11 The Esplanade St Kilda, VIC 3182
|Opening hours||Daily 11am-late|
|Features||Licensed, Bar, Groups, Accepts bookings|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, Cash, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9534 0211|
You know by now that the Espy is back. You cannot not know. The fanfare around the phoenix-like rising of the place that holds the secret shames of countless Melburnians, collected over its 100-plus years of operation as luxury hotel and infamous music venue, has been Royal News huge. It might as well have been rebirthed by Duchess Meghan Markle herself.
You could stretch to a royal connection if you think that the work of the Sand Hill Road pub group, whose schtick is to transform old venues like the Prahran and Bridge hotels into glitzy playgrounds for adults, makes them kings of the reinvention game. Not everyone holds with that. Some worried they'd ruin the natural charms of an institution whose sticky carpets and beer lines might have qualified for historical protections.
So. How is it? That's a question too big to answer in one page. Top to bottom, Hotel Esplanade comprises 10 bars, two restaurants, podcast studios and the revamped 550-person Gershwin Room. But topline notes. It is busy. Queue busy. Paul Kelly's checked in and everyone's flooding social feeds with that dramatic sweeping staircase, framed by peeling paint. The scuzzy charm will take time to build, and the poster-clad, tiled-for-spillage downstairs rooms will be the place for that.
Upstairs, it's a whole new world of glamour thronged by people who arrived in Maseratis, not thongs. And even if you find the dressing of the place a little Hollywood, the level of detail, from the artefact-stuffed cocktail bar at the top to the semi-hidden Deco powder room on the middle level makes for a space unlike any other in Melbourne. And Mya Tiger, the Canto restaurant on the middle floor, helmed by ex-Longrain chef Sarah Chan, is one of the package's best.
This level is a quadruple threat of sensory overload. The toilets surrounding central marble basins look like something out of Harry Potter and conceal that insane powder room with '70s mirrored tables that may get used for more than foundation touch-ups.
An emerald green holding bar is a stunning vintage club lounge lined by deep velvet booths where (decent) Singapore slings and (teeth-jitteringly sweet) frozen lychee martinis can be sunk while waiting for your table to be texted through.
The smaller part of the dining room, all swirled floral pink carpets and rattan and bamboo chairs, is drenched in light from bay windows framing St Kilda pier and palm trees. A larger space holds groups in golden booths overlooked by a flock of stuffed parrots.
"The space is amazing," has been the primary reaction, with the food taking a second seat. And that's probably the right way to set your expectations. Mya Tiger offers tongue-in-cheek, east-meets-western-suburbs Cantonese classics – dumplings, barbecued meats, and sweet and sour pork plays – that are built to feed the drinking masses at pace. This is a Marc versus Marc Jacobs experience.
Some of it is really fun. Your fortune cookie might bid you "Be as picky with your friends as you are with your selfies." A prawn toast riff, stuffing Chinese doughnuts with crustacean mousse, is a genius, addictive, double-fried snack, especially when slashed with bright chilli-lime dressing.
The sweet and sour pork dish is a refreshingly non-orange version – fried nuggets with spiky notes from vinegary onions, capsicum and zucchini, that may call your name after a session on cans below decks.
Soy and spice-forward smashed cucumber salad keeps your palate lifted, though it could be even better bashed, rather than chopped to release juices. Fried eggplant is still a work in progress, so super sweet and batter-heavy it's almost like a banana fritter.
It's early days, and the game will tighten. Right now, your pork wonton wrappers might fall apart due to oversteaming. Our pancakes with our half duck arrive caked together, but props to Chan, the meat itself is incredibly juicy and velvety soft, and the green onion and cucumber trimmings are fresh.
I wouldn't call this destination dining, but there's more at play here than what's on plate. Mya Tiger isn't built for sober, sombre dining. It's fuel for the fun, and it largely meets that brief.
Staff are enthused and there's a lot to work with. Sommelier at large Matt Skinner has stacked the drinks list with spice-friendly treats like Riesling Freak No 3. There are quirky beers from locals and Japanese brewers Far Yeast. You can probably get out for $50 a head as a group. Side orders like a nicely chewy tangle of egg noodles, festooned with crisp shallots, are just $7.
Dessert? Mango sago pudding is a sweet tropical gel storm with surprise pops of pomelo and a soothing coconut sorbet at heart.
Dabs of red bean paste make an otherwise classic layering of pastry planks, cream, chocolate and strawberries a little left centre.
Best Canto in town? No. But it's a stunningly beautiful salve for your self-imposed Espy wounds.
Pro Tip: Plan your trip around a gig.
Go-to Dish: Sesame prawn toast ($18).