77-79 Nicholson Street Brunswick East, Victoria 3057
Yorkshire chef Matt Wilkinson has finally gone full Aussie. Or full English, depending on who you think is more obsessed with the Australian barbecue. You haven't truly died until you've sat in a London yard while someone scorches themselves and snags at the first suggestion of sunshine.
Pope Joan, Wilkinson's Brit-ish Nicholson Street cafe where you can get very good black pudding for breakfast, smoked-and-pickled meats and veg partying together at night or a Pacdon Park pork pie to take home from their provedore, has ditched the stove for a sawn-off 44-gallon drum in the yard this summer.
From Wednesday to Friday it's a cookout in the garden featuring Wilkinson resplendent in a pinny and straw hat, beer in fist, beasts on grill. Summer has arrived, and it's as charred as a backpacker on St Kilda beach.
Wilkinson's gone right back to cooking basics here, delivering all the smoke-in-the-eye glory of a backyard knees-up with better produce than your mates could acquire, and better drinks, too.
Bookings are still recommended (it's a full house in their first week and word is spreading), as is arriving at magic hour, when it's light and warm enough to make a frosty G and T or Jimmy's punch of Tromba tequila, passionfruit and blood orange (Passiona for adults) feel like just the thing, but not so early that you miss the bats winging their way towards Melbourne Zoo.
In typical Wilkinson fashion, it's star produce, minimally tweaked, paired instead with something smoked, whipped or pickled that makes it dance.
So stout Port Phillip oysters come with bloody mary mix in a dainty cup to the side – add at will, or don't, for the creamy, brackish purity. An oiled slab of squid is barely singed until curl-edged and sticky-centred, its fishiness enhanced with dashi salt. It needs the lemon and salty aioli. You decide on blackened cos lettuce.
Go a la carte or the whole hog for $65 a head. Either way you'll snack from the kitchen on warm radishes rolling in white miso butter that somehow makes them like the ghost of umeshu plums. There might be turkey dimmies captured in bubbled wonton skins with a sharp chilli jam or a cold plate of fusty charcuterie to eat with a doubly fusty mug of Faire Ferments cider: the ultimate in barnyard freshness.
Overall we're talking a lo-fi proposition. No fancy woods, hickory twigs or the expensive equipment chefs have been one-upping each other with in recent years. It's a man and a drum, a whole lot of the Village People and Billy Joel, and if you're smart, a bottle of Rid.
Take that as instruction to relax your expectations a little. If you're looking for perfection, suit up and get ringside at Embla. This is primal essence-of-campfire, gnawing-on-a-bone dining.
Wilkinson, all for the lesser-loved beasts, swigs a beer and thwacks bone-in ribeye and rump of an old dairy cow on the grill – the mutton of the beef world with long-developed flavours but still the sweetness of the fairer sex. We get crusted lobes of the rump with chimichurri and bone-handled nanna knives that make us work for the prize.
The agenda will shift week to week. Goat has had its play. There's been some whole pigs done asado-style (cooked upright over coals). Either way, expect the typical bookending – zesty, nutty rice salads; streaked black zucchini teemed with pillowy ricotta, mint and capers. Dessert might be straight-up fat strawberries, hot and intensified from the flames and cooled with thick creme fraiche.
It's cheese boards and mosquitoes, smoke in your eyes and chilled rosé from Paradigm Hill.
It's a party, you're invited. Enjoy your summer.
Pope Joan's Summer Camp Cookouts will run Wed-Fri Dec 21-24, then from Jan 18 until Easter.
Matt Wilkinson switches stove for sawn-off drum over summer.
Pro Tip: Complete the flavour of the backyard barbecue by dousing yourself in fragrant Rid.
Go-to Dish: Whatever's good from the grill, turkey dimmies, Jimmy's punch.