296 Carlisle St Balaclava, VIC 3183
|Opening hours||Wed-Sat 3pm-11pm|
|Features||Accepts bookings, Licensed, Degustation, Vegetarian friendly|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9525 8730|
Big things are happening in little places all across Australia. In fact, some of the nicest places in Australia to eat right now are probably those with fewer than 20 seats. I have some theories. And those theories are all: maths.
Small restaurants feel successful – a full house is a full house. And while the industry reels from the pressure of making sure they're not under-paying staff, the one loophole is to be those staff. Put your name on the door and you can do all the overtime you like, free from the restrictive pressures of minimum wage. I joke, but it's true. Balancing the books in big restaurants is proving so hard, a lot of restaurateurs who just really want to cook have cut their losses, lowered their expectations of giant-restaurant glory and focused on a tight product in a tiny space.
When chef Derek Boath returned to Melbourne from New York, he calculated how long it might take to buy a house while working as a chef in town, laughed, then started 12-seat Underbar in Ballarat, which he operates two nights a week. To that list I'll add 16-seat Ishizuka in Melbourne's CBD, 14-seat Greasy Zoes at the end of the Hurstbridge Line, and now, Pretty Little on Carlisle Street, Balaclava.
The name checks out. There are only 20 seats. You're opposite Tulum (Coskun Uysal's storied Turkish restaurant) in a long, slim room. Cerulean-blue walls meet glowing wine racks and one long rosewood table terminates at the "kitchen" pass trimmed with artful piles of tamarillos, pickle jars, nori crisps and a big fat tin of premium Olasagasti anchovies.
To some, sitting at a long share table while frontman Michael Byard actively encourages mingling between guests might sound like a nightmare. But punters seem to have taken to the all-in communal vibes. Groups arrive and stand around the entrance with their Yarra Valley Seville Estate sparkling like it's a cocktail party.
What will you be eating? Like a lot of bench-and-a-few-pans operations, that's a red-hot roll of the dice. The menu offers a la carte or a tasting menu of seven dishes and evolves based on what's in the fridge and what can fit onto a domestic-size hob. Largely that means a menu rich in preserves, and prepped things to be assembled, not cooked.
Spanish-born chef Josep Espuga, who has staged his way around some of the world's greats from Mugaritz to Nahm, doesn't seem geographically bound either. Anything could happen. Anything does.
Tonight it's cod roe dip, a particularly voluminous mousse with a sharp acid tickle, mounted with potato and nori crisps like a salt-and-vinegar hedgehog for the modern age. Next comes well aerated sourdough with chewy crust, then an immensely curious salad of shaved raw broccoli, those luxurious anchovies, and tart-tropical-fruit tamarillo, united, not unsuccessfully, by a peppery black garlic dressing. I neither love nor hate it, but this information is irrelevant, since the dish has already gone from the menu.
This transience and making-it-up-on-spot infuriates some diners. Chef Peter Gunn's IDES operated like this when it started. It's a sharper package now the chefs put a little polish on most things. But there's something nice about the elasticity of this set-up. The buy-in is also easy to swallow at $69, especially when there are few things I wouldn't fork again, given the chance.
A puff of pork crackling is piped with a quince "aioli", an eggless emulsion of the roasted fruit whipped to a fluff with garlic and olive oil. Crunchy discs of gently pickled jerusalem artichoke lighten the load.
Next is a surprisingly wintry dish of buttery sweet onion puree loaded with roasted fennel sprinkled with yeast flakes for a sneak vegetarian umami kick. Bringing the lights back up, spanner crab dumplings tangling with raw threads of cabbage and coriander are awash in a deep, clear and impressively unfunky crayfish-head broth.
How do the ends meet? Is the sting in the booze? There are four by-the-glass choices, and beyond that, it's bottles only. Even so, the mark-ups on the Barossa shiraz, and Margaret River chardonnays are in check. Aperitif are $10 and sparkling water is $4 and unlimited.
True, it doesn't look like a cake walk in the kitchen. But damned if I don't get my electrically charged pineapple and ginger granita, toffee custard and almond toffee crisp and get out the door on time, under budget and over-fed.
I said it in high school maths and I'll say it again: I don't know how the numbers stack up, and I don't care. The future is tiny, but mighty.
Vegetarian Options available, more on request.
Drinks A tight list of mostly Australian star regions with a few Old World wines.
Cost Medium dishes $8-$18; shared mains $32; tasting menu $69.
Pro Tip: There's vinyl and a turntable out the back.
Go-to Dish: Spanner crab dumplings with crayfish-head broth.