Cumulus Up

Go-to dish: Duck waffle.
Go-to dish: Duck waffle. Photo: Ken Irwin

45 Flinders Lane Melbourne, VIC 3000

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Opening hours Tues-Thurs, 4pm-midnight; Fri-Sat, 4pm-1am
Features Licensed, Gluten-free options
Prices Moderate (mains $20-$40)
Chef Andrew McConnell, Colin Wood
Payments eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard
Phone 03 9650 1445

It mustn't be much fun to be born a satellite to the best little bar/restaurant empire in Melbourne. Cumulus Inc and Cutler & Co, Golden Fields and the Builders Arms/Moon Under Water have the glamour and the glory sewn up. Cumulus Up, as the name goes halfway to explaining, was conceived as a backstop for the perennially oversubscribed Cumulus Inc.

It's a space directly above the mothership ''eating house and bar'', destined to be a private dining area but wisely reimagined as a wine bar and opened without hype or press releases a month ago. Like the overachieving upstart it is, Cumulus Up has refused to be constrained by its second-tier beginnings. From day dot, it has been busting out a few moves to make the clan take notice. Naturally it has been transmitting its fabulousness on a frequency heard only by the sort of people who preternaturally know about these things ahead of mortal souls. Anyone foolhardy enough to turn up to this no-bookings joint between 6pm and 9pm will probably find themselves waiting for a seat at one of the tables, with slightly better odds for the stools along the bar.

As diffusion labels go, it's kind of the Miu Miu to the downstairs Prada parent. Which means it has some moves of its own, including another notable Pascale Gomes-McNabb interior that's characteristically tasteful but more adventurous (love the jewel-coloured blown glass pendants, not so sure about the tree-trunk table legs). And while the menu isn't as long as the one downstairs, it has loads of charm delivered in the brand's unique style.

Cumulus Up's interior is more adventurous than the mothership's.
Cumulus Up's interior is more adventurous than the mothership's. Photo: Ken Irwin

There's none of that upmarket fast food here, thank goodness. The closest McConnell has come to that fashion is the Golden Fields lobster roll, which he echoes with the wickedly good $8 slice of Belgian-style waffle that presses confit duck-meat into a buttery, battery sandwich along with foie gras and prune puree. Sneaky-clever, it tilts its cap to the low-rent fray of poshed-up gutter food, while remaining above it. And it proves no chef ever lost friends by adding a cheeky splat of foie gras parfait to anything.

But we mustn't forget the wine bar bit. The list is broad and bold and unafraid to challenge the more pedestrian palate. Among the five whites by the glass, there's a tinder-dry Arbois of chardonnay and savagnin, for which I proved too pedestrian, an Australian fiano and Italian falanghina. What, no sauv blanc? Head sommelier and list composer Andrew Joy is on hand with the kind of bullshit-free advice that makes wine less scary. Prices sound good until you read the small print that they're only 100 millilitre pours. All the better to taste widely with, my dear.

We tried, and failed, to eat the entire menu but were defeated before the two main-size dishes (bass grouper with crab sauce at $38 and a $60 rib eye for two). There's quite a bit going on. A good place to start is a fat anchovy on thin toast, with a smear of curd, chilli flakes and fennel seeds - a worthy palate-priming variation on a McConnell signature. There's simple stuff at work: zucchini flowers in a lacework of light batter teaming up with romesco, and grilled scampi split down the middle with a squeeze of lemon.

Raw bonito is a dish of sterling loveliness - topped with thin grilled wafers of kombu, a scattering of toasted sesame seeds, the subtle raw radish heat and a ginger and vinegar dressing. A plate of secondary piggy bits - tongue and hock, cheek and a chewy sliver of (slightly overfried) ear, with baby onions and cress, a gribiche of sorts and parsley sauce, all that sharpness balancing the porky funk.

Some dishes are stand-alone - the double-smoked ham is a non sequitur when composing a meal, but it's a damned lovely plate of sweetly smoky ham with pickles - but they're all more or less sharers.

Ricotta dumplings swimming in burnt butter with currants, pine nuts and oregano are Sicilian-style gnocchi in disguise - deliciously, stonkingly rich. As is the one of the two desserts we tried, a shortcrust tart with lemon verbena custard balanced by the virtue of plums and raspberries.

Every McConnell enterprise begins with the hope (mine, and probably yours) that the ridiculous spike of demand will finally be ironed out a little. As always, the market swallows them whole. What to do? I'm just hoping there's a whole extra floor above Cumulus Up waiting for its turn at glory.

The best bit
A great option for late-night eating
The worst bit Getting a table
Go-to dish Duck waffle, $8
Wine list A continent-hopping collection with plenty of road-less-travelled interest
Vegetarian Four dishes
Noise Yes
Service Spot-on
Value Fair
Wheelchairs No
Parking Street or paid

Twitter: @LarissaDubecki

How we score
Of 20 points, 10 are awarded for food, five for service, three for ambience, two for wow factor.

12 Reasonable 13 Good if not great 14 Solid and enjoyable 15 Very good 16 Capable of greatness 17 Special 18 Exceptional 19 Extraordinary 20 Perfection

Restaurants are reviewed again for The Age Good Food Guide and scores may vary.