Thomas Olive

Higher ground: James Tait holds court behind the bar at Thomas Olive.
Higher ground: James Tait holds court behind the bar at Thomas Olive. Photo: Pat Scala

Upstairs, 300 Smith Street Collingwood, Victoria 3066

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Opening hours Wed,Thurs and Sun, 5pm-midnight; Fri and Sat, 5pm-1am
Chef Scott Pickett and Joe Grbac, bartender James Tait
Payments AMEX, Mastercard, Visa, eftpos
Phone 03 9419 2202

You may need to engage the services of a guide to find the entrance and a Sherpa to get you up the ladder-like staircase leading to Thomas Olive but the experience awaiting you at the end of the climb is well worth the shortness of breath and risk of nosebleed. Ostensibly a holding area for downstairs restaurant/moshpit Saint Crispin, Thomas Olive is also one of the most beautifully realised bars to open in this bar-heavy neighbourhood for some time.

Named after the guy who originally owned the building, Thomas Olive is run by personable Scotsman James Tait who, as anybody who's had him mix drinks for them at Der Raum or the bar at Tonka is aware, is a man who knows his way around a beautifully constructed cocktail. Add the fact that Tait has put a French slant to the booze - cocktails, a short list of anis (Ricard, Pernod, Herbsainte etc), aperitif, champagne - and you quickly get that this relaxed yet sophisticated place is decisively throwing its hat into the grown-ups' ring.

It's a compact, single-roomed space with a few French cafe tables and a couple of Chesterfield couches scattered about the timber-floored room, though lofty ceilings stop it from feeling cramped. There's a timber bar with moulded panels in front of a wall of glossy black tiles, an archway screened off with a black curtain and large mirrors that increase the sense of space. A couple of Monet-channelling artworks on the wall add cool, relaxing colour to the otherwise dark-hued room.

Bartender's choice: Napoleon II Punch.
Bartender's choice: Napoleon II Punch. Photo: Pat Scala

But what's really attractive here is that it's basically a one-man show. Tait, dressed in classic waistcoated bartender garb, comes to your table (or couch) and chats to you about what you might like, suggesting but not browbeating, and then zips back behind the bar to get your drinks. It's intimate and special, a kind of bespoke bar experience that would be hard to replicate in a larger space or with more staff.

The cocktails (all $18) are pretty special too, full of ingredients like cognac and vermouth, champagne and Lillet Rouge and made with handcut ice. The Suissesse is a refreshing masterpiece of powerful restraint, mixing the anise flavours of Herbsaint with French vermouth, fresh mint and peach over ice in a tumbler, while Alouette is a subtly sweet mix of gin, rum, grapefruit and orange bitters.

The wine list has an on-theme lean to the French with Australian wines filling in the other spaces. There's usually only one beer available (perhaps Brooklyn Lager, $9) but there is also the intriguing French beer additive Picon Biere, an amaro-like syrup created to be added to beer, giving it a depth of flavour and a burnt-citrussy charge that may require an addiction warning label.

There's a short list of snacks too, from the Saint Crispin kitchen downstairs. They include the porky/crisp Snap, Crackle and Pop ($9), very fine eel croquettes (two $8) and cheese, oysters and charcuterie.

To reach Thomas Olive you have to thread your way through the oft-crowded Saint Crispin, out into the backyard and then haul yourself up those stairs. And while getting there may seem like the barfly equivalent of extreme sport, the extra effort is more than rewarded.

Cheers Sophisticated French-inspired cocktails

Jeers Vertigo-inducing staircase

Bartender's choice

James Tait chooses the Napoleon II Punch as the drink he feels best sums up the Francophile attitude at Thomas Olive. ''It's a classic French drink first made around 1895,'' he says. ''I've made a few changes to the original recipe but I'm still using classic technique and French ingredients. And I think that's what Thomas Olive is all about.''

Napoleon II Punch

25ml Clement VSOP Rhum

50ml burgundy

20ml vanilla syrup

15ml lemon

5 griottes (liqueur-soaked cherries)

Fresh mint

Shake all ingredients with ice. Double strain into a tall glass filled with ice and add 50ml soda water. Garnish with a mint sprig and skewered griottes.