The Town Mouse

312 Drummond Street, Carlton, VIC

Slow-cooked pork jowl with carrot kimchi.
Slow-cooked pork jowl with carrot kimchi. Photo: Melanie Faith Dove

The most exciting new restaurants are those that balance a spry freshness with a settled feeling, that are original but comprehensible, that tap into an existing sense of what hospitality can be and should be. On all counts, the Town Mouse succeeds.

This is a restaurant that knows what it wants to be, for both staff and diners, and that's a great basis for good times. For the owners - New Zealand restaurant professionals with a Melbourne history - the Town Mouse is a nimble, durable neighbourhood business of manageable size. For customers, it's a place to drop in for a solo bite at the bar, to meet friends for six - or 16 - smashing snacks, or to bring a date for cocktails, shaved calamari and moodily lit conversation. It's in the building that most recently housed Embrasse and, before that, Three One Two and Donnini's. Put simply, it's a wine bar with great food.

Chef Dave Verheul's cooking is soulful and smart: he has a happy knack for wielding big flavours with delicate aim.

Sure thing: The Town Mouse is an assured restaurant with confident cooking.
Sure thing: The Town Mouse is an assured restaurant with confident cooking. Photo: Melanie Faith Dove

Take the pork jowl from the ''Sharing'' portion of the menu (though it's all good for sharing, really), the meat is cut-with-a-spoon tender, marinated in miso and mustard, slow-cooked, and fried to order. It's massively rich and tasty, but it's served with smoky carrot kimchi (fermented pickle), tart and crunchy radish and apple, and prettily shrouded in daikon slices. The whole dish is held together with a gorgeous sauce of emulsified pork stock and peanut oil.

Other good things include jaunty little profiteroles - slightly dehydrated to make them shatter-crisp - filled with goat's cheese mousse, or there are elegantly retro crab balls served with preserved lemon curd and translucent potato-and-nori shards.

Dessert often feels like a begrudging afterthought in small restaurants without a dedicated pastry chef. Not here. There's a joyousness in dishes such as quince crumble, as well as citrus curd that's offset by dramatically black pastry crumbs (dyed with coconut ash), showered with white chocolate and topped with a fun meringue tube filled with coconut sorbet.

My only reservation is the stools, which are the only seating option. The upside is, they promote intense forward-leaning chatter; the downside … many of us won't sit comfortably for long without more support for bums and backs. Oh well, I guess we'll just leave when the numbness sets in and come back again very soon.

Rating

4 stars out of 5

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312 Drummond Street, Carlton, VIC

  • 03 9347 3312
  • Cuisine - Contemporary
  • Prices - Small, $3-$26; Large, $32-$53; Dessert, $6-$15
  • Features - Licensed
  • Chef(s) - Dave Verheul
  • Cards accepted - AMEX, Visa, Mastercard, EFTPOS
  • Opening Hours - Wed, 5pm-late; Thurs-Sun, noon-late
  • Author - Dani Valent
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