Meet Vex. It's a modestly proteined model of neighbourly dining, with a business plan that puts not just its produce but also its people first. Not killing yourself to make a crust is still a burgeoning concept in the hard knocks hospitality game, but it's a philosophy that had time to take root for many last year, including Vex owners Owen Probert, a familiar face from Marion, and chefs Florian Ribul, former head chef of Neighbourhood Wine, and Rory Kennedy from Bar Romantica.
The team decided to put their modest money where it counts. Probert's cellar is small and evolving, an interesting rather than extensive collection of spirits and wines from makers local and international who follow their own small footprint philosophy. Ribul and Kennedy are investing in small suppliers who sweat the details, like the growers at organically certified Day's Walk Farm.
The team have not paid for PR, or for a pricey refit of the airy former cafe whose white walls, red gum counter and little courtyard, where you can eat beneath the boughs of a lemon tree, already work for what they're trying to do.
The less-is-enough philosophy, in the hands of people who know what they're doing, is a relaxing and refreshing experience. It's a refreshing menu, too, with lots of simple and subtle dishes with breakouts of big flavour.
Skewers of tiny turnips are smoky-sweet, having been cooked in dashi and dunked in a marinade that caramelises on the grill. Pickled beet stem brings an earthy crunch in place of shallots in a mignonette dressing for creamy oysters.
Stockbrot, aka stick bread, twists dough around a skewer for grilling right on the coals and swooping through creme fraiche and pumpkin seed oil. It's all the fun of a carnival snack with less existential dread.
Without strictly catering to dietaries, you'll find this menu, much like that at Old Palm Liquor (Ribul was head chef at sister restaurant Neighbourhood Wine) naturally has built-in flex that suits most proclivities.
The go-to snacks are the deeply coloured panisse, fried chickpea pillows dusted with a dehydrated blitz of spring garlic or a cheese and pepper cacio e pepe situation depending on your stance on dairy. Add creme fraiche and Yarra Valley salmon roe at will.
A light and lovely dish of kohlrabi, onion and mustard leaf washing in a smoked seafood broth is everyone's friend, ditto the electric dream of snowpeas showered in horseradish with tender little chunks of lemon amping the base.
There are still a couple of major protein breakouts to sink your teeth into. Firm-fleshed, just-poached mackerel, a more sustainable catch, is washed in a bright buttery foam, with a zippy lift from sorrel leaves and heft from chickpeas.
A hanger steak is the sole red meat, amped by a coffee and kombucha rub, grilled and served with sugar-sweet roasted beets and mustard leaf for subtle heat.
This is all just a taste of Vex from late last year. After a Christmas trip to NSW, a second visit was off the cards thanks to 14 days of self-quarantine. But first impressions were enough to see the potential it has to meld into the fabric of Westgarth, and also a more sustainable future.
The evidence just keeps stacking up that restaurants that choose to burn slowly rather than burn out in a rush for fast glory (often using money they don't have) make for some of our city's best, counting Bar Liberty, Greasy Zoes and Napier Quarter.
The trio has plans to grow, but to tread softly. Monday and Tuesday services won't begin until they feel they can offer security to new team members. In time, there are plans to host long Sunday lunches, where a stream of large format dishes and snacks will be placed on the pass for tables to request on demand.
Until then, it's Victorian vermouth beneath a lemon tree, fig leaf mousse and pickled cherries for dessert, and maybe a wedge of Holy Goat's La Luna cheese. It's good. And it's enough.
Address 66-68 High Street, Westgarth, vexdining.com
Open Wed-Fri 5-11pm; Sat noon-11pm; Sun noon-5pm
Drinks Beers from Collingwood brewery Molly Rose and wines from interesting makers such as Mee Godard in Beaujolais as well as local stars.
Pro tip Keep an eye out for lazy Sunday sessions.
Cost Snacks $5-$12, larger dishes $18-$34.
Score Scoring is paused while the industry gets back on its feet.