35 S Wharf Dr Docklands, VIC 3008
PIONEERS get the arrows, settlers get the land. Paul Mathis, pioneer incarnate, would ruefully agree as he ends a self-imposed five-year hiatus spurred by the failure of his green-leaning SOS and 100 Mile Cafe. Good concepts ahead of their time - the bruising reality of the maverick with the means to spin ideas into action.
So here we are at the second coming of the former Mr Federation Square. His all-guns-blazing return to industry prominence is driven by not one but six projects opened in the space of a few months and covering the gamut of contemporary eating-out, from coffee (CoffeeHead) to pizza (Firechief), from cafe (Goldilocks) to restaurant (Henry and the Fox), from izakaya (Akachochin) to retro-mod British (Sharing House).
Not one to worry about covering his backside, Mathis has compounded the risk exposure by showing faith in the untested patch of South Wharf. Two of his resurrection vehicles (Akachochin and the subject of this week's review) are parked in Melbourne's latest food-and-drink precinct, box-fresh and waiting on nothing more important than diners and drinkers to get its mojo on.
Pioneering again. I wonder how he sleeps at night.
So what to make of South Wharf? City real estate's long-neglected orphan relative has been smartened up with boardwalks and landscaping, seafaring heritage values and the sheer desperate hope that the close proximity of like-minded businesses will engender words such as ''precinct'' and not ''Docklands''.
The behaviour of crowds is notoriously mercurial and to predict the fate of any of the dozen restaurants and bars now sharing the Yarra's southern bank would be jumping the gun. For now, at least, South Wharf is quiet. It gets our table thinking about behavioural economics. What would it cost to monetise the rent-a-crowd, to lure people away from the bright lights of the big city to this little riverside patch? Because Sharing House, not empty but with plenty of vacant tables on a Wednesday night, deserves to do well.
First tip is to banish assumptions that the kiddie nostalgia vibe - driven by a bar covered in primary- coloured Lego and a wall of Astroturf, and the kind of pop-alt-contemporary soundtrack needed to fill this big, airy space - indicates a venue that wears its responsibilities lightly. Staff are enthusiastic, the global wine list has virtues aplenty and some fine cooking produces food that is fun to share and eat.
Mark Briggs is a former Vue de Monde head chef, although you'll find no pretensions about fine dining here. The philosophy of a table of people sharing dishes lost its novelty several years ago but Sharing House surprises by taking it to the conclusion of a menu that reaches no higher than $24 (for a few almost main-sized dishes) but finds its comfort zone around the $14 mark. It's flexible to a dangerous degree. There's some confusion about a 35-plus item menu with no clear organisational principle but yes, everything lends itself to sharing.
The menu is solidly retro with a dash of modern style. There's duck l'orange, spaghetti bolognese, moules mariniere, the ploughman's plate. Solid and instantly recognisable: not needlessly trendy but painted with a contemporary brush.
Simple dishes find a higher calling with produce that sings: the underrated Spanish mackerel does a good turn as fish fingers, the meaty flesh tucked inside golden crunchy sleeping bags of thinly sliced, garlicky buttered sourdough. They come wrapped into a newspaper cone with a sweet, tomato-heavy side of Mary Rose sauce. It's likeable - as are little fried nuggets of rabbit and cauliflower ''popcorn''. Normally I'd want to thump a waitress who says ''have fun with it'' but in this case she is right - the bunny-or-vegie lucky dip rewards blind experimentation and garlic aioli is the well-chosen bedmate.
The ocean trout gravlax represents the retro-modern crossover - the palely glistening fish is cured in apple vodka and shares a nicely messy plate with ''textures of apple'' that have been compressed, freeze-dried and jellified, plus a unifyingly sweet-leaning mustard creme fraiche.
From the same songbook, the Sharing House ''surf and turf'': sweetbreads pan-crisp but all creamy tenderness within, with fat chunks of spanner crab and a richly sweet brown butter sauce flashed with cabernet merlot vinegar and chicken jus. It's a clear $15 winner.
Not as successful - which in this case simply means less successful - is the osso bucco spag bol with house-made tagliatelle. It's not bad, just a little pedestrian among the stars of the line-up. So are 1980s dinner-party-style roasted tomatoes stuffed with pork ragu and snails: again, no abject failure, but the snails seemed more tokenistic than textural.
The dessert selection is the biggest reminder of Briggs' Vue past. A pale scoop of Pimms sorbet on a green carpet of salted pistachio crumbs proves a sophisticated taste-texture combo; the addition of brightly coloured fruit jubes makes it downright carnivalesque. Just like dessert should be, whether you're eight or 80. The treacle tart is the deconstructed version of the British favourite - four chewy, caramelised cubes topped with a sweet shortbread hat and with clotted cream squiggled onto the plate for mopping.
Which sums it all up, really. Sharing House might be looking backwards as it marches into the brave future of Melbourne dining but it's keeping the nostalgia on a tight leash. While not as ambitious as some past Mathis enterprises, it has his love of the conceptual stamped all over it and the talent to carry it off. There's potential galore in this part of South Wharf. Let the crowds come.