Big Esso review

Big Esso brings big energy, a reminder of what makes Melbourne one of the world's great cities.
Big Esso brings big energy, a reminder of what makes Melbourne one of the world's great cities. Photo: Chris Hopkins

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Opening hours Tue-Thu noon-11pm; Fri-Sun 11am-late
Prices Moderate (mains $20-$40)

In the last review I filed before lockdown six, I told you not to wait before going to Auterra. "Who knows how long this taste of freedom will last," I concluded, presumably dooming us to the lockdown that immediately followed.

I am sorry for any part I played in that cosmic catastrophe, but I'm doubling down. Now we're free again (here's hoping forever), I demand that you sprint and not amble to Federation Square, where Nornie Bero and her team from Yarraville cafe Mabu Mabu are throwing native Australian ingredients the culinary party they deserve, with the festival atmosphere you do.

If it has been a hot minute since you've dined in Federation Square, fair enough. Besides Taxi Kitchen, it hasn't commanded a local following as a fun dining destination since Paul Mathis' Chocolate Buddha and George Calombaris' Reserve were firing on all cylinders in the early noughties.

Kangaroo tartare with smoked oyster aioli and taro crisps.
Kangaroo tartare with smoked oyster aioli and taro crisps. Photo: Chris Hopkins

But after a multi-million dollar refurb, Fed Square has gone from zero to Bero, not to mention Hero, where Karen Martini and Philippa Sibley are in their forceful element. Great food has returned to this precinct. But there's something else, too.

Walking through that huge ACMI atrium and into the expansive square, we're hit with the sound of mass dining and a clear view of the cityscape. As locals, we often dismiss landmarks as places only for tourists. I really hope we'll see some of them again, and soon.

But I also hope that after being separated from the city for so long, we rediscover why the world considers Melbourne, Naarm, to be one of the best places on the planet. Perhaps I have freedom fever, but I think Big Esso is a good place to start that discovery. Preferably fuelled by a Davidson plum gimlet or Green Ant-ini, a martini with a twist.

Wattleseed crumbed poussin, pickled watermelon and finger lime aioli.
Wattleseed crumbed poussin, pickled watermelon and finger lime aioli. Photo: Chris Hopkins

Let's start with those drinks, actually, as they represent one of the new strings to Bero's bow. Big Esso isn't just serving booze (the Yarraville cafe is sober). It has one of the best lists of Australian beers and spirits (including Seven Seasons Green Ant Gin for that Ant-ini) around, with a tight wine list from thoughtful producers such as Unico Zelo and Vasse Felix in WA.

The genuine, undiluted championing of native ingredients and Bero's own favourite dishes from her upbringing on the Torres Strait island of Mer are the foundation of a menu that goes from casual drinks to serious dining with ease.

Kangaroo tartare is lush and bright, spooned onto taro crisps that have a light hint of dried banana. Croquettes made with tin meat (canned corned beef) and pickled karkalla (the salty succulent sometimes called pig face) shatter to reveal a centre with the pillowy, meaty richness of a slow-braised tongue.

Chocolate wattleseed pavlova.
Chocolate wattleseed pavlova. Photo: Chris Hopkins

Crocodile proves to be the perfect candidate for deep-frying – the flavour of a good firm fish, with the texture of chicken tenders, all amplified by a dusting of salt and pepperberry and a chilli aioli.

Condiments, rubs and dressings are a big part of what makes the dishes pop. They explode with pepperberry bite, the bouquet of strawberry gum, or the unmistakable bushwalk-in-the-sun smell of lemon myrtle.

Charred emu fillet, which you might have found to have a challengingly gamey flavour elsewhere, is plush, pink and sweet here, aided by a brush of black molasses and a chimichurri that runs heavy on the saltbush.

The wallflower side salad of cos lettuce, billed with pickled green mango and a warrigal green dressing, is a blazing star, popping with the sharp apostrophe of river mint and crunchy, juicy slices of bell fruit.

For readers who don't eat food with faces, blame this reviewer's rusty ordering skills for the unintentional meatiness of this story. I failed to summon what sound like some of Melbourne's more compelling vegan dishes, including bush tomato, cassava and warrigal green croquettes; blackened okra with a macadamia cream; and blackened purple cabbage with sweet native currants and tart muntry chutney.

It's probably worth remembering this isn't actually the first time a First Nations-owned restaurant with a native ingredient focus has had a tenancy in this patch of Wurundjeri Country known as Fed Square. Tjanabi, owned by Boonwurrung elder Carolyn Briggs, moved here from Carlton in 2007. (There was going to be a revival of the restaurant as part of Rising festival, before COVID cancelled the show.) Reviews back then noted that the space felt austere, almost like it needed to look serious in order to be taken so.

By contrast, Big Esso's bright energy explodes from every corner, from the crew's lilly pilly pink tees, to the huge mural by artist Aretha Brown.

Speaking of the crew, after months of uncertainty for hospitality workers, the level of enthusiasm, joy and sharpness on the floor is worth a standing ovation. It's not just good service. There's so much pride from the whole team.

As we sigh into a chocolate and wattleseed pavlova, perfumed with strawberry gum cream, it feels good to see a new chapter unfold, for Bero, for us. It's just so good to be back.

The low-down

Big Esso

Drinks All-Australian spirits, beers and wines.

Pro tip Do not leave without stocking up on Mabu Mabu's hot sauces and teas.

https://www.mabumabu.com.au/