salads and unpretentious wines. There are no ''shoulds'' here, just a lot of coulds and woulds.
''Go on … rate us!''
See score above.
''Thank you for your feedback and we look forward to seeing you back at the Newtown Hotel soon.''
Best bit: The reimagining of a local neighbourhood pub.
Worst bit: The lime-green exterior.
Go-to dish: Wood-roasted lamb rubbed with lemon, garlic and bay leaf, $40.
- Prices - About $85 for two, plus drinks.
- Features - Licensed
- Chef(s) - George Diamond
- Opening Hours - Daily, noon-late.
- Author - Terry Durack