363 Chapel St South Yarra, VIC 3141
If the last thing chef Nick Stanton served you was a cheeseburger-stuffed chicken at Leonard's House of Love, or before that, a deconstructed clam chowder at Nieuw Amsterdam, Ramblr might surprise you. But here, with his name on the paperwork, and freedom to write the script, Stanton has returned from the burger-flipping world and it seems he's cooked a lot of the macho out of his system.
Think of Ramblr, a pared-back bistro and wine bar in Chapel Street's chemist district, as Stanton's Back to Whites album, co-written by Leonard's House of Love owners John Harper and Guy Bentley. Perhaps, knowing that Leonard's specialises in greased lightning bar food, shag pile detailing and has a mascot cobra wrestling a mongoose, you'd question their ability to move to restaurants. But this is a team that walks the talk.
The former Pizza Project is sparsely sleek, smoky mirrors running along one wall with a gnarl-edged kitchen bar, hewn from a solid tree, commanding the other. Detailing is subtle but shows they're sweating the small stuff. Tan tables are adjustable, wobble-free. Backless blue suede bar stools come with a considerate foot ledge.
Vitally, Stanton knows how to straddle the drinker-and-diner divide. On the one hand he delivers gut-busting, beer-attracting glory – there's a kimchi and cheese toastie, its gruyere, cheddar and fermented wombok blooming radioactively from the brioche-like bread, or his signature pork hock fritters filled with juicy, smoked meat crowned with mustardy pickle and whole egg dressing. On the other, you can tell he wants to rejoin the big kids' dining conversation.
Plenty of chefs have been spied at the kitchen bar. You've probably already seen one of the great Instagram dishes of the year. A rubble of tight little calamari curls (layered, frozen, shaved and flashed in smoked bone marrow) is piled high like rich, fishy macaroni over a fiery kimchi leaf. It's sharp, smart, a fun evolution of the multiple squiduccine dishes that dominated 2016.
Beyond are pastas – the house-made spaghetti with rich-yet-floral mushroom duxelle and porcini stock is our pick over mussel casarecce in a slightly bitter lobster shell bisque – and sparkling small plates. Salt-cured salmon is kid leather-soft, sparkling with pickled daikon and finger lime. There's also a mass of vegetable offerings including a good-when-not-overcharred plate of greens and beans earthed by macadamia cream and lifted by preserved lemon.
Stanton's form might show itself best in the luxe garlic cream and complex jus gras that naps the half roast chicken – maybe not as high on my list as Embla's but a night's deal done for just $24 plus a glass of something from Bentley's small-producer focused wine list.
At its wobbliest it might look like the salad uniting cos lettuce, walnuts, celery, cheddar and passionfruit dressing is a cheesy tropical adventure I mightn't take again. But for the most part, we've clawed a good chef back from being a short order cook, and isn't that goddamn refreshing?
Also refreshing: Tim Wildman's Astro Bunny pet nat, the bottle-fermented wine fizzing gently like a funky, peachy soft drink for adults, or the grip of an orange Tangerine Dream from the Smallfry winery in the Barossa. Trendy? Sure, but Bentley's choices are strong, and there's counterbalance with Chalmers fiano, which works with anything you push at it. Bartender Jackson Evans backs it strongly on the Manhattans and boutique spirits front, with an unsurprisingly good beer list of Boatrockers and La Sirenes.
Ramblr is a little bro-town – I've yet to see a woman on staff. But I came fully braced for a staunch points meat-fest and got a lot of lightness and '70s soul. Stanton's not even making you eat a peanut butter dessert, but an interesting cheesy blancmange made of Delice de Bourgogne with a strawberry syrup pinging with pink peppercorn.
With Atlas around the corner being better than any 22-year-old's restaurant should, Shadowboxer bringing the Southside cocktails southside and the minimal intervention wine party at the Alps, Chapel Street is the new Bermuda triangle of Melbourne deliciousness. Get lost.
Ramblr is chef Nick Stanton's Back to Whites album.
Pro Tip: Sandwiches are coming to a lunchtime near you
Go-to Dish: It's all about the calamari, kimchi and smoked bone marrow