Blowout menus for birthdays without borders

Restaurants like Embla are bringing the party home.
Restaurants like Embla are bringing the party home.  Photo: Justin McManus

Nothing is normal about the new normal, but maybe some things are better. April 20 to 24 is my busiest birthday week of the year: four family members and three friends all click up a notch.

I should say that I spent the week being sad because I couldn't celebrate with them, but I won't. It's routinely hell trying to cram it all in. My sister lives 800 kilometres away. My cousins, in England. I'm usually in the middle of the Good Food Guide and the idea of adding on several slap-up dinners makes my liver panic.

This year? With fate forcing us to think outside the box to make get-togethers happen, I got there for them all. I think there's something here.

Embla's braised lamb shoulder with fennel, oregano and green olive.
Embla's braised lamb shoulder with fennel, oregano and green olive. Photo: Justin McManus

Restaurants aren't the only ones pivoting. Diners are too, ordering feasts for themselves and their friends, flicking open an app and settling in for birthdays without borders. And it's got some major perks. My entire family were in the same room, without a single plane ticket being bought and zero hostage negotiations over dietary or budgetary restrictions. There's also a mute button and you can hang up when you've had enough. Heaven.

Obviously we're counting the seconds until we can get back to restaurants and have professionals work their magic. But until then, it's never been easier to have a big night in.

Over the past week major players, from three-hat Minamishima to wine bar hero Embla, have returned to the scene with menus begging for blowouts. And they are doing everything they can to bring a bit of themselves into your home until you can get back into theirs.

Entrecote, South Yarra's palace of peacocking, serves steaks and fine wines, but their real stock in trade is creating a "French and fabulous" experience. They figured it wasn't enough to simply send slabs of meat into the world.

So instead, when you order their dinners (available on Friday nights only) you get those steaks, secret green sauce, pommes anna and chocolate mousse, but you also get candles and a soundtrack of Edith Piaf to set the mood.


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If you've been fancying yourself as a masterchef since the lock-in began, order Embla's weekend menu. One look at chef Dave Verheul's stunningly executed dishes offers a timely reminder of what we're missing.

Embla's menu changes weekly – one set of dishes, weekends only, built for proper date nights. Verheul's sourdough has always been one of Victoria's best loaves, and cutting through its chewy, salty, burnished crust makes every loaf on Instagram seem like a joke. This week there's fresh-churned butter, gently sweetened with caramelised onion.

A blushing, near translucent sheet of tuna is laid across ricotta. There are rich and cheesy parmesan gnocchi to be finished at home, and lamb, both braised and burnished with the contrasting tang of a green olive dressing. All this, and dessert, is a stupidly generous $40 a head.

The Age, Epicure, 24/04/2020 photo by Justin McManus.
Restaurants are throwing  Zoom dinner partyies.
Tuna, lemon, buttermilk ricotta
Braised lamb shoulder, fennel, oregano & green olive
Semolina & parmesan gnocchi
Cos, chicory, caper & anchovy salad

Clockwise from top: Semolina and parmesan gnocchi; Tuna with lemon and buttermilk ricotta; Braised lamb shoulder; Cos, chicory, caper and anchovy salad, all from Embla. Photo: Justin McManus

It's almost unfair how good we've got it right now. And exciting too. Being forced to think outside the box when it comes to get-togethers has opened up a world of possibility.

From 800km away I was able to co-ordinate a surprise dinner with my family. I called Dogwood restaurant in Bathurst. We talked logistics, planned a menu. Steaks were smoked and sent ready to be finished on the grill. Cocktails were batched and instructions given for garnishes and how to make the right kind of ice. Back in Melbourne, I replicated everything to the letter. It worked. We loved it. But probably not as much as Dogwood's owner Evan Stanley.

If we're pining for restaurants, it's nothing compared to how much they're missing us. For so many hospitality diehards – the sommeliers, the bartenders, the chefs – the contact high of crafting a good time is what drives them to work too much for too little money.

So throw yourself a party. Lay the table. Wear the shoes. It's not just for you.

Birthdays in captivity

Dinner parties to-go: Embla offers sets for $40 a head plus extras; Entrecote dinners are $89.90 for two, available Fridays only.

Tech: Zoom is popular, Houseparty has plug-ins that allow you to play games.

Drinks? Black Pearl and Romeo Lane cocktails, delivered.

Cake? North Melbourne's Beatrix; Burch & Purchese for high-tech tricks.