401 Collins St Melbourne, VIC 3000
|Opening hours||Tue-Fri 7am-midnight; Sat 5pm-midnight|
|Features||Bar, Licensed, Lunch specials, Business lunch, Accepts bookings, Events|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9982 1811|
So here it is, the much-anticipated, taxidermy-stuffed American-style bar and grill from chef Morgan McGlone, king of the Belles Hot Chicken empire who's busting out his formal skills from his Husk days here, and Michael Delany, the Baz Luhrmann of design who once gifted Melbourne with Honkytonks, Sorry Grandma and rave juice – a drink that came in a ziplock bag with a glow stick.
Their pitch: an all-day, inner-city hootenanny modelled a little on New York's Grand Central Oyster Bar and Peter Luger Steakhouse. Tongue-in-cheek, they called it Rockpool but cheaper, with more stuffed animals.
Hold on to your retinas. Delany's thrown the whole crayon box at what used to be dowdy cafe Morgans. Black-and-red parquetry is pure Alice in Wonderland. Lightbox-topped green booths fill the centre room, with ringside seats on their outer.
The front aperitif bar, where you can get a pork roll or a post-work glass of pet nat, is the most subtle space, showcasing the high ceilings and starring a glass bar filled with hundreds of matchbooks.
Back inside, the (daggy, uneven) rattan roof panels, bar tables and (stunning, impressive) 12-metre diorama stuffed with stern ibex, shocked hares, and a haughty albino peacock, is like eating inside a 1980s pinball machine. In a good way. I think.
In definite good news, McGlone hasn't lost steam while building the 100 Burgers Group. His versions of 'Merican grill classics, from burgers to beurre blancs, hit home.
Even if you'd rather poke your eye out than order another beef tartare, make an exception for this mix-it-yourself situation. Your beef is girt by finely diced fixings (capers, shallots, gherkin, plus chopped smoked oyster), a soy-stained egg yolk for salty levity, beef tendons turned billowing, fizzing crackers, and the kicker: McGlone's electric three pepper salt-fermented hot sauce harking back to Husk. Do not pass go.
Same goes for the plush, raw tuna bathing in ravigote sauce (that acidic French mix-up of herbs, capers, dijon and lots of oil). Take fragrant shiso and bitter radicchio leaves, wrap and roll. Fresh.
Other potentially overlooked hits: a perfectly tender octopus tentacle, its suckers nicely charred, curling over a rich, lightly spicy romesco. And the not-what-you-think crab lasagne featuring ethereal seafood mousse layered with fine zucchini, and napped in a buttery bright tomato beurre blanc.
Given McGlone's rep for natural wine, there's also plenty of liquid fun. Jamsheed's candy flip pet nat makes a light, fruity aperitif with just an edge. Ochota Barrels chardonnay has character but is totally approachable. That, really, could sum up the whole list. We're not in Fitzroy or heady 2015 any more where anything with stank was prized. You can get a bottle of Egly-Ouriet champers, or a Quealy white or red on tap, a Garage Project special release brew or a Carlton Draught.
So the eating and drinking is good. Your bases are covered and good times are nigh. But caveat emptor, diners: Natural History ain't as cheap as it looks.
The tartare is $28. A bog-standard prawn cocktail save a tomato-dashi jelly (a little redundant as ours doesn't adhere) and house-made cocktail sauce is $30 – $6 a prawn.
A $30 hanger steak of unlisted provenance (it's O'Connor's, 42-day dry-aged, FYI) seems a good deal and is delicious, drenched in jus and topped with a textbook cafe de Paris butter, but it's a modest 175 grams, and $40 when you add fries.
At $24 I'd skip the unbalanced manhattan and OK but flabby martinis – unless you're getting them as part of the $75 three-martini lunch deal where you also get a 200-gram rib-eye.
Generally I'd say value is in the eye of the Amex-holder. And rent around here is high – that stuff adds up, too. But Natural History's service is that extremely systematic American style that's box-ticking but not particularly intuitive. We're greeted and farewelled by every single person we pass and they're all hot and heavy taking orders, but essentials are missed.
No one offers to pace our large order so after a 40-minute wait post-entrees, every larger dish, plus sides, arrives at once, causing a race against the cold.
At $5 an oyster, why do I have to prompt the waiter to tell us where they're from? It's early days, but that's service 101.
There's plenty of good: a David Blackmore wagyu burger nails the meat, salad, cheese and creamy pickle sauce ratio. Coffees are decent. A rhubarb and strawberry vacherin is sparkly fresh (order it over the peaches under creme diplomat).
Sydney's Hubert has proved you can have fun and finesse, too, and that it's worth paying a premium for. McGlone is currently honing the offering. Let's hope he does. We're so close to having the party we deserve.
Pro Tip: The $75 three martini lunch (steak, potato, three martinis) on Fridays.
Go-to Dish: Steak tartare, tendon crisps and hot sauce $28.