Charcoal Lane review

Mission Australia's Charcoal Lane restaurant offers a hospitality training program for disengaged youth.
Mission Australia's Charcoal Lane restaurant offers a hospitality training program for disengaged youth. Photo: Luis Enrique Ascui

136 Gertrude St Fitzroy, VIC 3065

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Opening hours Tue-Sat noon-3pm, 6pm-9pm
Features Outdoor seating, Private dining, Wheelchair access, Bar, Licensed, Gluten-free options, Vegetarian friendly, Family friendly, Accepts bookings, Romance-first date, Events
Prices Expensive (mains over $40)
Chef Greg Hampton
Seats 50
Payments eftpos, AMEX, Cash, Visa, Mastercard
Phone 03 9418 3400
Free wine for Citibank cardholders here

Whether you're ambivalent about the royals, or love Team Meghan and Harry as hard as the writers of TV cash-cow The Crown must right now, you have to marvel at their pull.

Consider Charcoal Lane. The Gertrude Street restaurant, located in what was once the Victorian Aboriginal Health Services building, has been working tirelessly for a decade to offer a hospitality training program to disengaged youth, particularly in the Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander community. Great premise, right? Great outcomes, too. But it sometimes struggled to get bums on seats. Cue a regal lunch with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex on their 2018 tour of Australia, and the restaurant has been full every night since.

But this venture was worth your attention before a royal wave. The building is a tall creamy structure with bold yellow doors, like a sulphur-crested cockatoo. A mural by street artists Robert Young, Heesco and Makatron down the side speaks to the building's history as an important community hub.

Emu crepinette with beetroot risotto, quandong and lemon myrtle ricotta.
Emu crepinette with beetroot risotto, quandong and lemon myrtle ricotta. Photo: Luis Enrique Ascui

Inside, it's a lovely space of tall ceilings, caramel woods, and bright tiles, with many of the paintings by Indigenous artists available to buy through Dreamtime Arts.

So what's it all about? Program-wise, Charcoal Lane's mission isn't to teach students to julienne a carrot or learn to make espresso. They do shrink barriers to employment by upping skills, but the bigger goal is dismantling the bigger structural hurdles. Program co-ordinator Troy Crellin explains some students come from networks where most people they know have experienced workforce exclusion, making the first step seem impossible.

But if the restaurant exists in part to train participants in front and back of house (they also study at William Angliss), it has an identity of its own. Charcoal Lane has been a long-term champion of native Australian ingredients and until excellent cafe Mabu Mabu in Yarraville recently opened, it was one of the few places locals and internationals could try bunya nut, emu and crocodile outside of fine-dining tasting menus.

Vegan-friendly laksa with bunya nut, lotus root and enoki.
Vegan-friendly laksa with bunya nut, lotus root and enoki.  Photo: Luis Enrique Ascui

Executive chef Greg Hampton, a qualified horticulturist, weaves this knowledge into the training, starting the program with trips to the Royal Botanic Gardens. And while the menu might have some clear Mediterranean and Asian leanings (laksa as a main course; gnocchi and risotto as sides), the integration of flavours is considered.

Drinks to start are excellent. A margarita gets a fragrant tickle of lemon myrtle, and their negroni is elegantly spiced up with native pepperberry-infused gin.

Next come hot spongy cobs of bread radiating with the floral aromatics of Geraldton wax. Dipped in oil and a dukkah flecked with a native spices, it's a strong statement of intent.

The chef's tasting plate showcases native Australian ingredients.
The chef's tasting plate showcases native Australian ingredients.  Photo: Luis Enrique Ascui

For the most part, this is old school entree-main-dessert territory, but a chef's selection of entrees gives a best-of look at the ingredients. There's smoky emu kabana sausage from Yarra Valley game supplier Ken and Mary Lang, flecked with duck fat to keep it juicy. A bowl of flaked crocodile has its light fishiness offset by a fresh tomato salsa and native plum. Dark, pan-seared slices of roo luxuriate over a peppered orange compote.

The kitchen will inevitably have stronger days than others. Today, our roo is well done, but roasted emu fan fillet, a notoriously lean meat, is rosy blush and juicy, having been wrapped in crepinette (stomach lining) that melts away in cooking. With it, a beetroot risotto is dressed with tart fruit quandong on the side and house-made ricotta infused with fragrant lemon myrtle. It's lovely and light.

The same leaf transforms laksa, entirely vegan and crunched up with lotus roots, blanched bunya nut and enoki. That's a soup worth slipping in for on its own.

But put some numbers behind it, too. Youth unemployment in parts of the north-west sits at 20 per cent, and it's three times that among Indigenous youth. So when Crellin estimates their program has achieved a 70 per cent employment outcome for the 275 students they have seen through this decade, that's a great result. Even better, most new applicants approach because they have known a former participant and there is now a lengthy wait list.

Yes, the beats between courses are longer than at other restaurants and you may end up wanting for a fork. You may wonder if there are thorny and complicated questions that Charcoal Lane's program raises and can't quite address. I'm sure there are. No system is perfect. But practice gets us all closer to what that might look like.

Vegetarian One entree, one main, sides.

Drinks Great cocktails featuring native ingredients, wines and beers support Australian producers.

Cost Entrees $20; mains $30-$38.

Pro Tip: Showcase local produce to foreign mates without dropping $300 a head.

Go-to Dish: Chef's tasting plate to share ($30).

https://www.charcoallane.com.au/