Federation Square Eastern Access Rd Melbourne, VIC 3004
|Features||Licensed, Pre-post-theatre, Events, Business lunch, Accepts bookings|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, Cash, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||1300 351 600|
It's almost the plot of a movie: Melbourne post-pandemic, is in desperate need of a hero to resuscitate its heart. The scene: a new restaurant and events space at ACMI in Federation Square, where the investment is too big to go bad. And the team? Mediterranean master Karen Martini was always going to play the lead role, but as fates shifted in the past 12 months she was joined by Philippa Sibley, queen of the dark tarts, as her wing woman, and even some cameos from the likes of Simon Denton (Izakaya Den) on the floor.
This is a comedy of unlikely connections and a tragedy of bad timing, but thanks to a battle-hardened team of hospitality veterans, Hero is still shaping up to be a smash hit of 2021, and I recommend you go and see it pronto.
Martini and business partner Michael Gebran were supposed to launch this enormous project, which is both an all-day restaurant and caterer for ACMI events, almost a year ago. Instead, they held their long overdue grand opening exactly two days before Melbourne's circuit-breaker lockdown in February. The spacious coolroom, they tell me, is an excellent place to take a bottle from Philip Rich's well-priced international wine list and cry.
A colleague described Hero to me as "so much better than it needs to be". And while that may seem a strange sentiment, restaurants that service large tourist hubs (in this case, Flinders Street Station and visitors not only to the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, but also anyone coming to the myriad events in Federation Square), can and so often do just phone it in. Martini is not cut from that cloth.
When catering to the Opera House events in Sydney, staff would boggle at the fact that Martini insisted canapes be assembled to order so they were served in their prime. That ethos is in full force here.
Having more than a year to agonise over the menu was not particularly helpful to Martini because she rewrites it as the seasons dictate. Our visit coincides with the transition from summer to autumn. So while I can't emphasise enough how much you want to eat the acid-sweet and creamy salad of plump peaches, heirloom tomatoes and buffalo mozzarella with little curls of pickled onion, that dish is probably gone by now.
You may, however, be just in time to take on the incoming star of a golden-crusted baked ricotta pairing figs slashed in burnt honey with a scattering of pomegranate jewels, candied walnuts and fresh witlof. It's the kind of familiar-yet-better-than-you-remember-it combination that makes Hero fit for serving a diverse crowd but a draw for any serious food fan, too.
Case in point, a textbook silky taramasalata dressed with trout roe comes with a warm Greek-style bagel licked with a faintly sugary glaze and sesame seeds, giving the savoury-salty union a third pillar of sweetness for maximum balance.
An equally seen-all-over dish of vitello tonnato is unmissable here. The blushing slices of veal are covered with an ultra mild tuna mayonnaise made with soft-poached eggs so the texture of the cooked whites gives body to the sauce. Crisp artichoke hearts and fat, caperberries round the dish out.
How you will use this restaurant is going to vary. It's going to be a huge win when the Melbourne International Film Festival returns in winter, the perfect place to duke out the strangest of its indie films over dirty martinis or every single dessert (more on this later).
You can buy choc tops, made with couverture chocolate. There are cheese boxes to take into ACMI films, curated by Maker and Monger. But I'd like to make the case for the return of the '80s-style working lunch.
You could drag out a session as you like, starting with a few of those built salads, and leading to crab cavatelli where the well-textured nodules of pasta are washed in a rich, fragrant chilli-spiked crustacean sauce and dressed with the sweet meat. There is roast chicken. There is a bavette steak with Cafe de Paris butter.
There is a wine list that can get as serious as your business dealings, but there is also an impeccable crumbed fish sandwich with iceberg on thickly buttered bread if you're looking for fast and dirty fodder for a meet and greet.
There is also an elegant and highly functional day-to-night space designed by the uncompromising Chris Connell. It's a spare space that can read as utilitarian if viewed from the door, but the devil is in the detail. The joinery on the large, communal ashen wood table is seamless. Sitting in booths that run along one wall, you feel the vacuum of proper sound baffling settle you into your own bubble.
Philippa Sibley's custard tart. Photo: Justin McManus
You'll want that privacy for dessert. Sibley's skills bring jiggle and the exact right nutmeggy-gingery edge to the custard tart. Peach Melba is a freeform mound of fior di latte gelato framed with ridiculously fat raspberries, butter-soft caramelised peaches and spiky meringue twigs.
Either is worth the trip on its own. As part of the Hero plot, it's a strong end to a compelling tale about our need to return to the CBD.
Pro Tip: Breakfast will soon be on the cards.
Go-to Dish: Vitello tonnato, and every single dessert.