233 Union Rd Ascot Vale, VIC 3032
Retail strips close to large shopping malls live (and die) in interesting times, so full marks to long-time Ascot Vale resident Alex Marley for putting his money on the line in largely dreary Union Road rather than being seduced by the bright lights at nearby Highpoint Shopping Centre.
Marley bought the shop eight years ago then let it be as a hairdressing salon while he worked in corporate catering, gaining experience and gumption. In May last year, after a comprehensive renovation, he opened an amenable restaurant that raises the bar for the area without giving local residents conniptions.
The large round ceiling lamp and fairy-lit wall of timber slats reference city restaurant Gingerboy, and there's a bit of Asia in the menu, too. There are steamed prawn dumplings, tuna sashimi with ponzu dressing and sticky beef ribs with black vinegar and chilli. The food treads a fairly safe path, though, with the flavours doing more nudging than punching.
I liked the shredded chicken on crisped wonton skins, overlaid with bean shoots, coriander and peanut sauce (the menu said ''spicy'', but I would call it shy). A duck dish features roasted breast and salty but fall-apart confit leg with bok choi and shiitake mushrooms. It's a good meal and, like everything here, generous in size.
There are Euro-skewed items, too, including a starter platter with olives, chorizo and dips, as well as a beef extravaganza, with roasted fillet, braised cheek, parsnip puree and red-wine jus.
The steak special always sells. Many dishes are gluten-free - great! - but the vegetarian offerings could be more creative; surely vegetarians cry inside when they see pumpkin pasta - again - is their main-course option. Desserts are indulgent: the peanut butter and caramel parfait with white-chocolate mousse is a cream-eating exercise, but who doesn't love a bit of exercise now and then?
I wouldn't quite call the food inspired, but the restaurant is. It has a mission and customers who seem engaged, whether they've come for all-day breakfast (ham hock, white-bean and tomato cassoulet with poached eggs, for example), a lunch of angel-hair pasta with peas, asparagus and ricotta, or a pre-dinner cocktail (try the Stratusphere with vodka, Midori, Malibu, Chambord and pineapple juice).
Stratus 233 isn't rocking the world and some of the service lacks polish, but it's giving Ascot Vale a welcome prod towards its potential. ★★★
233 Union Road, Ascot Vale, 9370 8971
Licensed and BYO ($8 corkage)
AE MC V Eftpos
Tues-Sun, 8am-4pm; Wed-Sat, 6pm-late
Entrees, $9-$29; mains, $26-$31; desserts, $7.50-$14
Carino Tapas Bar, 492-494 Mt Alexander Road, Ascot Vale, 9326 0328. Tues-Sun, dinner; Sun, lunch.
Carino's tapas includes sherry-seared chicken, caramelised chorizo and tuna empanadillas.
Arcadia Dining, 152 Union Road, Ascot Vale, 9375 2751. Tues-Sat, dinner; Sat, breakfast and lunch.
Spanish owners took over this restaurant one year ago and they've got plenty of fans for their paellas, sangria and churros.
Crumbs Organic Bakehouse, 170 Union Road, Ascot Vale, 9375 4777. Mon-Fri, 6.30am-6pm; Sat, 8am-3pm
Buy sourdough loaves, croissants and (on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday only) vegan sourdough doughnuts.