434 Lygon St Brunswick East, VIC 3057
Plonk. Ham. Eton mess pav. Curry tots and craft wallop (aka beer). You can pick a menu by Brit expat chef Matt Wilkinson from a furlong. His brand is as distinct as that of Apple or Lululemon, only it's more like the CWA, Mrs Beeton and some football hooligans met at a boozer to rumble over what constitutes a "proper" pie.
His love of old-school cooking techniques, the bounty of the garden and of dishes more intent on comforting than dazzling still whispers of his time at posh restaurants like Circa (in its prime) but is shoutier about his years captaining cafe Pope Joan, with its lush gardens, hearty offal-leaning breakfasts and summertime barbecue cookouts.
Did anyone expect to find Wilkinson becoming the Made Establishment's new poster chef at the former Brunswick East Hellenic Republic? Probably not. But opportunity knocked when the restaurant group decided to transition three of its four Hellenic restaurants (Kew, Williamstown, and the Lygon Street original). And it's no bad thing it did. What Brunswick East has lost in loukoumades, it has gained in an agenda that is very simpatico with this increasingly hot 'hood.
Are there nose-to-tail ethical meats? You bet. They've always been Wilkinson's bag, and here there are koftas of retired dairy beef (which he's been banging on about for years) and a snackfricial offering of devilled hearts and livers on toast. But Crofter is even more evolved than this, relegating its woke proteins to the role of sides, letting "flora" dishes steal the show.
Yep, there's 2020 vision here. You can vego very well. You can also drink with minimal impact, be that to the grapes in your moderately priced, largely unmolested Australian wines, or to your body if you'd rather just sip house-made lemon squash. Or, you can drink sherry. Largely just because that's what Wilkinson and bar manager James Jeisman like.
This personal touch is probably the most refreshing thing about Crofter. You start with carbs and dippers. But that might be naan, recommended with the lubrication of dhal. Or a dense sourdough flecked with caraway and pickle for a little tang. There's no butter, instead it's butter dip, a bearnaise-like fluff with nutty sweetness from browned butter.
The ham is made from Yarra Valley Berkshires fed on spent gin botanicals. Go big on the butter dip and layer with the thick cut, finely smoked ham off the bone with its creamy sweet border of fat and a swipe of dijon to boot.
Where next? Those devilled hearts and livers pack a serious wallop of heat and iron neutralised by the caramel sweetness of the onions and the thick duvet of creamy egg and anchovy that covers the other half of the crouton.
Turn sharp left for curried mussels. The fragrant turmeric-stained sauce clings to each plump mollusc, with potato gems peppered through as a soaker layer, like a tasty take on moules frites via a late-night curry cafe.
Turn righteous for the hefty flora range. The tomato and basil salad in Vegemite dressing is refreshingly less weird than it sounds, the sweet acid of the chunkily cut fruits playing well with the spread's salty, meaty base notes. Zucchini is the showstopper, equal parts minty fresh, and lightly charred and rich from a pool of melted cheesy parmesan clotted cream.
Fresher? There's chunky cucumbers and dill in yoghurt with sumac. Bigger? Green beans are dressed in a vegan take on spicy seafood XO sauce, though the funky fake for the pungent fish sauce is arrestingly real. Wilkinson assures us its just a fermented soy and mushroom number that's "demented".
Some things have changed. The room's new face has some floral decals, a big shaggy cow hide and a navy walled bar replacing the blue and white motifs. But the room's loud babble, its marble tables and straw-bottomed chairs seem to be the same. So too the easy-going ethos that kept Hellenic pumping for a decade. It's unfussed. It's Tuesday appropriate. Staff are neighbourhood-service friendly as ever. It's still somewhere you'll take your kids for tater tots in a (vego) gravy that tastes a bit like Japanese curry.
Outside, the concrete jungle is rising as far as the eye can see, but in here there's a soft meringue roll with a fudgy layer of clotted cream, and grill-touched strawberries. It's the home-style, Wilkinson style any neighbourhood needs.
Vegetarian Get in.
Drinks Gin is a thing, plus sherries and local wines made with sensitivity.
Cost Veg dishes $9-$18; meaty plates $14-$24.
Pro Tip: House-made amaros like nutty bitter nocino are in the mix.
Go-to Dish: Devilled hearts and livers on toast ($16).