Academy Kitchen & Bar

Southern fried chicken with cheesy cornbread and sweetcorn.
Southern fried chicken with cheesy cornbread and sweetcorn. Photo: Pat Scala

318 Bridge Road Richmond, Victoria 3121

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Opening hours Tue-Fri 7am-11pm, Sat-Sun 9am-11pm
Features Accepts bookings, Bar, Breakfast-brunch, Licensed, Outdoor seating, Romance-first date, Wheelchair access
Prices Moderate (mains $20-$40)
Chef Will Manning
Payments eftpos, Visa, Mastercard
Phone 03 9427 8231

Melbourne loves the high-low mash-up and everyone seems to be doing it, each in their own special way. There's Morgan McGlone's union of frontier natural wine and Nashville chicken at Belle's. Or Lady Carolina, where it's a party-out-the-back and serious-business-up-the-front set-up that you might call the mullet restaurant model.

At Academy Kitchen & Bar, the latest ball of light to make the boarded-up retail shops of Bridge Road a little less foreboding, owner-chef Will Manning takes a different tack. A chef with fine dining and cafe couture stripes (last stops, Townhouse and the Botanical), but leaning into the financially safer casual trend, he's playing to both ends of the market, but all on the same table, plating delicate things dressed with puffed rice or gel balls, and serving them alongside a burger with special sauce that recalls McDonald's Big Mac.

No classist lines drawn here, which plenty are embracing. At one table a pair are settling in to a mini deg, moving the candle to light their snapper for a shot. Across the table, their friends are smashing though fried chicken and beers. It's like having a kids' menu for adults.

Academy Kitchen & Bar's interior has clean, functional lines.
Academy Kitchen & Bar's interior has clean, functional lines. Photo: Pat Scala

The gauge is set as broadly with flavours as style. Calamari comes bubble-wrapped in a rice flour and togarashi​ spice mix and served with a gunmetal-grey trend triple-threat – a yuzu​ truffle mayo that eats far better than it reads, slightly metallic but a sharp, creamy foil to the crisp, fishy curls.

The yabbie dog is as tasty as a sausage in brioche with mayo and preserved lemon sounds, though in sausage guise the meat could as easily be pork as crustacean, which seem a missed opportunity. Pigs' ears, however, shine. All salty, soft crackle against a coconutty kohlrabi slaw in crisp cos lettuce boats.

Beyond snacks, it's less share-friendly and the battle lines divide. Will it be that burger, a monster composed of nicely coloured beef patty shrouded in sticky American cheese with iceberg lettuce, pickles and what could be a copyright infringement on McDonald's Big Mac sauce? It's an excellently luxed-up version of a fast food classic, without necessarily knocking any burgers off your top five list.

A delicate dish of watermelon, feta, heirloom tomatoes and basil.
A delicate dish of watermelon, feta, heirloom tomatoes and basil. Photo: Pat Scala

There's that buttermilk fried chicken too, formerly with apple crunch, now a southern thing with biscuits and corn. Or it might be potato and taleggio agnolotti to counter, the filling apparently smoked, though too subtly to tell, and a little under-seasoned, but nicely dressed in fresh peas and asparagus washed in lemon butter.

And snapper, crisp-skinned, with various earthy touches (slightly doughy battered mussels, a softly curried pumpkin swipe and toasted rice puffs) and a little tropical with cucumber rolls and a mousse that tastes of mango.

The common thread throughout is that Manning can cook. It's good to know that most of what will show up on your plate, which changes regularly, will be sweated over.

Sesame crust salmon with asian slaw, ruby grapefruit and ponzu.
Sesame crust salmon with asian slaw, ruby grapefruit and ponzu. Photo: Pat Scala

That extends to drinks. You might wait 10 minutes for your bastardised paloma as the bartender studiously coils a cucumber ribbon and cracks pepper into your grapefruit soda and tequila cooler. It extends to service too, far above what you might expect, with manager Richard Duncan carefully guiding less experienced staff like a patient sheepdog.

It all adds up to a sweet little venue that ought to be busier on a Thursday night, although this catch-all approach so often tends to confuse. Those who know and love Rockwell & Sons may remember its similar beginnings, when chef Casey Wall ran a menu that was divisively half-beer food, half-Cutler & Co-style small plates, before finding a happy mid-point.

Likely the same will happen here. For now, Manning has the elements of a great little eatery. No faulting a strawberry shortcake sundae, with bits of dehydrated fruit and pop rocks bringing fizz to tart berry sorbet, cream and crumbly chunks of biscuit. Nor the airy, bricky room whose clean, functional lines still stand out, a little austere on a quiet night, but simply waiting to amass the trinkets that soften and give spaces like this their character. It's the promising freshman, looking good for its junior year.

Pro tip Some of the best of the brunch on Bridge, plus happy hour 4-6pm
Go-to dish Pigs' ear crackle in cos boats with kohrabi. Double crunch ($14)
Like this? Rockwell & Sons invented the beer-food-tastes and champagne-service dance, 288 Smith Street, Collingwood