Henry Sugar review

Buckwheat risotto with truffle.
Buckwheat risotto with truffle. Photo: Eddie Jim

296-298 Rathdowne St Carlton North, VIC 3054

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Opening hours Lunch Sun; dinner Thu-Mon
Features Accepts bookings, Bar, Gluten-free options, Vegetarian friendly, Outdoor seating, Licensed, Open fire, Degustation, Wheelchair access, Family friendly, Romance-first date
Prices Moderate (mains $20-$40)
Payments eftpos, Cash, Visa, Mastercard
Phone 03 9448 8196

There are truffles on menus all over Melbourne right now, many of them dug fresh from orchards within driving distance – just one of the gifts of winter that make enduring the cold worthwhile. But nowhere have I been served truffles in such abundance and for so little money as at Henry Sugar, the six-year-old restaurant in Carlton North's Rathdowne Village.

Offered as a $13 supplement to a dish of risotto made with buckwheat rather than the traditional arborio rice ($28), the truffles come in large round slivers, completely covering the dish.

There's no hint of truffle oil – a trick regularly employed to bolster the flavour of truffle, to great detriment, in my opinion – and the earthy, magical taste is allowed to shine in all its musky glory.

Rathdowne Village's friendly neighbourhood restaurant Henry Sugar.
Rathdowne Village's friendly neighbourhood restaurant Henry Sugar. Photo: Eddie Jim

This sense of generosity and value is perhaps not surprising at Henry Sugar, a neighbourhood restaurant that punches well above its weight.

On Monday nights the place is jammed with folks partaking in a heavily discounted menu of snacks and drinks (including $10 negronis), along with the option of a $40 set menu that changes weekly. On Sundays, lunch is $50 per person, with unlimited drinks (for up to two hours) for $60. At a special nook behind the bar, a DJ spins records, adding to the party atmosphere.

During lockdowns, the restaurant set up a footpath cocktail bar where you could get drinks to go, and it became one of the few places in those long cold months where you might bump into your neighbours and friends.

Crab tartlet.
Crab tartlet. Photo: Eddie Jim

This is a restaurant with a strong sense of community, to the hospitality industry (hence the Monday night dinners – when most other restaurants are closed) and the neighbourhood.

Recently, co-owner and executive chef Mike Baker has taken a step back from the kitchen, handing over a lot of the creative control to head chef Sofia Eriksson, a young Swede who worked most recently at Attica Summer Camp. Her food is probably best described as modern Australian, and the use of local ingredients is key to this menu's success.

I'm not sure I've ever had kangaroo so tender as the version here ($13), skewered and served over a pine nut puree as tangy and creamy as the best hummus.

Go-to dish: Kangaroo skewer with pine nut puree.
Go-to dish: Kangaroo skewer with pine nut puree. Photo: Eddie Jim

Tiny tartlets of crab ($10 each) are topped with a pile of flying fish roe and seasoned with Geraldton wax.

Eriksson makes harissa from bush tomatoes, and pairs it with a beautifully cooked piece of blue-eye trevalla ($42), its white flesh and crisped skin complemented by a small pile of shelled and pickled mussels.

Even the bread is imbued with native ingredients – focaccia ($8) is made with wattleseed and served with Vegemite butter. What could be more Australian than that?

Cauliflower and cheddar pie dusted with black garlic.
Cauliflower and cheddar pie dusted with black garlic. Photo: Eddie Jim

There are a few fantastically warming dishes on the current winter menu: a cauliflower and cheddar pie ($26) topped with buttery puff pastry and dusted with black garlic; Brussels sprouts cooked to that perfect charred/soft/crispy texture, made to sing with a creamy sauce of anchovy and salt bush.

The dessert menu is brief, with the option of a cheese course or baked Stella Alpina as alternatives. But if an urge for sweets hits you, you could do far worse than the chocolate mousse here, which comes over moist celeriac cake with house-made fennel ice-cream. It's almost more of a thick sauce than a mousse, honestly, but its bittersweet flavour is spot on.

The sense of value extends to the wine list, where most selections are well under $100. There's a cosy front bar area that looks out over Rathdowne Street, and it's a lovely place to stop in and drink from that list or try one of the well-made (mostly classic) cocktails.

Chocolate mousse, celeriac cake and fennel ice-cream.
Chocolate mousse, celeriac cake and fennel ice-cream. Photo: Eddie Jim

This is an area with a lot of choice for the kind of cosy bistro that Henry Sugar manages to be – there are plenty of places in Carlton and Carlton North that fulfil that purpose.

But the food here is more inventive, the vibe here is friendlier, the value is unmistakable. It's no wonder the place is so beloved by the neighbourhood. It probably ought to be beloved by a wider swath of the city, as well.

Vibe Cosy neighbourhood feel

Go-to dish Kangaroo skewers ($13)

Drinks Medium-sized wine list, good cocktails, nice house-made sodas

Cost Dinner $150 for two, plus drinks ($80 on Mondays)

https://www.henrysugar.com.au/