Navi review

Owner-chef Julian Hills on the pass at Navi.
Owner-chef Julian Hills on the pass at Navi. Photo: Justin McManus

Unit 1 83 Gamon St Yarraville, VIC 3013

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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

The small storefront owner-operated restaurant is the dream of many a chef. To run your own kitchen, to be your own boss, to cater to your own vision rather than answer to owners who may be more concerned with profit than quality, is a goal of many a starry-eyed young cook. And, for many reasons, it's a dream not often achieved.

Which is too bad – when I think about the chefs doing the most exciting work in Australia, quite a few are in this rare category. Even so, I wasn't quite prepared for the quality I found behind the unassuming shopfront on a quiet street in Yarraville.

Owner-chef Julian Hills and his team at Navi are turning out truly exceptional food to a packed house four nights and one afternoon a week. Booking a table or the chef's counter in the small, sleek dining room is not easy, but a new bar that adjoins the space allows for a more casual and less costly way to enjoy Hills' cooking.

Go-to dish: Murray cod tartare with bunya nut cream and whipped cod fat.
Go-to dish: Murray cod tartare with bunya nut cream and whipped cod fat. Photo: Justin McManus

Still, if you can nab a seat in the dining room you should do so. The multi-course tasting menu ($155) spans more than 20 dishes on any given evening, all served on plates the chef has made himself (he has a fine arts degree).

Because of the size and location of the space, there's an aura of entering someone's home, and the service follows suit. There's an ease to dining here, a feeling of welcome.

"I've forgotten how to smile at people over the last two years," Hills quipped as he dropped our first course at the table – a relatable problem for any of us going back to the office. But the whole place feels like a smile, and his humble admission was more endearing than any slick performance might be.

Signature black garlic macarons filled with salmon roe are available in the restaurant and its adjacent bar.
Signature black garlic macarons filled with salmon roe are available in the restaurant and its adjacent bar. Photo: Justin McManus

The dish he was dropping has been a signature since Navi opened in 2018: a macaron made with black garlic and filled with salmon roe. Almost as astonishing as the fact that this combination works – and it does, the salty roe adding mysterious complexity to the dark sweetness of the garlic – is the quality of the macaron itself.

With all the requisite stretchy, sugared magic, this is a doubly impressive feat: making a world-class (and notoriously difficult) confection, then incorporating fish eggs and having the result taste harmonious and elegant.

The snacks that follow are some of the most delightful bites of the evening: a beetroot crisp cured with koji and topped with the mellow nuttiness of shaved macadamia; a puffed beef tendon draped with lamb prosciutto and ramped up with the subtle umami of an anchovy emulsion.

Rabbit with pine mushrooms.
Rabbit with pine mushrooms. Photo: Justin McManus

There's a danger, when a chef gets this creative, that ego can take hold and run wild. Just because you can do something doesn't mean you should do it, and there are plenty of cutting-edge restaurants selling food that's cool in theory but slightly unpleasant in practice.

Hills never veers into this territory – everything is engineered for pleasure, with deep consideration given to texture, temperature and deliciousness.

Take the Murray cod, served here as a tartare, its buttery raw flesh spruiked with the zing of finger lime and salted plum, cooled with a cream made from bunya nut and a layer of whipped cod fat, and given tiny pops of crunch from puffed wild rice and "bacon" made from cod. There's mind-boggling complexity, as well as an exquisite balance, to almost all of the food here.

A cocktail and duck baklava with tamarillo chutney at Navi Lounge.
A cocktail and duck baklava with tamarillo chutney at Navi Lounge. Photo: Ed Sloane

Hills and his team are foragers, taking trips to collect pine mushrooms, which show up in a puree smeared under delicate shredded rabbit wrapped in brassica leaves.

The new bar area, which opened in November last year, has been fairly quiet on recent evenings, with just a handful of customers taking advantage of the small snack menu. Once word is out, this will change.

Navi's bar team, Elise West and Joe Chadwick, are turning out some of the most creative cocktails around, including a martini variant ($26) made with caper leaf and cod fat (yes, it's good).

There are items from the regular menu available, like those black garlic macaron ($10 for two), but there are also things made especially for the bar, such as crudites with miso, chilli and native pepperberry ($8).

It would be hard to put together a full meal from these little bites and bobs, but I can imagine it as a wonderful way to begin an evening before moving on to the main event at home or another restaurant.

Kangaroo tartare ($13) and a glass of Thibaud Boudignon chenin blanc from the Loire ($33) before heading to the pizza joint next door? Yes, please.

But the greatest achievement of this chef and his team remains the stellar degustation, which is worthy of any special occasion, or just to celebrate that you were able to score a coveted table.

I'm so glad that Yarraville and Melbourne will support an endeavour this personal and creative. When chef dreams come true, we all win.

Vibe: Simple, stylish and dark, with a glowing view of the open kitchen

Go-to dish: Murray cod tartare

Drinks: Fantastic and broad-ranging wine list, exceptional cocktails, wine pairings available

Cost: $155 degustation (from July 1-15, Navi will be serving a special truffle menu for $230 per person)

https://www.restaurantnavi.com.au/