122 Russell St Melbourne, VIC 3000
|Opening hours||Mon-Wed noon-midnight; Thu-Fri noon-1am; Sat 4pm-1am|
|Features||Accepts bookings, Bar, Business lunch, Events, Gluten-free options, Late night, Licensed, Breakfast-brunch, Long lunch, Pre-post-theatre, Romance-first date, Vegetarian friendly, Wheelchair access|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9654 5923|
You're right, you've seen it all before. The wood-fired oven that fuels the menu. The wine list: assertively current, packed with cult wines of now. Even the dark-and-saloony decor with accents of copper and brick and mismatched Deco lamps. It slingshots you back to Melbourne's early small-bar days, only this time, the chairs are real and the Melbourne Bitter is a kolsch.
Somehow it all comes together at Embla in a way that seems new. But that's always been the skill of Team Town Mouse. Co-owners Christian McCabe and chef Dave Verheul have spent the past three years showing Melbourne how New Zealand does hospitality. (Read: very well.)
Here at their new second venture on Russell Street – a wine bar for now, with a restaurant to come in six months – they have the extra chops of business partner Eric Narioo, who oenophiles will know as a founder of London bars Soif, Terroirs, Brawn and Les Caves de Pyrene.
Chuck ex-Supernormal chef Peter Cooksley, fresh from a fire-themed trip to Asia, and Paul Guiney of Semi Permanent into that A-team and I challenge you to think of anywhere in Melbourne you'd rather be.
The best news is, all that fire power manifests as a venue you'd file under "casual Tuesday" as much as palm greaser or Tinder date clincher.
If the Town Mouse creed might read "how far can we push diners while still making them sit on stools?" (It's pretty far – you'll drop $100 plus on Verheul's vegetable-worshipping, tweezer-driven cooking with no regrets), Embla seeks the casual-yet-mindblowing line.
It's simpler, cleaner and while the menu is driven by the fire, Embla can feel beautifully raw.
Literally, in the case of a take on tartare. A crimson and cream jumble of raw beef – dry-aged pope's eye – is cut to a potentially affronting dice with creamy fat distinct, but it makes for fresh and easy eating with radish for crunch, coastal rocket bringing heat, and the airy creme fraiche for acid.
I think I speak for everyone when I say take a bow, Dave Verheul, for finally giving cheesy, creamy cultured butter its rightful place: centre snack. Here it's the thick base for a single salty anchovy and fine onion rings, all balanced on an impossibly fine toast. Snack of the year to date.
Tweaks to the wine-food classics are tiny but effective, typically taking dishes into the realm of pistol-whip-your-senses fresh.
Pickled cucumbers come with a silky, salty pool of creamed feta. A pork, fennel and vermouth terrine falls somewhere between chunky pate and meatloaf.
Or there are the plump de-shelled mussels, classically paired with rouille (that bready, spicy, saffron-kicked aioli), but taking a sharp, oh-so-right Japanese turn with pickled ginger and sesame. And instead of pulling the sweetness from creamy stracciatella (like smashed up mozzarella and cream) with the contrast points of salty meats or acid tomatoes, Verheul takes the savoury herbal route of chamomile and pickled fennel.
And all before the main action. The wood-fired oven is much like the set-up at Franklin in Hobart, with an off-set hotbox and a flue pulling the heat and just a little smoke across the food so the signature is stony, earthy and sweet rather than brutally smoky or charred. It gives just a little extra river rock to a fillet of rainbow trout, further enhanced with a little horseradish and juicy, salty succulents.
Singed broccoli with bitter, nutty, creamy sunflower seed miso is destined to become as cult as the Town Mouse cauliflower, and if you trust the straw poll we take of everyone sitting at the bar on one night, the chicken, de-boned, seared skin-down on cast iron and finished with whole garlic in the oven alongside a heavily reduced stock of the bones, is the best the city has ever seen. Its shell is basically cracking while the jus possesses so much umami you'd think miso is involved.
To the wine you're just as likely here for: file under sometimes esoteric (we're talking a by-the-glass list that gets as wild as the pronounced peachy funk of Arfion's Smokestack Lightning), and served-alongside-the-winemaker (there's generally one or two propping up the bar).
The carte is geared more like a playlist than a cover-all-bases book and they're proud of it. That means whole sections dedicated to William Downie because they like the guy, some rogue gems like the Scuttlehole Chardonnay from Long Island and no sauv blanc. It's compiled by McCabe and crew through road-testing, and they drink well. Some have criticised the layout that jumps between regions and styles, but this is drinking best done by throwing control to the bar. There's much to love, or at least learn, and if all else fails, they make a rum old fashioned to go with the yoghurt parfait for dessert.
And there it is. Nothing revolutionary. Embla simply knows and likes itself. You'll like it too.
Pro tip That 4D cinema next door? Treat yourself to a glimpse of "special effects" '80s-style .
Go-to dish The chicken currently holds the title for best bird in town, $33.
Like this? Andrew McConnell's Marion wine bar should be just as high on your list. 53 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy.