133B Lygon St Brunswick East, VIC 3057
|Opening hours||Tue-Sun noon-midnight|
|Features||Accepts bookings, Licensed, Bar, Vegetarian friendly|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9380 2132|
Welcome to the end of the decade, friends. How do you think we did? If what we're funnelling into our mouths is any barometer, I think we can agree that we've landed at a far better place at this end of the decade than the start. That's not to say we didn't surf the Mexican wave with enthusiasm, or abide by the dude food movement.
I loved eating off placemat menus and was as thrilled that American barbecue came as I was relieved when it went, taking its heart attack-inducing tsunami of mac and cheese with it. But mostly, I'm grateful that at the close of 2019, a near-perfect representation of our eating and drinking ideals has emerged in the form of Old Palm Liquor.
This entirely tan sequel to chef Almay Jordaan, Simon Denman and Marc Banytis' Fitzroy North bistro, Neighbourhood Wine, is a definitive wine bar with wings: a suburb-based, fire-fuelled, female-cheffed, vinyl-soundtracked and wood-panelled wonderland that doesn't shout about minimal intervention wines or plant-based eating but is offering one of Melbourne's finest examples of both. The kicker? You won't even know.
Truly. It's only when your brain starts analysing what makes the fluffy griddled flatbreads ($10) intensely delicious (it's a mighty slick of citrus-edged garlic paste and coarse salt, plus a side hustle of roasted young garlic, stem attached), and likewise, the blooming onion in miniature ($7) made from a battered, starburst shallot, piped with jalapeno cashew cream, that you realise animal products are missing, while not a single flavour is.
Wonderful and noble as that is, more important: Old Palm Liquor is fun. Before you dive bomb into the thrillingly esoteric corners of the 300-bottle wine list, which features odes to Spanish orange wines, grower champagnes and one organic Patagonian trousseau, there are three dozen vibrant bottles billed as "everyday wines".
Here you'll find Patrick Sullivan Jumpin' Juice and chardonnays of all creeds (someone really loves the grape's versatility) from the Loire to Margaret River and the Adelaide Hills, all priced between $55 and $69. Every craft beer is $10, flat. You can escalate wildly, but you needn't and still party well.
The fitout – a festival of chocolate brown and chubby maroon bar stools; hand-labelled bottles neatly racked behind the bar; a fireside reading nook; and fan propellers gently whomping overhead – ignites some deep '70s nostalgia you didn't know you had.
Equally soothing is a fire-licked menu where the coals give dishes definition, but don't dominate them with brutal, flamey force. So pale tongues of summer squash are charred but chilled, getting heat instead from smoked chilli and a kick from thyme-boosted cannellini puree.
See also beets, amplified by the grill, then chilled and chopped to play tartare on a malty buckwheat cracker. The sharpener here is sour barberries, one of the subtle hat tips – along with Cape Malay spices dressing a fish – to Jordaan's South African roots. But, as with everything here, the inclusion feels natural and succeeds because it's not a statement.
Perhaps that's Old Palm Liquor's charm – it's servicing a broad community without compromising even slightly to get that job done. The riffs are fresh but not exhaustively "different".
Consider the salad of radishes, celery, green olives and French dressing ($12). Or the thick-cut pork chop ($32) that's been cider-brined, leaving the meat plush beneath its caramelised crust, and loaded with a cool crush of minty spring peas.
Need more convincing? Banytis' welcome and wine wisdom should do it. Or please, test your mettle against the baked cheesecake with a brittle creme brulee crust, some sour rhubarb keeping it honest. Maybe a chewy tipsy cake with a big lobe of sour cream will do you in?
Something probably will. Let this be the future. I want in, and bring it on.
Vegetarian: You bet. In fact, it's the best bet.
Drinks: An extensive pro-natural wine list that doesn't go on about it.
Pro Tip: If the lengthy wine list is daunting, the "everyday wines" are a versatile and affordable place to start.
Go-to Dish: The fried shallot, a blooming onion in miniature, $7.