167 Swan St Richmond, VIC 3121
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9427 8501|
Some strips of Melbourne aren't so much streets as barometers of current trends. The last time you walked into this venue on Swan Street in Richmond the air was rich with hickory smoke and the promise of new dining times. From 2013 to March of this year this was Meatmother, one of the earlier 'Merican barbecue devotees to pop up. A few doors along, staff at the second branch of the Meatball and Wine Bar were telling people they'd be waiting an hour and a half for seats. Loose, casual dining was the future.
Five years on, the world has spun on its axis again. Food trucks are out, barbecue has gone the way of the tacos, and your wait-time for meatballs now depends on how much pedal power your Deliveroo driver has. The pendulum is swinging back towards formality. A bit. Placemat menus are done. Fabric napkins are in. Tables are still bare in most new venues but there's a 95 per cent less chance of your dinner being served on a prison tray.
To take the temperature of 2018, you can look at Caddie. The first premises for chef-owner Dylan Evans fits the model to a tee: a wine bar with a tight, contemporary menu of dishes you cannot (or shouldn't) summon to your house via app, in a room with the minimalist aesthetic of a tight black skivvy.
Where you used to sit at this bar looking at skulls and hacksaws, listening to RiRi and drinking bacon-bourbon old fashioneds, you're now drinking a Jean-Luc Mader pinot blanc and Moorooduc chardonnay at a freshened bar top turned blond and lean. Your sparkling water comes from the tap. You'll sit on a leather-topped stool beneath two suspended strip lights that amount to most of the decor aside from pretty blue tiling.
But if the room creates a rather blank slate, Evans, who was just up the road at Fargo and Co. and lists stages at Noma and Chicago's Alinea on his CV, is keen to establish a point of difference on menu.
Neat ideas are peppered through a tight carte. Playing an edamame-ish role as an opening snack is an unusual bowl of salty, slippery lupini beans which you squeeze out of their skins and often across the room. When you do catch some, you'll find they taste like a cross between chickpeas and broad beans with a mild bitter edge.
The brevity of the menu itself is something to appreciate, with about 12 dishes covering most bases. A welsh rarebit – Wales' pimped out cheese on toast – listed under dessert could do triple duty as appetiser, finisher or cheesy mid-course. It shows Evans is focused on doing less, well.
One of those things is the smoked barramundi omelette. Served flat, the fluffy, burnished base is studded with flakes of the fish, its muddiness soothed by the smoke. Bathed in a rich, silky cheese sauce and scattered with fried saltbush, it's breakfast meets fondue in the Australian bush.
Another smart and definitely pretty idea is the thick slab of brioche schmeared with a mushroom duxelle and latticed with lardo – strips of cured pork fat – with bunches of enoki sprouting through the gaps. With more heat applied to soften the crumbly brioche, heat the mushroom paste and melt the lardo, it would be another winner.
Having skimmed the blurb for Caddie: A Sydney Barmaid, the autobiography that inspired the name, I'm not sure I see the similarities between this mannered place and the story of a tough Irish immigrant who pulled pints and kept a book to raise her kids in the Depression.
Not in the (slightly meh) roasted baby carrots riding their mustard-seed flecked quinoa. And the very pretty, violently tasty arrangement of earthy-sweet, just-caramelised beets, tart-and-chewy salted plum crisps, rich almond cream, and lurid marigold vinegar with raw corn brightness is everything but rough.
Perhaps Caddie's Irish roots are referenced in the excellently crisp, thyme-fragrant potatoes, skins turned golden with chicken dripping?
Truth told, more of that character would probably help. Despite being stuffed with the upwardly mobile, Richmond residents are shy and mysterious customers who won't always come out to play. Modern spaces like this, even with flickering tea lights and very smooth and friendly service, can feel less cool, than cold.
Hopefully, Evans' food is enough bring the heat. I love the treatment of the pork scotch fillets. Hammered flat and rolled around date centres then skewered and grilled in betel leaf wrappers, it's devils on horsebacks in blankets: smoky, sweet and fragrant at once. Chocolate parfait surrounded by salty toffee rubble is like eating pure silk. Is it enough? Can Caddie make Richmond residents ditch trackies and Make Swan Street Great Again? Hopefully. There's no more smoke, but I sense the fire.
Pro Tip: Your new friend before or after a Corner Hotel gig.
Go-to Dish: Smoked barramundi omelette ($19).