Unit 1 83 Gamon St Yarraville, VIC 3013
|Opening hours||Dinner Wed-Sat, lunch Sat|
|Features||Degustation, Licensed, Accepts bookings, Bar|
|Prices||Expensive (mains over $40)|
|Payments||eftpos, AMEX, Cash, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9939 9774|
What odds would you give Navi in 2018? It's a brand new fine diner in a quiet Yarraville backstreet serving just 25 diners a night. Very few chefs are taking that risk any more. Fewer still are entering the fray with a $120-a-head, 10-course deg.
But Navi is anything but a punt for chef-owner Julian Hills. It's been 10 years in the planning, and the plan is very clear. His aspirations don't include the World's 50 Best Restaurants list or even to make a lot of money.
Navi is actually part of an emerging trend from chefs who are daring to wonder if maybe they can build a restaurant that serves them as well as their diners. If they can support their families – and see them, too – without having to ditch their whites and start a burger chain. See also in this category Underbar in Ballarat, a 16-seater doing just two services a week. And the numbers check out. Navi's next available Friday night four-top booking is in December. It's bar seating only for twosomes until mid-October.
Of course, it helps that Hills has the chops to fill the seats, and kept a hat firmly affixed to Paringa Estate on the Mornington Peninsula for six years to prove it. Thanks to a fine arts degree and his architect brother, he's built a stunning venue in an under-serviced area that is one of the prettiest spaces Melbourne has seen in some time.
Navi unites the semi-industrial with the elegantly soothing. It's like a bomb shelter outfitted by the late great Vogue Entertaining, all soft archways, neutral greys, dark tables and linen napkins loosely scrunched through handmade ceramic rings. Hills, a potter, has thrown every single lushly glazed or raw and speckled plate.
The light spills warmly from a quietly studious kitchen and carefully aimed spots make his tweezered and flowered dishes pop in pics without you shamefully having to ask a pal to illuminate your fermented garlic macaron.
There's strong personal expression in everything, from a soundtrack featuring OutKast and Johnny Cash to an interesting drinks list embracing sakes, flinty Queensland verdelhos and elegant but weighted Mount Mary chardonnays. It contributes heavily to Navi's likeability, even if some elements don't swerve to your personal tastes.
Of the opening snacks, macadamia cream pooled into a buttery tart with hints of native thyme and smoked bush tomato dust pings my tastebuds better than the sweet, chewy, black garlic macaron sandwiching salty trout roe. A one-bite hit of raw wallaby with pickled wild roses in a cured egg yolk roll-up is like very grown-up recess.
Don't expect any of the above though. Hills is also relentlessly restless, changing most things nightly.
Sadly that means I can't promise the bonito Hills has aged in beeswax as a sushi chef might enhance fish between kombu. It's floral and butter-soft, washed with a bone dashi given a herbal hit with a little tea-tree. Nor the cheese course where he made a savoury cheesecake from Shaw River blue with rich walnut crust and jelly of tamarillo acting like a quince paste. The tamarillos were a single gift from a friend in Red Hill. The dish is already retired.
But I can attest to very solid cooking underpinning the Navi experience. Sweetbreads are salted, bathed in a thyme-infused brown butter and fried off in a barley and shiitake glaze until glossy golden, creamy soft, all offset with a mushroom compote and pickled karkalla. A just-browned fillet of john dory also has the mark of good timing in pan, and comes with pickled mussels and lots of ocean greens. The tranche of Macedon duck sitting in a plum glaze is the perfect shade of pink, its thin skein of fat and skin shattery to touch.
With the menu's rolling nature, not every element will hit home. The duck's accompanying bone-broth-tuned-custard topped with crisped fermented carrots is a little firmly set, its carrots slightly bitter. There are more sea succulents and flowers adorning dishes than feels strictly necessary.
But dessert finishes brilliantly strong. A milky clean strawberry gum sorbet with tart pickled quandong threads and macadamia praline is the great Australian bite. Charred pear with its skin turned to little wafers is lobbed with a luxe, creamy quenelle of truffle ice-cream. Phwoar.
This is a great get for Yarraville. More than that, it's a great sign that truly singular restaurants still have a hope. Who'd have bet on that?
Pro Tip: Join the wait list, spots do come up.
Go-to Dish: Strawberry gum sorbet; Macedon duck; sweetbreads with shiitake and barley.