164 Flinders Ln Melbourne, VIC 3000
|Opening hours||Dinner Tue-Sat|
|Features||Bar, Licensed, Accepts bookings, Events|
|Prices||Expensive (mains over $40)|
|Payments||eftpos, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9070 4939|
This is the era of pleasure, of umami, of taking the most decadent ingredient you can find, throwing a bunch of fish sauce and fresh herbs at it, and then adding crisp and wobble and a little more fun to the mix. It's the era of creamy sauces, bright pickle, food built specifically to go with booze, sex-on-a-plate debauchery.
Let's take a doughnut and stuff it with crab; let's cook the crap out of our vegies so they melt and sizzle and then smother them with three kinds of dairy. Let's not hold back.
This is the manifesto that came to mind while dining at Dessous – the Flinders Lane venue owned by Mulberry Group – a place that captures the vibe of the moment perfectly.
If there's one thing the Mulberry Group knows how to conjure, it's a sense of place. It was Mulberry that took the idea of the Melbourne cafe and turned it into something closer to a nightclub, not in tone but in excitement and attention to aesthetics, with Top Paddock, Kettle Black and Higher Ground, and then, after selling those venues, with Liminal.
In 2019, when they opened Hazel, they created a space that was beloved for its clean-slate-meets-rococo good looks. At that same time, underneath Hazel, they launched Dessous, a moody basement space that's part lounge, part restaurant, part wine bar, and 100 per cent of its place.
What does that mean? The Flinders Lane basement bar is almost a design genre in its own right, and this place has it down.
If there's a better bar snack in this universe, it doesn't come to mind.
You must, of course, enter through several doors, punctuated by a staircase downwards. The sweep of a velvet curtain uncovers a room you had glimpsed from the footpath but, nonetheless, the act feels like revealing a hidden world.
Candlelight casts a glow across the tables, illuminating shadowy botanical upholstery and gold-framed paintings. Entering is like a scene from a high-budget movie.
Blame COVID-19, blame the inordinate attention given to sister restaurant Hazel, blame lockdowns, but for some reason Dessous didn't make the stir it might have upon opening. I can't speak to whether that stir might have been warranted then, but I can say that as it stands right now, Dessous is well worthy of our consideration.
Chef Dan Sawansak, who was the head chef at Higher Ground before taking on the role here, is a master at that of-the-moment cooking I describe above, the too-much-is-not-enough marriage of fat and acid and umami and pleasure.
Most of his dishes, if not made with booze in mind, are wickedly perfect matched with wine or cocktails. (Speaking of cocktails, these are some of the best I've had recently, courtesy of beverage manager and artist Kris Leombruni.)
A pork hock croquette ($9) is all tender shredded meat and crispy exterior, sitting on a smear of aioli shot through with crunchy pickled mustard greens. It practically begs for a gulp of rich white Burgundy or racy pinot noir, both of which are easily found on the medium-length, fairly priced wine list.
And yes, there's a yeast-raised savoury doughnut, its copious filling mimicking some sort of custard or cream but instead made from gobs of spanner crab, salmon roe acting as fishy hundreds and thousands. There's a lot of humour in this dish, made more delightful by the fact that it's bloody delicious.
Equally as delicious are the pickled mussels with salty whipped cod roe, served with house-made potato crisps. If there's a better bar snack in this universe, it doesn't come to mind.
Sawansak really shows his cooking chops with a duck leg ($38), which had been confit and grilled, then paired with morcilla and pickled figs. The balance of richness, cutting acid and musky sausage is revelatory.
The one place where I thought Sawansak might take a moment to step back is in a dish of bone marrow with sticky rice. In some ways it's a brilliant combination of fat and funk and fistfuls of mint and Thai basil, but in other ways it goes a touch too far. The fish sauce and lime juice border on overpowering, and the sticky rice is so crisped that it loses its ability to soak up the wobble and slick of the marrow or the pungent dressing. Bone marrow, for all its gutsy glory, is actually pretty subtle, and its flavour ends up getting lost in a dish in which it should shine.
And a very quick note about service, which is incredibly adept, right up until the point that it's not. My (young-looking) dining companion ordered a drink and was (reasonably) asked for ID – when he took a while to find it, the bartender attending to us abruptly left, saying "I'll come back." He never did. Towards the end of the night, the plates stopped being cleared, the bill was impossible to come by, and I longed for those early-meal moments when we were considered important enough to dote upon.
But generally, Dessous meets hits its brief with style and verve. It's a place to pile on the pleasure, pull out the stops, and bet on elegant excess.
Vibe Dark, sexy basement chic
Go-to dish Duck leg ($38)
Drinks Fantastic cocktails, good wine list
Cost $160 for two, plus drinks