60 Lygon St Brunswick East, VIC 3057
|Features||Bar, Accepts bookings, Licensed, Vegetarian friendly|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9448 8233|
You probably already know Etta. It's the neighbourly Brunswick East restaurant with a whole lot of wine smarts courtesy of owner Hannah Green, one of Attica's late great hype-bringers. People have had little but good things to say about Etta since Green opened the sweet split-level space two years ago in partnership with chef Hayden McMillan. But something is up, a realisation that will hit about the same time the snacks do.
The bread was always excellent here, but suddenly the warm malty slabs, with their salty, chewy bark, are amplified by a whipped butter infused with parmesan and black pepper in a hat-tip to cacio e pepe, flavour of now. Next, fingers of that same bread come fried and loaded with fermented tomato and flakes of gently house-smoked and oil-preserved hapuka.
Pommes anna, that savoury mille-feuille of finely layered potatoes, is turned bar snack through a deep-fryer dunk, a rousing slash of black garlic vinegar and a blizzard of parmesan for good measure.
Something is up all right, but it is actually a someone. Mid-April, chef Charley Snadden-Wilson did a Chapel Street shuffle with McMillan, who has left the business to man the pans at Neptune in Windsor. Snadden-Wilson comes fresh from the head chef role at Nick Stanton's regrettably closed (for reinvention) Ramblr, but he's also done some time with chef Dave Verheul both at the Town Mouse (RIP) and Embla. Knowing this, those fermented tomatoes, the glory of that bread, and the signature of hot coals punctuating Etta's entirely new menu begin to make sense.
It is fair to say that Etta is better than ever, but with bonus snacking to bridge the restaurant-bar divide. But that isn't to crush its outgoing chef. McMillan's food is excellent. His tamari pumpkin, a signature from day one, will be grieved by many fans. But I always wondered whether his food's complexity complemented or competed with Green's powerful wine agenda.
Green, one of Melbourne's most eloquent wine minds, brings the curious, never the crazy. She believes in producers who let grapes speak their tiny truths. The house sparkling is a blanc de blanc she collaborated on with Yarra Valley winemaker Dominic Valentine, now on its eighth and most tangy, biscuity batch.
Austrian renegade Michael Gindl is behind the gruner veltliner that vibrates along with those early snacks. Snadden-Wilson's dishes, though just as complex, give what's going on in glass just a little more room to breathe.
That's not to say any punches are being pulled. His beef tartare is saved from cliche with arresting accents of salted cumquat, sweet pops of sprouted lentils and lots of parsley and acid.
His take on ubiquitous stracciatella stacks the creamed mozzarella curds with chilled leeks and chilli-flecked fried breadcrumbs. It is a dish that makes itself heard. But he's happy to just let a skate wing be its best self, golden-crusted, tender-bellied, with a scatter of garlicky chickpeas poached in fish stock and cime di rapa to close.
Snadden-Wilson hasn't been granted a whole grill yet. For now, they've dragged a Big Green Egg into the kitchen, which makes his king cabbage dish – a half head of savoy that's salt spritzed, steamed then caramelised over coals in nori butter so it's all sweetness and umami with freshness intact – all the more of a win.
Ditto the pork chop, cut from a rack with the finest skirt of crackling that's been slowly, slowly smoked to submission while being basted with fermented celeriac juice. The meat's just-set texture, like Dave Verheul's pork at Lesa, may confront, but the almost anise-y accent of the juice, a peppery spray of brightly acid-dressed endive and gentle mustard, is a stand-up challenge to anyone not to like.
It was always evident that big things could happen at this small batch bar, where the radiant welcome matches an inviting room of marble countertops and soothing greens. But now, at the two-year mark, Etta has truly hit its groove.
That is not only down to a change of chef, although the brilliantly bright, darkly stained Anselmo Mendes vinhao high-fives that pork in a way that makes you want to high-five everyone in the room. And certainly, a coconut sorbet as creamy as shaving foam with salted feijoas and a little pool of olive oil is now a trip-worthy dessert. Etta has gained depth with every day. Its hour has arrived.
Vegetarian Close to half the menu.
Drinks Elegant drinking from small and interesting wine producers globally.
Cost Snacks $6-$8; medium dishes $16-$21; mains $30.
Pro Tip: The new internal courtyard is ready for weddings, parties, everything.
Go-to Dish: Barbecued savoy cabbage with seaweed butter ($15).