Rear, 412 Brunswick Street Fitzroy, Victoria 3065
Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, was an exciting food strip in the 1980s and early 1990s, strung with seminal restaurants and cafes such as Mario's, Joe's Garage, Rhumbaralla's and the Black Cat, plus a reasonable representation of immigrant cuisines such as Afghan, Thai and Greek. Some of those golden oldies are still going but the buzz hasn't always lingered.
Today, I wouldn't quite put Brunswick Street on my Melbourne must-munch list, but there are definitely good things happening there.
Hammer & Tong is one of a new breed of modern players, doing the all-day-dining thing from a stylish, cobbled-together space, entered from Westgarth Street just off the main drag (it's where Brix flickered and fell). It has a good feel from morning to night, with friendly staff and a sharing plate menu that zooms with the zeitgeist. Quinoa? Check. Flavoured butter? Yep. Edible soil? Ooh, yeah. Popping candy? You betcha.
There's plenty of good stuff to eat and the pricing is keen. Crisp, light pumpkin fritters come with a lively coriander sauce. Subtle nettle and broccoli risotto is given a massive push by oozy taleggio cheese. A pumpkin dessert is a symphonic arrangement of savoury, sweet, salty, fluffy, sticky, crisp and dense elements – it's an exciting journey.
Not all the food sings. I think it's because cool ideas sometimes sprint ahead of the technique and consistency necessary to back them up. The "Fitzroy garden", a composed salad, has elements both good (funky mushroom "soil") and underwhelming (chilly shaved carrot and beetroot).
A chicken main course wasn't entirely satisfying. The fillet was juicy but it was on gluggy corn mush and garnished with shards of golden but not-quite-crisp chicken skin that spoke of good intentions not fully realised.
I never love paying for bread ($4), and the enormous doorstops of brioche with a disproportionately small cylinder of (delicious) oat butter didn't make it feel like a good deal. That brioche works much better for brunch, when it's the gorgeous sop for duck egg and an intoxicating truffled brown butter sauce.
The coffee is great, the wine list is excellent, and I love the Turkish Delight soda, fizzy, fragrant and rosy pink, flecked with vanilla and sprigged with mint.
Overall, there is lots to like: fine dining flourish comes at low, low prices, there's caring service and a happy feeling that Hammer & Tong is part of a Brunswick Street renaissance.