363 Chapel St South Yarra, VIC 3141
There's often a sweet spot in the life of a restaurant, a time around nine months to a year after opening, when it hums so hard it sings. The kinks have been ironed out, tweaks made, the kitchen and waiting teams finessed, and the restaurant becomes the place all involved want it to be. That's Ramblr right now.
When the restaurant opened last summer, the fit-out was minimal and a little rough, accidentally Nordic perhaps. Above all it was bright and bright wasn't right, especially because Chapel Street with all its frou frou, fluoro, fire engines and befuddlement blared through the glass frontage.
The food was good – a shaved calamari dish licked with bone marrow and jazzed with kimchi caused understandable excitement – and the menu reflected chef Nick Stanton's European training, Asian obsessions and facility with low brow done decent (he also has burger bar Leonard's House of Love). There was spaghetti here, sandwiches there, a few whacks of chilli and the odd dollop of cream. There was much to enjoy but it wasn't completely at ease, a kind of exuberant splat of ideas stored up over time.
In July, the team made changes. Lunch is no longer. The walls are now dusky charcoal. The lighting is more intimate. Chapel Street is curtained off: you feel like you've arrived somewhere, not just nabbed a great vantage point to watch the chemist over the road.
The open kitchen is by the entrance; it might be chef Stanton who grabs the first "hello". A charcoal grill is new, boosting the culinary possibilities and adding atmosphere. Food-focused artworks make a statement too.
Lingering Italian dabblings have been shrugged off and the menu is a paean to Asian ideas, rendered in striking modern ways. Basically, Ramblr grew into itself.
It's an exciting time to come here. The style is hard to pigeonhole: there's a skew to China, Japan and Korea but fine French technique underpins much of it. It's food for enjoying, not analysing, and if there's a theme, it's flavour, layers and lashings of it. Most dishes are eminently shareable but you could also come for a quick bite and move on with your evening. The cocktails and wine are indie interesting; the cheery team will walk you through it all with gusto.
Cobia, a rich, clean sea-tasting fish is filleted in house, dressed with burnt butter and miso for exponential nuttiness, then cut with finger lime and pink peppercorns. It's seriously good, a luscious balance of sharp and smooth, depth and bite.
Stanton makes ramen-style noodles and serves them either with crab or mushrooms. The methods are similar, based on master stocks that are thickened with butter (in the case of the crab) or chilli oil (for the vegan mushroom version). The method recalls beurre blanc, emulisifed over heat in a pan, with the hero ingredients thrown in at the last moment so they're coated with the sauce. It's simple but requires skilled and sensitive cooking, both of which the kitchen displays in spades. Each noodle dish is slurpably spectacular.
Ramblr has a charcoal grill and rotisserie – often signposts to meaty menus – but it's easy to eat vegan here. The "umami salad" tells it like it is: fried brussels sprouts jam with crunchy cucumber, sugar snap peas and an enthusiastic jumble of Asian herbs. The greens are romanced with a miso-spiked vinaigrette, another French emulsion that dips into Asia. Pork scotch, cooked over charcoal, is sparked up with sauerkraut and crunched up with a rice crisp. It's as sophisticated as a Sunday roast but has the verve and fun factor of potsticker dumplings.
Desserts retreat to European comfort classics which is fine with me: I am always OK with pear tarte tatin, especially when it's this one, buttery, caramelised and sweet, with a big scoop of ice-cream melting into the sticky fruit.
Ramblr has hit its stride but, even better, it feels like it's set to ramble ever onward. Come for a tasty snapshot of on-song contemporary dining but also to find that the future is looking very delicious indeed.
Rating: Four stars (out of five)