555 Nicholson St Carlton North, VIC 3054
|Opening hours||Sun-Wed 2pm-11pm, Thu-Sat 2pm-1am|
|Features||Licensed, Private dining, Vegetarian friendly, Gluten-free options, Outdoor seating, Romance-first date, Bar|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, AMEX, Cash, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9042 2255|
What do you know about Andorra? This Pyrenean principality, wedged between France and Spain, is 500 square kilometres of ski-fields, hiking trails and swank duty-free shops. It's small but not quite as petite as Little Andorra, a Carlton North principality ruled by wine, welcome and a fondness for European obscurities of the drinkable kind.
Left-field wine lists are fun for buffs but can be scary for the casual imbiber. Owner Luke Breslin and his team do a nice job of nudging the potentially intimidated towards open-hearted enjoyment of brunello or xinomavro or whatever else is looking lively. They buy only one case of anything so the offering changes all the time.
This corner spot is a key site in Melbourne's culinary history: it housed seminal restaurant Tansy's from the mid-1980s to mid-1990s and then the lovely Bistro Flor before losing its way in recent years. It's great to see it back.
The mood is easy come, easy go local lounge room imbued with the strong suggestion that nice wine and food are key elements to civilised living. You might come to ponder the next chapter of the PhD before school pick-up, for a quick post-work sip and snack before heading home, for a slap-up meal with a special bottle, or a late-night gossip. There's always vinyl spinning: just like the wine, it will be interesting, compelling and potentially prompt reverie.
Where the drinks list pushes towards the new, the compact food menu is comforting and classic.
There's always a steak (perhaps porterhouse with salsa verde) and house-made pasta (I lucked onto silky pappardelle with simple tomato sugo and fresh mozzarella).
Smaller dishes are easy to share. Fried mussels are placed back in their shells with capsicum puree, aioli and chilli oil. Roasted broccoli is piled over broccoli stem puree in a happy tumble that also includes crunchy chickpeas, labna and ras-el-hanout. Potatoes are cooked in duck fat: do I need to tell you they're delicious?
Trout is cured, smoked with applewood, and flaked over greens and pickled beans; a buttermilk dressing ties it together.
Cheese – mostly local – is served with crackers and pickled hazelnuts.
It's not complicated stuff but it's all done in-house by chefs who are clearly passionate about cooking from scratch and honouring the effort and endeavour of the wine producers whose products they partner.
If you like the idea of a dinner party but don't love the idea of cooking, book the first-floor private dining room for an easy-going banquet. It seats 10 and has a record player (or digital plug) so you can groove to your own music.
As the weather warms up, the courtyard beckons as a fine place to ensconce yourself for drinking – ahem, wine appreciation – sessions.
Breslin was tickled by the story of Boris Skossyreff, a ratbag Russian shyster who declared himself king of Andorra in 1933, then was deported in disgrace. It's a kooky tale but I can see a connection – at least after the third sherry – between Skossyreff's optimistic effrontery and the individualistic spirit of this lovely little wine bar.
Rating: Four and a half stars (out of five)