45 Collins St Melbourne, VIC 3000
|Opening hours||Mon-Fri 7am-9pm|
|Features||Licensed, Accepts bookings, Vegetarian friendly, Outdoor seating|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9654 8545|
Matt Wilkinson, Northern English caricature and poster child for green-thumbed cooking has been giving Brit(ish) food a fresh edge in Melbourne for almost 20 years. He was part of Circa's unstoppable team in its glory days alongside Andrew McConnell, David Moyle, and Phillipa Sibley. All those names went on to shine. And so did Wilkinson but not quite in the way he planned.
Pope Joan, which was booted from Brunswick East last year to make way for apartments sold on the basis of its excellent cafes (delicious irony!), made its mark on Melbourne as thoroughly as black pudding on a white shirt. It was one of the greatest early examples of the cafe-restaurant hybrid – somewhere that deemed breakfast worth throwing serious produce, seasonality and proper technique at.
Here came potato-nettle croquettes with smoked salmon; those excellent offal-treats and house-made HP sauce, and lunches of smoked pork terrine, house-made Branston pickle and parmesan shoved into rolls. All this and bar-quality bloody marys, too. The breakfast bar is so high now, you can forget how revolutionary that was in 2011.
But in spite of the Pope's success, as well as that of several cookbooks, of the Pie Shop opened in 2017 (due to reopen soon, and to get a sibling in town) and of the summer camp cookouts where Wilkinson, resplendent in a pinny and manning a 44 gallon drum, turned the backyard into a barbecue fiesta in the warmer months, Wilkinson had one itch unscratched: city digs.
Years of cafe cooking, embedded in a community, surrounded by the garden, with revelatory moments like hosting those cookouts mean that now Wilkinson has finally struck a deal with restaurateur David Mackintosh and Tom Crago to permanently place Pope Joan in the empty Mayfair space under Sofitel, it has brought the relaxed energy of a suburban local to the city, and to dinner.
And it's not until you eat here that you realise how much the city needed it. Upper Collins is prime business-meetings turf and Cumulus Inc. finally has some fighting competition. Hold court at white-clothed tables, or outside in the astro-turfed pen, soon to get an edible garden upgrade. Beyond brunch, this is easy access dining, but with high quality trim.
You've heard of the sandwiches. The reuben stacked with an inch of Warialda beef pastrami; the Milawa chicken roll that gets its magic from stuffing in the mix, and a new classic Aussie salad roll to which you can add mortadella. They're everything you've heard and more. The breakfast story is familiar to fans as well. Boiled eggs or devilled eggs. Sardines and wild greens.
So let's talk dinner. It's weeknights only until the respectable hours of 9pm but the elegantly simple menu plugs a hole you didn't realise there was for the city. The pomp and ceremony of former restaurant, the Mayfair, has gone (if you don't count the chandelier) yet you can still start with pastis in elegant glassware, or a martini with character from smoked olives.
Snacking equates to croquettes with pure silk consistency, buckshot with charred corn and the spicy ghost of jalapeno. Crostini, a little soft, are bright with their wild green salsa, crowned with the gentle funk of tanned sardines or there's the arresting simplicity and freshness of crisp washed crudite with a whip-up of herbs, mayo and parmesan that tastes of pure green.
Wilkinson is quick to note this is a dream come true, largely because he's letting longtime Pope chef Jake McWilliams man the pans, allowing him to work less and plan more. Hopefully, come summer, you'll be witnessing Sofitel guests in heels tottering past a sizzling barbecue in the lane.
Even without a barbie, city Pope has serious relax appeal. Sink into a horseshoe booth and cover working wounds with a Milawa chicken schnitzel, all crisp crumbs drenched end to end in garlic butter. Or rainbow trout, its bones tweezed, skin crisped and earthy flesh offset by a literal rainbow of shaved fennel and carrots in a tangy, saffron-stained escabeche pickle.
Can't decide between the cauli salad slashed with more verdant tahini, miso pumpkin or the cos with a devilled egg dressing and anchovies? Platters of the lot bring some of the generosity cafes trade in to the night shift.
Service needs a little more vigour to lift the tone. And this dining room, which has never quite managed to sing either when it was white washed as Pei Modern nor with its current juxtaposition of gilded wallpaper and spackled roof.
But the city is full of places built for the eyes. How many have a textbook toasty apple crumble and made-to-order custard, or rice pudding for dessert? That's a dream come true. For Wilkinson, for you.
Vegetarian Salads galore, snacks ahoy and several options beyond.
Drinks Wilkinson is now Four Pillars gin's food guy, so gin is a thing alongside local wines.
Cost Snacks $4-$10; mains $24-$34; feed-me menu $55.
Pro Tip: Look out for pie, pasta and fish and chip days, coming soon.
Go-to Dish: Milawa schnitzel $32; seasonal crumble with custard $12.