341 Sydney Rd Brunswick, VIC 3056
|Opening hours||Wed-Fri and Sun 5pm-late; Sat 12.30pm-late|
|Features||Licensed, Vegetarian friendly|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9114 2817|
There's a new reason to hate the traffic on Sydney Road. It's that the molasses-slow creep hinders the passage to tasty snacks and sluggable drinks at Rascal, a great new wine bar in Brunswick. I encountered particular torture while crawling north by tram: the number 19 inches past Rascal before stopping at Albion Street, moving so slowly that I could peer in the windows. Is there anything that ups the hangry factor more than watching other people eat and drink the stuff you want for yourself?
Luckily, as soon as you tumble in, the welcome is cheery, sustenance rolls quickly and Rascal's hospitable bubble seals you in.
You can play it as a pitstop - pop in for a spritz and olives, or sour beer and housemade wattleseed salami - but you can also build your own multi-course feast and plunge into the fascinating and fairly priced drinks list.
There's evidence of a happy obsession with spirits, a geeky interest in low-intervention wine and more than 60 beers: thirst will not be your problem.
Decoding the menu might be more of an issue. "Roasted carrots, mead, bee pollen." "Caramelised pear, yuba, white miso." This is one of those menus that lists incongruous ingredients: it's more treasure hunting than signposting.
But any comprehensibility that's lacking on paper is certainly there in the eating: chef and co-owner Elliott Pinn's food is excellent, with sometimes unfamiliar elements resolving into delicious and ultimately straightforward dishes.
Those carrots are charcoal-roasted then glazed with mead, which is fermented honey and water, in this case infused with native-piney Geraldton wax. Goat cheese is piped on top and sprinkled with macadamias and bee pollen. It sounds fancy but it's really just clever layering of sweet and tart, and a novel way to showcase carrots.
That pear? Bars often drop the dessert ball but this is a ripper. Pears are cooked to sweet collapse in cognac and worked into a sweet, fruity cream. That's scattered with caramelised milk crumb, topped with miso ice-cream, then roofed with dehydrated yuba, the skin that forms on soy milk. It's a highly accomplished dish and is exciting to eat to the last multidimensional bite.
Almost every restaurant does raw kingfish but Rascal's is different, layering the fish with avocado puree and blueberry dashi (a Japanese broth given body and colour with berries). Those colourful elements peep from under a pale overstorey of pickled kohlrabi and shaved horseradish. Like the other dishes, it's clever and interesting yet outright delicious once you tuck in.
If you're here for nibbles there are two must-orders: fried chicken topped with caviar is a silly trash-swank snack, and the crab toast is saucy, salty and smashable in exactly the right proportions.
Pinn was in the opening team at Jackalope Hotel on the Mornington Peninsula and ended up as head chef at the signature restaurant Doot Doot Doot. Prior to that he worked as pastry chef at Sydney's three-hat Sepia. He's found himself a fine canvas here, and freedom to paint it.
This site has been many things. In the early gold rush, it was a tent market where prospectors kitted up before heading north to strike hopeful camp. In 1858, it opened as the handsome red-brick Cumberland Arms Hotel and ran thus for more than a century.
Now, with a full refit, it's new-style dining for Sydney Road, contemporary yet approachable, thoughtful and fun and, not least, a welcome respite from tortuous traffic.
Rating: Four stars (oit of five)