313 Victoria Street West Melbourne, Victoria 3003
Ever thought of roasting Vegemite? Of course you haven't. But in case you ever do, be aware that it takes six hours of roasting and three weeks of drying to turn it into a crumble. That's the conclusion of chef Sam Stafford, who was part of concerted yeast concentrate experiments when he worked at Momofuku Seiobo in Sydney, but didn't crack the mighty 'Mite code until he developed the menu for Clever Polly's, a wildly experimental wine bar in West Melbourne.
Clever Polly's is intimate, timbered and cosy. The shelves are full of unusual wines and curious jars of fermenting ingredients. It's part laboratory and part lounge room, underpinned by the fizzing energy of hospitality folk who believe in their project. It's modest – caravans have more lavish kitchens, there are seats for about 20 – but highly ambitious too.
Owner Lou Chalmer makes some of the drinks, including shiraz that she pours from a glass jug so enormous that it made me feel like I had supped Alice in Wonderland's shrinking potion.
The food is Japanese but highly original, and served omakase (or get-what-you're-given) style. It's ridiculously good value.
Our six-course menu included kingfish slivers, brined in a koji mixture (the fermented rice that's used to make soy sauce, miso and sake), then interlaced with mustard leaves. Creme fraiche amplified the sweet smoothness of the fish; yuzukosho, a spicy, salty citrus powder, added bitey tang.
Roasted pumpkin was muddled in a fermented pepita sauce, sort of like miso, then sprinkled with a Vegemitey version of furikake, a dry seasoning that usually contains sesame seeds and seaweed, but here includes dried cabbage, puffed wild rice and that Vegemite crumble. It's an intense dish that pulls flavour from its hat in unexpected ways.
It was served with pumpkin rum. This old bootlegger's stroke of genius is created by fermenting sugar inside a pumpkin. (I think I did something similar last year when I left a melon on the bench and went away for seven weeks.) It's one of the more fascinating drink matches I've had in my life.
A small restaurant with a freewheeling menu can afford to be produce-driven so when Chalmer brought a venison heart back from a wine-making excursion to the Yarra Valley, Stafford decided to cure, smoke and dry it. In fact, he turned it into a petrified lump dry enough to grate over walnut tofu, in a dish that's a rethink of the Japanese classic agedashi tofu (braised tofu with shaved bonito fish flakes dancing on top). Here, the tofu begins with walnut milk and the bonito is replaced with deer heart. As you do. It's very good, salty, creamy and subtly funky.
Stafford's approach to originality is to create base ingredients from scratch – miso and tofu, broths and stocks - and then use them to create surprising but essentially simple dishes. It's clever: rather than adding frippery to dishes with startling garnishes, the flavour foundations are where the action is. It makes for food that's interesting, even mysterious, but not shouty or flamboyant.
That's supported by an engaging and eclectic approach to drinks from Lou Chalmer and sommelier Jasmine Wakeley.
Clever Polly's isn't just incubating miso and meat, it's also incubating great talent.
Rating: Four stars (out of five)