20 Yarra Pl South Melbourne, VIC 3205
South Melbourne is having a moment. Wine bars are having a moment. Jess Ho's having a moment. And all three moments can now be seen carousing together at Smalls, an aptly named former garage-turned-wine bar adjoining (and sharing toilets with) coffee temple St Ali.
Ho – blogger and reviewer, former face of Chin Chin, freshly minted Restaurant Revolution TV personality, social media whiz – is the owner of Smalls and has put her box-ticking CV to good use. She's created a space that's stylishly handsome and a little offbeat, but the main game is quality, affordable wine and bar snacks that work.
Apparently the bar was once home to St Ali owner (and Smalls' landlord) Salvatore Malatesta's small collection of motorbikes and, with factory-like pitched roof (now sporting a sizeable skylight), brick walls and metal-framed windows, the ghosts of garages past are certainly hovering.
Cannily, Ho has eschewed the obvious biker bar theme, though she's not done with the industrial bones, glamming them up by painting the brick walls a soft white, covering the floor with blond parquetry and many other surfaces – the tables, the bar, the detailing around some of the booths – with several different hues of marble. Add some mood lighting via a series of bespoke ceramic light shades, a couple of sculptural foliage arrangements and some interesting nooks and crannies built into the booth joinery, and you have a space that makes you feel slightly more worldly and sophisticated just for having found it.
The short, sharp nature of the space is reflected in the booze selection. It's mainly about wine (about 15-plus choices by the glass, plus a two-page bottle list) with one beer (Mountain Goat Steam Ale), a couple of well-crafted, classic cocktails and a couple of sakes to round it out.
There's plenty of globetrotting fun to be had on the list that's as partial to the New World as the Old.
Excellent stuff from close to home (2013 Jamsheed Roussanne from Beechworth, 2010 Avani Syrah from the Mornington Peninsula) rubs shoulders with pricey but gorgeously complex Portuguese madeira (1988 Pereira d'Oliveira Terrantez Medium Dry Frasqueira, $30 a glass), wild yeast-fermented chenin blanc from South Africa, organic Chilean Carmenere and fine examples of Burgundy, Champagne and Barolo. Prices are friendly too, starting at about $11 per glass.
Even friendlier is the bar food. Former St Ali chef Andy Gale is in the Smalls kitchen and he's cooking a cleverly conceived list of salty, pickled and preserved stuff very well.
Mollycoddled oysters are offered natural or – praise the retro food gods – in excellent Kilpatrick form. There's also a ridiculously good plate of assorted crunchy fried animal parts – pork crackling, puffed tendon and crisp chicken skin – and a croque monsieur pimped with fresh truffle. There's a whole quail, cinnamon-roasted, quality prosciutto and jamon and addictive soy pickled mushrooms. It's not a long list but it covers a lot of ground and would stand up well if you've decided to settle in and make a night of it.
Melbourne has always done wine bars well and Smalls has certainly added its voice to that chorus. But the sharp attention to detail in every aspect – decor, booze, food, service – means that it's a bar that's also pushing the genre forward. And that's no small thing.
Drink this Wine! Perhaps a glass of 2014 chenin blanc from South African producer Testalonga.
Eat this Truffled croque monsieur ($12), preferably with more fresh truffle shaved over the top.
Check this The tiniest booth in Melbourne, a single-seater, complete with marble table and a hidden storage shelf.