227 Barkly St Footscray, VIC 3011
|Opening hours||Thu-Fri 4pm-11pm; Sat-Sun noon-late|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9687 8644|
When will our hospitality heroes get a reprieve? First the pandemic, then a crippling staff drought and now the Prime Minister has said our inner-city wine bars will have no part in the fight for climate change.
Which is a shame. Because Melbourne's wine bars are not really bars at all; more restaurant-bar hybrids that champion concepts of sustainability, low waste and small-scale food and wine production.
And so it is with Bar Thyme, Howard Stamp's new Footscray drink and dinery on Barkly Street.
Stamp has strong credentials putting booze and food together from relaxed venues you'd love to call your local. He's a Brit who was once head chef at MoVida, part-owner at Green Park Dining and headed up the Lincoln Hotel for Iain Ling. This is his first solo business, with partner Dijana Necovski, and he's left the kitchen in the capable hands of chef Tommy Hope while he runs the show.
The space has the familiar fitout of a modern wine bar – polished concrete, soft banquettes, bare-back tables – with personality coming from a collection of wine posters, old menus from London restaurants and other ephemera Stamp has been saving for the occasion.
If you have ever lost nights behind the lacy curtains of Gerald's Bar in Carlton North, you'll recognise both bartender Gabriel Freire from its floors, plus quirks such as the collection of vinyl records, a carefully curated back bar of craft spirits, and a mixed bag of freshly cracked wines they add to the by-glass list each night. It's comfortable, right off the bat.
Hope's menu is comfortable, too, but the young chef who has had runs at serious venues including Attica is putting some elbow grease into making compelling but approachable dishes.
Fingers of crisp, golden potato focaccia are loaded with sweet, creamy stracciatella cheese, and a neat brick of fried corn with chutzpah from a tarragon and espelette (a mild pepper) dust.
Rillettes, the salty-rich spread usually of finely shredded fatty pork or duck, is made instead with barramundi. The mousse-like result is still luxuriously rich, scooped up with paper-fine crispbreads, but there's a refreshing hit from cucumber and that earthy barra flavour.
Back to those progressive wine bar ethics for a moment. Footscray is increasingly becoming one of Melbourne's great veg-loving strongholds. Nearby Huong Viet restaurant went completely vegan last year. Jambo, the well-loved Ethiopian joint just a block down from Bar Thyme, is opening a second all-vegan shop in the coming weeks. It would be foolish not to cater to those who don't like food with faces, and Hope is doing some fun experimentation.
A bowl of raggedly golden kipfler potatoes are dunked in a chive-flecked house-soured cream. A crescent of sweet, roasted pumpkin sits in a nutty emulsion of pepitas tanged up with tamarind and topped with a jumble of freshly sprouted lentils and chickpeas bringing sweet, juicy crunch.
The dish of char-enhanced cabbage, nutritional yeast flakes (a cheesy, nutty, umami-packed flavour enhancer), plus toasted almonds and a lobe of stracciatella, is perhaps a little homogeneous, and loses the sweetness of the cabbage to all those delicious fats.
But a beautifully constructed salad, where every mellow, crunchy, lightly bitter leaf of white endive is dressed with crushed walnut, sage and currants, is a sparkly triumph of simplicity and smarts.
The same can be said for the drinks program. House-made rhubarb tincture and a little ginger turn a lime and white rum Hemingway daiquiri into their house "Margaux".
The house spritz is appropriately thyme-heavy and has enough knife-edge balance to make the few bar stools reserved for walk-ins a drinks-and-snack-only consideration.
Details are sweated at spaces like this. Not just small ones, like putting those old menus on the wall. But big ones, like not serving red meats on the regular menu aside from Spain's chestnut-fed jamon Iberico. Instead, the star main is a juicy, roasted flathead tail, fringed with pipis, slashed with a buttery emulsion. And in choosing winemakers who are also farmers and who sweat over the health of their dirt.
So here's the thing. I don't think you need to believe that climate change will be solved in, or by, wine bars. What I find exciting, though, is that these are places that can show you how exciting and inspiring embracing a little change can be.
All you have to do is eat the (delicious) doughnuts with native Davidson plum jam and let a little hope trickle in.
Drinks: Wines are international, but all from producers who practise sustainability (and make delicious wine).
Pro Tip: They will soon be hosting Sunday lunch sessions with guest chefs.