23-29 Bourke St Melbourne, VIC 3000
Strewth. Stone the crows. Hold onto your wombat. A fancified branch of the Ettamogah pub – the #straya themed restaurant inspired by the Ken Maynard cartoons of the '70s and '80s – has landed on Bourke Street and it is every bit as head-muddling as you think.
You've seen the pubs. The original of the slanty-walled dinky-di boozers was built just off the Hume Highway near Albury in 1987. The one at Aussie World ("Fun's our thing") in Queensland is going gangbusters.
The bricks-and-mortar renderings of the fictional entity were born in the heady days when Australia was being rapidly populated by big prawns, merinos and bananas; when families might have enjoyed novelty dining at places like the now defunct Smorgy's and when no-one thought that taking the name Ettamogah from an Aboriginal word meaning "good place of drink" and referring to all its associated characters as a mob while having no Aboriginal representation was in any way problematic.
Fast forward to 2018, and how does all this slot into the metro Melbourne dining scene? Well, according to a spokesperson for the Ettamogah Group: "This is the Ettamogah as you've never experienced it – the first time we have offered a refined restaurant dining experience, while still staying true to the Ettamogah heritage that has made it an Australian icon."
The plan is to use this as a blueprint for US domination. Hold onto your bootstraps, America.
Beyond the "G'day mate" welcome mat is a fit-out that's done about as good a job of capturing Australiana or concealing its past as Society restaurant as anyone has done reinventing an ex-Pizza Hut. Maynard's murals might cover the walls, but look up for moulded ceiling roses, down for red pinstriped banquettes and lacquered brown tables, across for a tiled bar lined with red vinyl stools. If you're expecting, or fearing, a soundtrack of Lee Kernaghan or Barnsey, be surprised, pleasantly or not, by David Guetta's Titanium and other R & B anthems.
Strange as it is to abandon the aesthetic element that has traditionally been 90 per cent of Ettamogah's schtick, the media release did warn me as much. What I've come to investigate is their claims of a new menu direction promising the best of the best in ingredients (wagyu, lobster tails and "native flavours", by which I assume they mean native ingredients.)
I'm all for championing Australia's pantry. But the menu reads less like someone celebrating our homegrown goods, and more like they got one of those magnetised word sets and threw them at the fridge.
Where you can taste them it's often not to any discernable benefit. "Corn meal and lemon myrtle crispy fried calamari" – sic – is supposed to star local baby squid, but thick, uniform curls would indicate they're not. The lemon myrtle gives the blond (and not very crisp) corn meal crumb an unflattering, astringent aspect that unsurprisingly doesn't play well with its side salad starring fennel and orange, and tomato. But mostly, the much enthused ingredients can't be noted at all.
A macadamia and smoked ham terrine, half-covered in a jammy stone fruit relish with no discernible trace of its mountain pepper. No sign of macadamia either. There were pansies, though. And so much seasoning it may have been done by the same generous hand responsible for the menu. (Even with the jammy condiment and flimsy brioche, it's a one-bite wonder.)
I don't know if the menu is cynical or expecting a naive audience. There's a spiel about the Pinnacle range of lamb and beef being "inspired by the lofty heights of the Great Dividing Range. [It] represents the best of the best with a marble score of 2+."
We get one of their porterhouses, which is cooked correctly to temp but has far more char-grill flavour than rich meaty essence (spoiler alert: two is not a high marbling score). A lobster tail, which is very cheap at $35, comes drenched in a "bisque pour-in" and butter, that only serves to make the very tough-to-cut flesh taste even less of crustacean.
The buck wild flavour combinations continue with soft Humpty Doo barramundi, the naturally earthy fish braised in that same funky bisque which, again, has no evident accents of its lemon myrtle and aniseed infusion. All of this sits incongruously atop soft cauliflower rolled in capers.
When a side of mac and cheese with just a hint of truffle oil (which is to truffle as Lynx is to cologne) is the best part of lunch, it's not what I'd chalk up as a win.
We might have ordered another Furphy beer from the supposedly craft-focused list sporting a handful of locals among the Peronis and Cascade lagers. Or maybe even Ettamogah's Eton mess-style pavlova. Only, nobody comes back after dropping our mains. Maybe we should have cooeed. Instead, we walked to the counter and paid $161 and legged it.
If we weren't in the midst of the Trumptatorship I'd say America deserves better. Melbourne, Australia, and Maynard certainly do.
Pro Tip: Don't bring your nostalgia with you.
Go-to Dish: Mac and cheese with truffle oil ($7).