The Recreation Bistro and Bottleshop
Address 162-170 Queens Parade, Fitzroy North, 03 9042 2707, the-recreation.com
Open Tue 5-10.30pm; Wed-Sat 11am-late; Sun 11am-4pm
Cost Small plates $4-$15; mains $34-$39
Vegetarian Half a dozen options, mostly of the cheesy persuasion
Drinks Front-line small producer wines and vintages
How do you cure a restaurant site curse? Burning sage? Blood sacrifice? Wildfire? This old hotel mightn't exactly be doomed, but located on the Queen's Parade service road with its nearest business neighbours being a garage and pet food shop, it's housed Charlie's restaurant, Raymond Capaldi's cafe Marmalade and Soul and the old Recreation Hotel in just five years. That's prime ministerial turnover.
But add a bistro menu that's by turns creative and vigorously comfy, and wine. Enough of it to drown a lot of bad juju. Interesting enough to attract a set of punters beyond the locals. When you enter (while summer lasts, the street seats under the plane trees are a pretty calming place to drink and eat), there's a bottle shop and big communal table, so you can either buy a flagon of Stuart Proud's bio-friendly rosé on your way home, or sit and drink museum-release Kanta riesling straight off the shelf at a mark-up (higher than Bellota's $20 amnesty across the board; not as high as the "Andrew McConnell tax" at Marion). You can also BYO for $20, if you live around Edinburgh Gardens, harbour bordeaux and want to drink it with good oysters mignonette.
You can see that go down. Joe Durrant and Mark Protheroe (co-owners along with chef Steven Nelson) previously trod the boards at Grossi Florentino Upstairs, as restaurant manager and group sommelier. You won't get your wine glass primed like you do on Bourke Street, but head to the loo and you'll return to find your napkin freshly twirled.
Like Carlton's Epocha, this is decidedly a bistro, but with pedigree that shows. The bare bones structure has changed little since its days as Charlie's – the red brick walls, and bareback tables are the same. But the flourishes from racks of wine, ye olde detailed black-and-white patterned plates and a few etchings make a difference.
Nelson has spent the past five years heading up Bistro Gitan, the French-ish Toorak venue by the children of Jacques Reymond. It's clear his heart still beats to the tune of full fat flavour.
The essentials are here – oysters mignonette, house-made bread with a dark, chewy crust and freshly churned butter. But instead of your usual roll-call of charcuterie, there's semi-savoury tarte tatin, the flaky pastry cocooning a heart of rich black pudding and caramelised pear. Lightly battered squid tentacles curl around tiny crisp potatoes flavoured with lemon and bay oil. A scallop drenched in herb butter sits atop a salmon mousse that might be even better with a few seconds less under the grill.
Nelson navigates his way creatively around a piece of protein. Grilled flatbreads are topped with fat garlicky prawns and a technicolour jumble of mango-avocado salsa and a lightly spicy tomato dressing. Day to day, there might be herb and fennel-flecked pork sausages, ugly in their house-made glory, with a mini le Creuset of silky mash and sticky wine and onion gravy. There's usually the leg or carcass of something suspended over the grill to smoke. One day it's duck, blush pink and campfire-infused. Another day there are lamb legs strung upright to suck up the flavour.
But it's a helluva noisy room, which matters to certain diners. Probably the kind who bring older relatives to dinner, which seems the trend here. And while there are sparkling bright dishes including a ceviche dish in a sea of green things – avocado, cucumber, and shiso among them – everything that's not an animal is cheesy or at least creamy. Iceberg comes with ranch dressing; soft chilled leeks with slices of plum and torn burrata; spatzle, that freeform droplet pasta, with charry broccolini and a gruyere fondue dressing. All delicious, but cholesterol-be-damned cooking.
At which point you might as well go for broke with a cherry clafoutis, the rippled ice-cream sinking slowly into the light, freshly cooked batter. If that's not worth navigating your confused Uber driver into the service lane, I don't know what is.
Go-to dish Black pudding and pear tarte tatin ($11).
Pro-tip Harbouring back vintages? BYO is $20, and glassware is better than the tumblers at Jim's Greek.