Public Wine Shop review

Corker experience: a sweet shopfront has been transformed into a welcoming wine bar and bottle shop.
Corker experience: a sweet shopfront has been transformed into a welcoming wine bar and bottle shop. Photo: Eddie Jim

79 St Georges Rd Fitzroy North, VIC 3068

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Opening hours Wine daily 11am-late; food Sun 11am-5pm, daily 5.30pm-late
Features Licensed

Back in the Before Time of July 2017, I was at MONA's Dark Mofo arts festival in Tasmania, something that now seems almost mystical. I started the day watching amateurs take part in a 24-hour play. At lunch, I then travelled to the Agrarian Kitchen Eatery, a new restaurant in an old asylum in New Norfolk that applied the farm-to-table ethos of the bucolic cooking school of the same name.

What does this have to do with a Fitzroy North wine bar? Plenty. That Tassie setting in the stunning Derwent Valley combined with the electric energy of the festival to provide an incredible high. I've sometimes wondered whether this played a role in how fizzingly excited I was about the deceptively simple but deeply grounded food that was coming out of the kitchen from chef Ali Currey-Voumard.

I can stop wondering now. Because at Campbell Burton's elegant Public Wine Shop in St Georges Road, Currey-Voumard and co-chef Simon Ball Smith are recreating that same magic every single night for as many diners as can score a walk-in seat around the communal table.

Oeufs mayonnaise is a liquid-centred boiled egg under anchovy-draped aioli with celery leaves.
Oeufs mayonnaise is a liquid-centred boiled egg under anchovy-draped aioli with celery leaves. Photo: Eddie Jim

That said, Currey-Voumard's new setting pulls its weight in making this experience a corker. Burton and partners have transformed one of those sweet St Georges shopfronts into a welcoming wine bar and bottle shop. The creamy whitewashed walls are lined with warm, bespoke woodwork, including a high communal table that keeps everyone at eye level. The "wine list" is physical, not written, a pick-it-off-the-wall-or-from-the-fridge situation, arranged in a colourful gradient, with the common thread being how carefully they are made rather than any geographic boundaries. There are sunny street seats out front, a courtyard to the rear and a top floor that will open for group dining and classes soon.

Dinner was initially going to be a four-night-only proposition to keep everyone's life in balance and their passion up. But co-chef Ball Smith's induction means it's a daily festival. You can drop in from noon daily to snack on smaller dishes like vigorously bright and acidic boquerones (fat anchovies that have been pickled instead of salt-cured), draped over sweet, oily peppers to crunch up with potato crisps, or mellow olives, a plate of salami and maybe a few card-sized slices of cheese with oat biscuits. Or, from 5.30pm (or from lunch on Sundays), you can order the deeper daily-written menu, based on what has crossed the threshold that morning.

Besides a few staples, like the essential oeufs mayonnaise – a liquid-centred boiled egg resting under a salty anchovy-draped aioli with fresh bursts of young celery leaves (apply all to the crunchy baguette) – the menu will be new most times you eat here. But after having had a number of lockdown and in-house interactions, I'd say you can rely on a cooking style you'd call sympathetic, as if Currey-Voumard has sat down and listened to what the produce would like to say then applied her expertise. And that is an expertise in old-world curing, pickling and fermenting picked up at Agrarian Kitchen, followed by a stint in provincial France.

A crunchy baguette best paired with oeufs mayonnaise.
A crunchy baguette best paired with oeufs mayonnaise. Photo: Eddie Jim

The result? Dishes where none of the ingredients seem to be shouting or fighting to be heard, where only as much as needs to be done, is done. In a lockdown box, that looked like new-season broad beans dancing with the plant's own starchy-sweet leaves and sugary flowers in a gently lemon-dressed salad. In situ, at Public, we eat shavings of tender sugarloaf cabbage frothing around just-poached prawns, all united by a compelling horseradish-spiked buttermilk liquor. Then come artichoke hearts, which so often grip the throat thanks to an astringent acidic curing, but are a whole new beast here, all buttery and soft after being slowly roasted then dropped onto a tangy duo of goat's curd and sorrel leaves.

Initially, fish was going to be the dominant protein, but that has expanded. You can still relax in the knowledge that the provenance of any meat is kind. Cue a rigatoni featuring rich, dark striations of cockerel cooked in a braise that pings with sweetness, a lilt of oregano and a corrective splash of premium vinegar. Full marks too, for the Glen Eyrie Farm pork chop whose heart is a plush, juicy medallion, with a perfect curl of crackle on the rim and an inch of intermediary fat that you might initially try to cut off, until you discover that it has been rendered into a marshmallow-soft layer it would be criminal to waste. It doesn't hurt that as a scythe there are vivid yellow beets dressed in a stellar vinegar whose base is stunning dessert wine banyuls.

Have I forgotten to mention the wine at a wine bar? No, but it's almost superfluous to name drop bottles when Burton, the longtime sommelier from the Builders Arms in Fitzroy, and former Hobart somm Sarah Fitzsimmons are pouring. Everything that hits our glasses, from a lightly skinsy organic Halcyon Days rosé from Hawkes Bay to a jellybean-coloured field blend from the Adelaide Hills to a weighty Jordi Llorens white made from Spanish varietals macabeo and parellada, is a well-structured dream in a glass chosen for its strong production methods and, vitally, its drinkability.

Tinned garfish shows off the kitchen's expertise in old-world curing, pickling and fermenting.
Tinned garfish shows off the kitchen's expertise in old-world curing, pickling and fermenting. Photo: Eddie Jim

You'll close with a dessert that's simple. In week one it was a scoop of chocolate ice-cream. This time, it's Clement's creme, a rich, orange-lemon pot-set cream with a mixed citrus glaze whose name references the sing-song verse about the bells of St Clement's.

It's funny. Travel, even international travel, has dominated our feverish fantasies and is back on the cards. But what a thing to remember how good we have it right here at home.

The low-down

Public Wine Shop

Drinks: Wines and beers from around the globe that could be categorised as organic or well made.

Pro tip: Come early if you want to eat as they don't take bookings.

https://www.publicwineshop.com.au/