56 Little Bourke St Melbourne, VIC 3000
|Opening hours||Tue-Thu from 5pm; Fri-Sat from 3pm|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 7006 5144|
There's a question being whispered, and occasionally asked out loud, among the world's restaurant critics. In the age of COVID-19, with all the havoc it's wreaked on the fragile hospitality industry, is traditional reviewing – with its inherent overlay of criticism – even ethical any more?
My answer may be self-serving, but I also believe it to be true: if anything, it's more important. Good criticism, whether of restaurants or the arts, can ask the question: what's wonderful about our cities, and how do we shine a light on those things?
One of my great fears in this era of dining is that only the strong will survive: the chain restaurants, the huge corporate groups, the folks who open venues as tax write-offs rather than labours of love. The small, the quirky, the risk-taking – those are the fruit that might wither and die in this climate.
So, criticism may well be more important now as the industry rebuilds itself post-pandemic.
It turns out that help to small operators may also come from larger operators. The Speakeasy Group, which operates theatrical restaurants in Sydney and Melbourne, such as Eau-de-Vie and Nick & Nora's, has come up with an incubator model they call the "Pathway to Partnership Program".
They invite employees to pitch hospitality business plans, and offer mentorship, funding and a 50 per cent ownership stake to those with the best ideas.
It's a wonder there aren't more venues where you can choose from multiple kinds of freshly shucked bivalves.
This is the story of Pearl Diver, the cocktail bar and oyster house that opened in Melbourne's CBD in November. Co-owners Alex Boon and Pez Collier spent more than a year workshopping plans with Speakeasy Group's management, learning about accounting, permits, staffing, social media and more.
Boon says that while he was already confident he could make a good cocktail – he'd been the head of mixology for the Speakeasy Group – the insights he gained from the mentorship aspect of the program were invaluable. And the start-up money (upwards of $200,000) didn't hurt, either.
So what was it about Boon and Collier's vision – an elegant, nautical-themed lounge that serves snacks and a variety of oysters and a list of bold, beautifully made cocktails – that had Speakeasy Group clamouring to back it?
Of course, there is its namesake cocktail, the Pearl Diver ($25), made with rum, honey and pink grapefruit, its tiki brashness calmed here into something refined, but fun. There's a frozen mango drink ($22) that looks like the stuff of high-school nightmares, but tastes bright and fruity and, dare I say it, beautifully grown-up.
With our abundance of glorious Australian oyster varieties, it's a wonder there aren't more venues where you can choose from multiple kinds of freshly shucked bivalves. At Pearl Diver there are at least four varieties to try on any given day: sweet Merimbulas, or creamy St Helens from Tasmania (six for $30; 12 for $55), for example.
There are also several cooked oyster options (six for $36; 12 for $70), variations on the classic Rockefeller made with creamed warrigal greens, and Kilpatrick made with diced lardo (a cured pork fat beloved for its buttery texture). The Rockefeller version is a winner, but the Kilpatrick was warm-fat overkill; I resorted to scooping off the copious topping and hiding it under my potato crisps.
The crisps in question come with a creamy onion dip ($11), are house-made and very salty. That works as an accompaniment to a couple of drinks, but it is hard to make a meal without veering into salt/fat overload.
The kingfish ($20) sprinkled with pomegranate seeds is a welcome foil of freshness, as is the coal-roasted beans sitting in a pool of almond gazpacho ($19).
This isn't really the place to come for a full meal, anyway. It's somewhere to come and drink cocktails and nibble on a lovely steak tartare with artichokes and oyster cream ($22) before heading off to dinner elsewhere. It's a place to belly-up later in the evening and drink a martini made with oyster shell-infused gin ($26), and bask in the calming low grey light of the place and the fishing nets on the ceiling gathered into drifts that look like Victorian-era petticoats.
It's not a rowdy bar or a chic restaurant, but something more grown up than the former and less of a commitment than the latter.
I do have a suggestion for the Speakeasy Group: perhaps they might specifically seek out people and concepts that have traditionally faced barriers to high end (read: lucrative) hospitality opportunities.
I'd love to see this program become an incubator for projects of all kinds. If Pearl Diver is any indication, the potential is limitless.
Vibe: Dusky, elegant and nautical, with just the right amount of vintage glam.
Go-to dish: A dozen oysters ($55-$68, depending on variety).
Drinks: Grown-up tiki drinks, modern Australian cocktails, and an extremely well-considered beer and wine list.
Cost: Dependent on how much you eat and drink; small plates ring in at $9-$28, cocktails at $22-$26.
This review was originally published in Good Weekend magazine