243 High St Northcote, VIC 3070
People were pre-emptively labelling Northcote as the Next Big Thing for years before it actually had a breakthrough – like an average band with an over-eager manager. Until 2011, good pizza, coffee and beer were easy to come by, but it took Scott Pickett's Estelle to finally convince outsiders that it was worth the wild trek on the 86 tram, Melbourne's most certifiable route.
Even Pickett didn't seem totally confident when he opened. He just started plating up his technique-driven tasting menus right on top of the existing '50s-sweet-shop fitout, as if he thought the punt might not pay off and wanted to keep one solvent foot out the door. Things have changed. Northcote now boasts gouging rents and residents who think something should be done about people urinating next to the Northcote Social Club. The Estelle finally has a fitout all of its own, too, and a fine diner next door in the works. Don't bother asking about the old musk pink and black wall tiles. They sold in a second, and have been replaced by rough raw brick, sleek gold panels, dark streaky woods and lots of fluffy ferns. There are real hand towels in the toilets and scented candles too. It's a fitout reminiscent of a Brooklyn steakhouse, or one of the better restaurants in Bali, and a sure sign that Northcote's finally made it.
It's not just the decor that's changed. Young gun chef Jake Kellie has come on board from the Commoner to help head chef Aaron Brodie oversee a menu that's been massively retooled. Where you were once restricted to set menus of showy cooking, it's now an extensive choose-your-own adventure of snacks. There's a pretty staggering assortment of things you want to eat, and the hit rate is high. There are the no-brainers: rusty wire oysters from Moonlight Flat, the classic gambler's snack of roasted and celery-salted padron peppers (mostly mild, with a chance of pain), and pork-skin clouds with a piquant barbecue sauce that seemingly exists only to distinguish the plate from its twin at Saint Crispin – Pickett's other project with Joe Grbac.
Then there are boards of capocollo, and thin crostini coated with nduja – that spreadable spicy sausage that's essentially edible fire – topped with a tiny, lacy fried quail egg. It's classic restaurant bait. The stuff that jumps to mind at 5.30pm when hunger first kicks in, all backed by substantial plates and a tight, measured wine list that make you stay. Is this Pickett pulling his punches, dumbing things down? Looking around at the packed bar area where drop-ins are powering through rabbit terrines and charcuterie, or a single bowl of risotto before heading to Westgarth cinema, it's probably truer to say this is the Estelle freed from its shackles.
The kitchen tricks are still there if you look. Hints of black garlic and a dehydrated olive dust lift a classic tomato-burrata combo. A liquid version of blood pudding and a fusty apple cider gel is the booster for a dish of crisp-skinned pork belly and (slightly bland) loin, showered with char-edged petals of onion. If you're on a mission to be impressed, you probably won't be deflated by tender coins of octopus tentacle pepped up by peppery nasturtium leaves and salty seasonings of fat salmon roe, silky dabs of taramasalata and a glossy squid ink emulsion.
There's some added flex on the drinking front too. The beer list pits crafty US heroes against local hoppy monsters from Kaiju! and longnecks of Melbourne Bitter. There's as much equality on the wine front. The crunchy 2012 pinot blanc from Tasmania's Coal River region punches well above its weight at $12 a glass, while a wine resealing system brings half bottles of the more mortgage-y French and German gear into the realm of affordable possibility.
If you're seeking guidance, it's best to ask for manager Stuart Neil, a seasoned pro. Watching Neil chase a taxi down for a diner, it's clear he and Estelle 2.0 are on a mission to please.
Dessert might be Eton mess, but it's elegant, smart, with lemon verbena woven through both the weightless sheets of meringue and jelly that form strata between berries and cream.
You can still do the tasting menus, but you can also do whatever you like, including making dinner of longnecks and cured meats. We will.
Pro tip Use the wine re-sealing system to taste bottles beyond your means
Status Book now, they're already rammed
Go-to dish Octopus tentacles with dill, tarama, salmon roe and squid ink, $22
How we score
Of 20 points, 10 are awarded for food, five for service, three for ambience, two for wow factor.
12 Reasonable 13 Solid and satisfactory 14 Good 15 Very good 16 Seriously good 17 Great 18 Excellent
19 Outstanding 20 The best of the best
Correction: Aaron Brodie is head chef at Estelle Bistro