157 Fitzroy St St Kilda, VIC 3182
|Opening hours||Daily 5pm-11pm|
|Features||Bar, Accepts bookings, Wheelchair access|
|Prices||Cheap (mains under $20)|
|Payments||eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9525 4488|
In the past year more of Andrew McConnell's restaurants have been slashed and reinvented than have characters in Game of Thrones. In Cutler and Co's case, it's worked out well.
This time, it's his Fitzroy Street site that's gone under the knife, for the third time, no less. Originally Golden Fields, then wine bar Luxembourg, it's become a reboot of the summery pop-up McConnell ran as a prequel to opening Supernormal in the city.
If you went to the pop-up you'll remember it was all whisky highballs and trying to fold into tables without sitting in a neighbour's drunken prawns. By all rights, that sunny pop-up was McConnell at peak party. By contrast, Supernormal proper, when it opened in the CBD with its elegantly sparse reality, felt like someone had called the neighbours and asked him to keep it down.
For Canteen, the fizz is back. It's low-key, pro-snack, and brings the fun in a way you might not have felt in Flinders Lane. The long marble bar and subway tiles are still backdrops, but the look this time, pulled together by Zenta Tanaka of Collingwood's Cibi, is darker, and intentionally closer, with a metal communal table. Dark aprons flutter over the bar and cloud-like light fixtures float like lanterns.
Cram in. Order up. That will look like summoning highballs with yuzushu (Japan's limoncello), slightly salty and floral umeshu spritzes and maybe a mystery tinnie from a pictogram list. Ordering food is via the age-old method of tick-a-box.
In the spirit of bringing the fun, yakitori is taking focus. Giant prawns come with their decapitated heads and instructions to suck. The duck hearts, fair warning, come rare and with just a sprinkle of togarashi to neuter the offally reality. Less intense, juicy chicken meatballs flecked with ginger and garlic, which you dress with soy and lightly cured egg yolk.
The menu is in the hands of Supernormal sous chef Tim Geogan, and features some stayers. The twice-cooked duck, born here when it was Golden Fields, has yet to hit the cutting floor. It's its usual shreddable-with-a-fork texture beneath the strangely alluring uniform crust. Better yet, these days the steamed bao that you stuff it with hoisin and cucumber before dipping in vinegar have become ethereally light.
It's a homecoming for the New England lobster roll and the pork wontons, too. But there are strong newcomers between. There are pickles, sweet-spicy and freaky looking with thick-skinned watermelon radishes and mild Chinese artichokes that resemble witchetty grubs.
A cup o' noodles in a custom porcelain vessel sees the springy strands loosened by a complex dashi, and layered with a few slices of abalone for an instant lunch of legends. From the chilled sea creature section, surf clams and mussels chill in a sort of fruity-fresh green salsa involving scallion and a little shiso.
The geography of the food is largely smudged, vacillating between Japan and Hong Kong. School prawns in a hail of batter debris could be a little more fragrant, but it's hard to argue with a deep-fried crustacean.
On the flip side a cold-cut of brisket eats like corned beef with the intense mouth-numbing zing of Sichuan pepper. Also from the excellent meat files: plush, sweet and smoky char siu pork neck with a green crunch of garlic shoots is crazily addictive.
There are surprisingly only a few all-veg dishes. Alterations can be made, but it seems odd the cabbage and wood grilled carrots electrified by miso, though tasty, is currently the largest dish without a face.
Here's the funny thing. Besides the looks and a more pronounced drink-and-snack agenda, Supernormal Canteen isn't that dissimilar to Golden Fields.
You've tried these dishes before. The average spend is still probably about $70 a head and Leanne Altmann's list of producer-focused wines and sakes is tighter but as good as ever.
So who's to say the buzz surrounding Canteen will last? Maybe it won't. But it seems McConnell, more than any other restaurateur, has evolved to make our fickleness work for him. Any money that if business slows, he'll be ready to hit reset.
For now, let's hope the Canteen is here for a long time and a good time. Especially when there are $5 taiyaki to close. Nothing says happiness like a fish-shaped cake-waffle with a Valrhona chocolate heart. Nothing.
Pro Tip: There's a special every night, and Mondays are about fried chicken.
Go-to Dish: Cup o' noodles with abalone and a taiyaki fish cake to end.