Manze review

After building a following with pop-ups, Manze chef and co-owner Nagesh Seethiah has a hit on his hands.
After building a following with pop-ups, Manze chef and co-owner Nagesh Seethiah has a hit on his hands. Photo: Eddie Jim

1-5 Errol St North Melbourne, VIC 3051

View map

Opening hours Wed-Sat 5.30pm-11pm
Prices Moderate (mains $20-$40)

These past two years have proved to us all that we have no idea what's coming. From snappy lockdowns to wild winds and a fourth Sex and the City movie (what have we done, ye gods?), it has become safest not to have any expectations about anything, lest life laugh in your face.

Nagesh Seethiah had myriad false starts when trying to open his Mauritian-influenced wine bar, Manze. A winter launch became November – but that's not surprising, even pre-COVID. What has shocked him, though, is that his "humble" 25-seat bar in North Melbourne has resonated so hard it's already booked out through December.

But Seethiah might be the only one surprised. His precursor pop-ups built a solid following. There he began playing with the flavours he grew up with, using skills gleaned in the kitchens of Bar Liberty and Bar Rochford in Canberra. I don't know how many bookings are owed to his signature taro fritters (a golden crunchy mass of fried shallot and taro threads, with a fresh burst of ginger and a blitz of fermented green chilli and mango), but it's a destination snack all on its own. So when you plug that bite into a set menu at a crazy $55 price point, and drop it into a slick North Melbourne pocket, it's not hard to see why seats have become hard to come by.

Poutou (steamed rice and coconut cake) dressed in asparagus and coriander, mint and coconut chutney.
Poutou (steamed rice and coconut cake) dressed in asparagus and coriander, mint and coconut chutney. Photo: Jason South

It's not Seethiah's mission, or job, to define Mauritian food and its myriad influences on Melbourne's behalf. If you need to know what you're in for, expect the char from open coals, a festival of sustainable fish, and a white-hot brightness in all.

The ginger in those taro fritters causes eyes to flash open like someone popped a surprise balloon. There are poutou, steamed cakes made of soaked, blitzed basmati rice and fresh coconut, dressed in asparagus whose sugary sweetness tells you its time of death was very recent, and very worthwhile once napped in a coriander, mint and coconut chutney. A mid-menu soup course featuring blackened barramundi and a broth stained with turmeric, tomato and tamarind paste is whiplash refreshment and comfort at once.

Manze's almighty arsenal of house-made condiments is responsible for a lot of the menu's vim. The team has been prepping since last summer, so now there's a hot mix of chilli fermented with carrot, turmeric and vinegar that's destined for a dish any time (with oysters, Seethiah is thinking), and Corner Inlet Australian salmon (a responsibly caught white-fleshed fish, not to be confused with farmed Atlantic salmon) that has been salted and dried to be redeployed as a rich seasoning in fish broth, like bonito. Fresh mangoes feature, as you would expect, in a tropical dessert, but the green fruit, salted with chilli and garlic, also becomes an electric sauce for Port Phillip scallops that have been gently roasted with ghee over the coals.

Eggplant and ginger fritter.
Eggplant and ginger fritter. Photo: Eddie Jim

So far, so flavour town. But Manze is about more than its Mauritian flavours. That room is alive. Against a room of modest proportions, the cane chairs and bright tropical turquoise tiles make a big splash. And the introductory menu price of $55 for a full feast (which I don't think can or should last, though it's a nice way to enter a neighbourhood) means that for a time it's broadly accessible. The keen are elbow to elbow with the cashed-up; they're probably just not ordering the $110 Domaine Rolet jura chardonnay.

On that, this is a tight but cracking wine list that doesn't need to be any longer because it's chosen and served by Moira Tirtha – editor of wine mag Veraison – who has her finger on the jugular of what's good. Minimal, sustainable, undersung and strictly delicious is the brief. The Minim Patsy is a grippy, peppery fiano vermentino for when it finally stops raining. Instead of champagne, there's pet-nat from Moondarra or a creamy brut from Limoux, France's original region for producing sparkling whites.

Clearly I'm impressed by Manze, and I'm not alone. Social media has been alive with praise for the main event of sweet blackened lamb, prickly with its crust of herby masala. Or the dessert that is such a confident closure: fluffy sponge with a mango medley of Kensington Pride and tart, underripe R2E2, cream that's run through with a syrup made from the fruit skins and a lush lick of fig leaf oil.

Fruit salad.
Fruit salad. Photo: Eddie Jim

But here's what impresses me most. Early success and hype must seem like a dream come true, but for first-timers it can throw up barriers. Young chefs can feel like they can't adapt dishes or change prices as they discover what they require to be a sustainable business, at the risk of upsetting customers. Manze has such strong ideas at its foundations – of sustainability, of flavour first and aesthetics second, of living small and delivering big – that I won't be surprised if it just keeps on evolving into something even better.

The low-down

Drinks A truly exciting Old and New World list with ethical winemaking at its core.

Pro tip No booking? A few walk-in seats start this week. Good luck.

https://www.manze.com.au/