267 Little Collins St Melbourne, VIC 3000
|Opening hours||Tue-Thu 5pm-11pm; Fri noon-late, Sat 5pm-late|
|Payments||eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9650 2811|
Eaten much ostrich lately? (It's a red meat, akin to venison.) Chomped on croc? (Somewhere between white fish and chicken.) Hoed into buffalo? (Like beef, but leaner.) The only place in Melbourne you can get all these meats – admittedly, not always on the same day – is Polepole, an African-inspired restaurant that's been open four years and is now setting its sights on game meats.
Head up the staircase from street level to find the first-floor restaurant; it turns into more of a bar on Friday nights, and doesn't allow under-18s anytime. Upstairs again is Glamp, a safari-themed bar with a massive tent for cocktails and snacks. Both floors are strong on African beers; the cocktail list is more African-themed ("Congo Bongo").
Let's be clear: Polepole isn't an African restaurant. It's owned by Dean Mariani, an Aussie guy who travelled through eastern Africa, then decided to quit corporate life and bring home a taste of the continent he'd fallen in love with. The chef is Brazilian-born Felipe Oliveira, who's been based in Australia for nine years.
Their menu is contemporary Melbourne with African flourishes. The food is pretty good though the intercultural angle can be confusing when not backed up by strong service. "I have no idea," is probably not the best answer to a question about an African spice mix.
The excellent goat curry takes advantage of an in-house smoker to add dimension to the flavours. The meat is marinated in a north African blend of paprika, cumin and coriander then braised with tomato and coconut cream. It's great to scoop it up with injera, the Ethiopian fermented flatbread made with teff flour.
Chicken ribs are soaked in buttermilk so they stay extra juicy, rolled in cardamom-scented masala, then fried. They're then drizzled with burnt honey spiked with Moroccan mint tea, and there's a green chilli aioli (based on the Yemeni condiment, zhoug) to amp it up further. They're delicious and the serve is generous.
Desserts need a bit of work: peppermint oil overwhelmed the chocolate tart, and panna cotta was overset, though with good flavours, again from the minted honey.
Polepole ("polay-polay") is Swahili for "slowly, slowly" and is something guides say to trekkers as they scale Mount Kilimanjaro. Polepole hasn't quite reached the summit of Melbourne dining but it's on the ascent and is worth trying, especially for its interesting take on game.
Rating: Three stars (out of five)