188 High St Northcote, VIC 3070
|Opening hours||Thu-Sat 6pm-10pm|
|Features||Licensed, Degustation, Vegetarian friendly|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||0434 618 331|
You know what they say. You can't miss what you've never had, but then someone hands you a slice of coulibiac with a glass of mtsvane and you wonder if you have ever truly lived.
So it is with Gray and Gray Bread and Wine, a collaboration between fine-dining-chef-turned-baker Boris Portnoy of Northcote's All Are Welcome bakery and winemaker Mitch Sokolin, which celebrates Russia (their shared heritage) and Georgia (where they made wine together), thus filling a major dining gap for Melburnians we barely knew was there.
Speaking of which – and this is an important point for anyone who wishes to experience the joys of drinking Georgian wines and eating honey cake – you will quite literally not realise that Gray and Gray is there.
Portnoy and Sokolin have taken over the former barristers and solicitors office that has been a fixture on High Street for almost 90 years, and they have left the original signage intact. From the street, with its drab grey blinds drawn behind that vintage gold lettering, it looks like a grimy detective agency and evokes some strong Soviet vibes.
Appropriate to the subject matter as that may be, that wasn't the intention – the pair merely wanted to honour such a historical piece of a street that rarely stands still. Inside, it's a completely modern story writ in neat blue tiles, a sleek and central caramel wood bar, and a picture-frame view of the kitchen, where you can watch Portnoy slice into his many-layered honey cake.
That metaphor carries through to the set menu – a bargain at $65 a head – of dishes cooked from a very personal point of view, with wines that come in to bat from exactly the same angle.
You work your way in with excellent pickles, crunchy and gently spicy green beans, snow peas fattened with a nutty walnut glaze, and the tart and sharp angles of green tomatoes and cucumbers that have spent their time in COVID lockdown in an earthy beetroot pickling brine.
It is no surprise that carbs star. A deeply tangy rye bread and focaccia arrive next with a trio of fatty joys: bright white whipped pork fat (salo), an extra cheesy cultured butter, and a light and fresh yet briny brinza cheese topped with cured figs and honey.
Next comes a hot cornmeal cake, mchadi, similar to Colombian arepa, filled with stretchy, tangy brined sulguni cheese, which is usually served in Georgia with a rich bean stew but here comes with an intense dip of red capsicum.
If you dig deep into the archives of Portnoy's career, back to the heady early noughties, for example, when he was riding high on the molecular gastronomy wave, you wouldn't join the dots from then to now. One interview from 2005 on the Star Chefs website begins: "Boris Portnoy is passionate about three things: food, cocktails and mopeds."
Of course, for the time, that wasn't unusual. But not every chef goes on to ditch the frills of fads and settle so comfortably into their own identity as a person, and as a chef, then demonstrate it calmly and clearly in beautifully resolved plates.
Consider this as you tackle mackerel that is so lightly treated that it provides a Monty Python-level slap in the face of fish. It has been sparingly dressed with the acid of a hand-juiced tomato, little slips of white onion and pops of sweetness from slices of cherry guava, but then there is the unapologetic taste of the deep sea in those firm, fat-rich pink fillets with their mirror flashes of silver skin.
There's no tiptoeing around the next courses either. Fatty, spongy ox tongue has a deep crimson ring around the edge, the mark of a long and slow sojourn in a smoker. A crunch of pork crackling sits to the side, all of which is countered by deeply sweet and acidic tomatoes in a mint-forward dressing and creamy cheese curds that make you realise how inferior supermarket tomatoes can be.
By the time you reach the coulibiac – golden pastry framing a mushroom medley, with a heart of still-pink salmon and a runny-yolked egg – you're already convinced that this is what's been missing from your dining life.
Add in a flexible wine list starring wonders of Georgia (including that Pheasant's Tears mtsvane, a grippy white varietal from the country's north), Spain and Italy that are fastidiously produced, and you won't need dessert to provide the closing arguments.
They come anyway, in the form of a sweet-savoury poppyseed and fig tart and the glorious, multi-level attack on the senses that is Portnoy's Russian honey cake – biscuity cake (or cakey biscuits?) with a crumbly texture relieved by equal quantities of honey-infused butter cream.
Watching Portnoy extract a perfect slice of that architectural cake provides the kind of visceral joy you thought you could only find on social media apps like TikTok. How wonderful that it's a secret stored behind closed doors, only there for those willing to risk real life adventures.
Pro Tip: Ignore what it looks like from the outside; the address is correct.