101 Flinders Ln Melbourne, VIC 3000
|Opening hours||Mon-Sun 11am-late|
|Features||Accepts bookings, Vegetarian friendly, Licensed, Outdoor seating|
|Prices||Cheap (mains under $20)|
|Payments||eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 8396 5777|
The astoundingly ambitious Garden State Hotel is more like a village than a pub with a capacity of 840 people, much potential for decorous commotion, and distinct zones built around a garden. It's a rebuild and expansion of the old Rosati's premises. If you were a banker – or looking for one – in the '80s and '90s you most likely danced on the bar here.
This new, more democratic, destination made me puff with civic pride. "I can't wait for an out-of-town visitor so I can show off this impressive new addition to Melbourne," I thought.
I'd steer them through the huge public bar with its ficus trees and pergola, and we'd probably get waylaid by beef jerky, a bolognaise toastie and a rice lager. Later we'd saunter to the basement Rose Garden for a cocktail. Make it a Fitzroy Fizz (matcha and gin) for me. Later, we'd head up to the Garden Grill, a rear dining room that's shielded from the throng.
The kitchen commando overseeing this optimistic megalopolis is Ash Hicks (ex-Circa), a talented chef with a keen eye for produce and a customer-focused approach that sees him tweaking menus to follow diner desires. He's got a monster to tame here and initial reports were patchy. It's not an excuse but 14,000 people came for a gander and a gab in the first 16 days of operation. (Also, there was no gas in the building for a week prior to opening. That lack prompted a fabulous dessert: in desperation, Hicks blistered tamarillo with a blowtorch then dunked it in sugar syrup made with hot water from the coffee machine. It's on the dessert menu, dried until it's prune-like, served with custard and shiso.)
Anyway, I had a pleasing experience. In the Garden Grill, classic dishes are given a creative spin. Beef tartare, made with flavoursome three-year-old ox, is stirred with a tofu "mayonnaise" rather than the traditional egg yolk. There's sweetness and acidity via dried, salted tomatoes and pickled onions. Chips hide the meaty mound, all furled golden texture. Octopus is shocked in hot oil, then allowed to confit as the oil cools. The tentacles are tender and meaty at once, and supported beautifully by a midnight black trio of fermented garlic, pickled baby eggplant and toasted kelp.
Some dishes are more straightforward, highlighting stellar produce. Thick-cut skirt steak is concealed under a double-zing whammy of watercress and fragrant Kampot pepper. Springy buckwheat pikelets are topped with golden trout roe. Vegetables shine: there's a dish of buttered celery stalks draped with shaved mimolette, a hard orange cheese. It's lovely to see celery starring.
Garden State is owned by the Sand Hill Road group, which has transformed various pubs (Prahran Hotel, Richmond Club, Terminus and more) with fun fit-outs but an unserious approach to food. In the CBD for the first time, and with the appointment of Hicks, they're steering in a different direction. Yes, there are parmas and cheeseburgers but there's proper dining too. It's a work in progress but it's progress to applaud.
Rating: Four stars out of five