312 Drummond Street Carlton, Victoria 3053
It was a rookie mistake, leaving my notebook behind at the Town Mouse, an embarrassing slip only slightly mollified by the alcohol that caused it. Looking on the plus side, they wouldn't have been able to decipher the handwriting anyway - sometimes even my doctor can barely read the scrawl - and as I said to owner Christian McCabe on the way out the door for the second time, it was only good stuff written in my little Spirax book.
Besides, I blame them. The wine list has maximum drinkability, with stellar boutique choices, a side trip into the Orange movement, and enough French and Italian quirk to make it feel special. The staff know how to sell it, too: the waitress reckons I'll like the Alvarino over the sweeter-style riesling, suggests a glass of dry muscadet (''it smells corky but it does clean up''), throws in another off-list curve ball and at the tail end of the evening comes up with a cocktail of which I remember little save that it contained chilli.
Where was I? Oh yes, their professionalism. You're not likely to find rookie mistakes from the crew of New Zealanders behind the Town Mouse, who made an impression at Wellington's Matterhorn restaurant before jumping the ditch and taking over what used to be Embrasse. They've given it a smart wine bar makeover that keeps the retro feel but brings the seats up high (this is not a place for anyone in need of a hip replacement) as well as the acoustics (this is not a place for anyone unable to lip-read).
It's Melbourne's year of the wine bar with great food. The Town Mouse slips comfortably into the script with food that has a sense of adventure while remaining wonderfully free of the chef trying to show everything he can do on the one plate. Dave Verheul had me at his umami-fied seaweed butter, then followed it up with a cracking dish of sous vide calamari, shaved so it's supple and slippery like rice noodles, with oyster cream and raw cucumber, glistening winks of dill oil and the completely unexpected kick of fermented green-apple juice. It sashays with style. He answers the irrepressible gaminess of venison tartare with ginger mascarpone and pickled radish, and a nostril-rattling blizzard of wasabi snow offset by the nashi pear's cool, neutral crunch. Perfection.
I'll also sing the praises of the blackened pork jowl, an ugly curl of face meat marinated in miso and Dijon mustard, slow-cooked then fried and roasted to order so there's an unapologetic ooze of oil when it meets a knife. On the plate's other hemisphere you get a cool, calculated reprieve with smoked carrot kimchi (the Town Mouse is ahead of the trend curve) with translucent green-apple slices and crushed peanuts to amplify the Asian whisper.
As grazeable and shareable as the menu is, all appetites must come to an end. From the four larger dishes we tried only one: a tumble of brined, smoked barramundi with chunks of salt-baked celeriac flesh and a chewy swatch of the deep-fried skin, with young dandelion leaves for bitter freshness and baby onion roasted just to the point of softening, all anchored in a velvety green sludge of lemon verbena puree. Add the green matcha powder dusted around the extremities and there's quite a bit going on, but no sense of excess.
You can finish on a simple note. A fairy ring of salt-dusted light ricotta dumplings around a puddle of mandarin custard is surprisingly paysanne. Or take the high road with quince braised in rooibos tea and a host of other aromatics - the texture is amazing - decorated with lemon verbena cream, walnuts and rosemary flowers, coffee grounds and a shy white ale ice-cream.
The Town Mouse has all the hallmarks of a passion project. It's a bijou 60-seater that won't make the owners rich but pretty much sums up the current moment in food and wine. This place is a brilliant addition to Melbourne. Sorry, New Zealand, but Wellington's loss is our gain.
The best bit Style galore
The worst bit Mosh-pit noise levels
Go-to dish Smoked barramundi, celeriac, lemon verbena, matcha and lime, $36
Wine list A lovely list of Australian and New Zealand boutiques, and lesser-known European varietals
We drank Many things, including the Landron Amphibolite Nature Muscadet (Loire, France) $9/$26/$52
Vegetarian Five dishes
Dietary GF available
Twitter: @LarissaDubecki or firstname.lastname@example.org
How we score
Of 20 points, 10 are awarded for food, five for service, three for ambience, two for wow factor.
12 Reasonable 13 Good if not great 14 Solid and enjoyable 15 Very good 16 Capable of greatness 17 Special 18 Exceptional 19 Extraordinary 20 Perfection
Restaurants are reviewed again for The Age Good Food Guide and scores may vary.