Picture-perfect: Goat's cheese tart.
Picture-perfect: Goat's cheese tart. Photo: Darrian Traynor

92 Smith Street Collingwood, Victoria 3066

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Permanently Closed

Melbourne, do you know how much you owe your Italian forefathers?

There's the obvious stuff – the red sauce that runs through our streets and veins. But also the things you take completely for granted. Like the fact that we can make it rain olive oil with the gay abandon of Jamie Oliver.

You used to only be able to get the stuff from the chemist. But, mostly, we need to give thanks that we can wine when we dine.

Semi-Permanent is keeping the ex-Lee Ho Fook space warm until Goldfish moves in.
Semi-Permanent is keeping the ex-Lee Ho Fook space warm until Goldfish moves in. Photo: Darrian Traynor

Back when the Temperance Society had its lace-up boots firmly pressed to our necks, the law restricted drinking to pubs, and before 6pm it was Italian coffee-bar owners who subversively served red wine in coffee cups.

The battle to drink and dine was long and hard-won, and it shaped the Melbourne you know. 

Think about this as you sit at the bar of Semi-Permanent in the room that was until recently Lee Ho Fook (the pop-up is filling the space until Goldfish moves in), with the mottled walls around you, a glass of Chalmers' '14 Greco in one hand – a wine built on an Italian grape variety that provides a pistol whip to the palate with a side note of fennel seed – and a pork sausage in the other.

Marrow and mushrooms on toast.
Marrow and mushrooms on toast. Photo: Darrian Traynor

The sausage is run through with pockets of sweetbreads, so you get pillowy softness and porky punch. It's everything that is great about Melbourne, in two fists. 

Everyone was expecting a strong wine game from hospitality heroes Liz Carey and Paul Guiney. Their combined CV not only constitutes a checklist of places where you should have eaten and drunk – David Thompson's Nahm, Christine Manfield's Universal (RIP), Movida Sydney, Verge and the Town Mouse –  it was often their presence that made it worth being in those rooms.

Their strong industry relationships is writ all over a list that's a snapshot of the drinks industry now – plenty of natural and local talent, but not exclusively.

Pork and sweetbread sausage at Semi-Permanent.
Pork and sweetbread sausage at Semi-Permanent. Photo: Darrian Traynor

The underlying philosophy behind this menu was clearly, "Is this delicious?"

There's a yuzu shochu that barely anyone has hold of, which drinks like a brighter, lighter limoncello. Also unsurprising – Guiney and Carey both working the floor, taking a lean for a little table-side chat.

Unexpected is the food. Finding a chef for the project wasn't a huge priority – the gig was too short. But the timing worked for Tanya Bertino and you'll be glad it did.

Classic wine food: Trout gougere.
Classic wine food: Trout gougere. Photo: Darrian Traynor

The young chef's experience straddles the top end – with Paul Wilson at the Botanical, and Shannon Bennett at Vue de Monde – and accessible venues such as the Station Hotel and, most recently, the Gem.

The result is a dinner of classic wine food, executed with pep. A crisp bread plank is loaded with bone marrow and a few sauteed mushrooms, the rich fattiness kept in check with a nippy collection of fried capers, parsley, pickled fennel and a balsamic reduction. Butterflied sardines are crumbed and fried and served with a little pot of aioli and lemon cheek, like a funkier adult version of a fish-shop prawn cutlet.

Or it might be a plate of blanched asparagus spears, their ends peeled for ease of bite, all stacked up like driftwood over a base of ricotta, toasted hazelnuts and a bank of grated egg yolks.

Chase with the sausage, which comes with a sticky slick of rich jus and a fistful of lightly dressed watercress, or the picture-perfect wedge of goat's cheese tart, all minty freshness and pastry so short that it explodes into buttery sand on contact.

Dessert is either a pot au creme – cooked cream, barely sweetened so it contrasts fully with the base of prunes soaked in armagnac – or a thick slice of fruit toast covered corner to corner with a fat slice of stilton.

But is this a bar with serious ballast or a tightly focused restaurant?

Does it matter? We have entered an era of dining where quality is winning out over quantity in what we look for, and Semi-Permanent is delivering the straightforward excellence every neighbourhood deserves.

They're here for a good time, not a long time. Get in, go nuts.

Pro tip
For maximum thrills, come for lunch (weekends only) and graze through to dinner.
Go-to dish  Pork and sweetbread sausage ($10).
Like this? Jess Ho's new wine bar Smalls in South Melbourne brings home a great list with Andy Gale's food. 20/22 Yarra Place, South Melbourne.

How we score
Of 20 points, 10 are awarded for food, five for service, three for ambience, two for wow factor.  
12 Reasonable 13 Solid and satisfactory 14 Good 15 Very good 16 Seriously good 17 Great 18 Excellent 19 Outstanding 20 The best of the best