49 Peel St Collingwood, VIC 3066
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9068 7464|
Has the staffpocalyse of the 457 visa restrictions hit yet? Listening to restaurateurs, it might have. Poaching of floor staff is high – as is general muttering from punters about service. Maybe soon, good managers will be tagged and sold at auction like racehorses? If that happens, I think I know someone who's going to bag a hefty price.
Within five seconds of entering Congress, a new cafe-wine bar in a Collingwood apartment block, I'm seated and given a chilled, smoky piece of zucchini with ricotta and mint and a slab of warm rye bread to tide me over while I wait for a friend. I'm guided into a glass of gently skinsy Unico Zelo Esoterico from Riverland and told that the winemaker, Brendan Carter, is working on a biofuel project using native grasses. I text the friend who'd tipped me off about this place: "Who is Katie from Congress? She's really good."
Turns out Astrid McCormack, she who won The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide service excellence award for electrifying everyone's visit to tiny Fleet in Brunswick Heads, has a sister, and brother, and they've united to open a bunch of tiny-mighty eateries on the ground floors of Melbourne developments. Watch out McConnell brothers – there's another hospo dynasty in town.
On paper their pitch can sounds pretty corporate. Milieu Hospitality Group's plan is to give the people what they want, so in Fitzroy North they'll be dropping a throwback Italian next year. In Richmond, it will be a Japanese joint. Congress has been custom-built for Collingwood's upwardly mobile – presumably the folks who list their job as "director" on dating apps and BYO a Konro grill to picnics.
But here's the thing. Most custom-built venues smack of box-ticking brainstorming meetings with Barry from business corp. Everything looks right but there's no soul. They are the sex dolls of hospitality. But Congress is what happens when the reins are handed to people who know their stuff.
Katie McCormack was last treading the boards of Northcote's much-missed Merricote. Her craft-focused drinks list is no random grab bag of "natchies", but a neat snapshot of freaky good (rather than just freaky) wines and spirits you should be drinking. That Riverland gem meets Jamsheed's smashable Roussanne; the crunchy Pheasant's Tears rkatsiteli from Georgia and a super fresh and easy rosé from Xavier Goodridge in the Yarra Valley.
Personality goes a long way, too. It's not unnoticable that you feel cosy in a fastidiously sleek space rendered entirely of concrete columns, stainless steel and wooden slats.
Similarly on the plate, chef Jack Stuart is bringing a Eurocentric food game that's easy to like, easy to pitch at solo diners, and still brings enough pep to make this a dining destination for people who don't just live upstairs.
Beyond that little zucchini refresher to start, and those slabs of warmed rye bread with malted butter so silky it's basically salty Cool Whip, there's a pig's head terrine sanga to be reckoned with. Crumbed and fried and swaddled in trashy white bread with a pickle and green mustard-leaf mayo, it's set with chicken jus so you get an explosion of juice as you bite.
They do fresh and bright and simple. Just-cooked brussels sprouts with sesame paste; a little ceviche number, and a cerealy spelt fettuccine sauced with an egg yolk and a little sprinkle of pecorino that would do the job if you were getting home after a hard day of graphic design.
Much of what you'll want has quite a bit of heft. Roll with it. From the camp of who knew: kangaroo pastrami is rich, tender, but less gamey than you suspect thanks to its peppery, coriander-y rub and surprisingly excellent plate pals of cultured cream and golden fried shallots.
We've peaked before we hit the crisp-skinned, juicy Milawa chicken breast and thigh, but not so much to realise that with its tender, char-tipped half head of savoy cabbage and luxurious jus it's a one-plate-and-a-glass-of-wine siren song for tired locals.
Or maybe that will be the heavily spiced Dutch cake, all molasses depth and malted custard and a slug of nutty aged madeira?
Maybe you'll just come to have McCormack say something nice to you. She probably will. It's the neighbourly thing to do, and they've nailed the neighbourhood algorithm harder than Cambridge Analytica.
Pro Tip: They're going to launch the Brutally Early Club – London and Berlin's power breakfast sessions.
Go-to Dish: Kangaroo pastrami $13; pig's head sanga $8.