69 Mackie Rd Bentleigh East, VIC 3165
|Opening hours||Wed-Sun 5pm-late|
|Features||Accepts bookings, Vegetarian friendly, Licensed|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9563 7509|
When you walk into Woodcutters you might think you're seeing double. You are. You're looking at two big, brick, domed ovens and in front of them, golden with the glow of burning red gum, is owner James Leplaw.
This isn't a big place – a converted milk bar in a quiet suburban strip – so why two ovens? It's because each has a different job: one burns at 350 degrees to turn pizzas into blistered beauties, the other sits at 300 degrees to sizzle skillets of meatballs, seafood, even risotto.
Each oven is shepherded through a 24-hour heat cycle that takes a lot of work and produces a lot of magic. After service, fires out, lights off and temperature ticking down to 120 degrees, Leplaw puts in beef, pork and lamb for slow-cooking through the long night. By day, fire crackling again, he braises capsicum, eggplant and onion.
Even after the restaurant is closed for its weekly two-day sabbath, the ovens are still meditating at 80 degrees when Leplaw returns to crank them back up. There is no other heat source: no gas burner, no short-cuts. It's all about the fire.
The food is simple but there's thought, labour and heart in it. Sourdough pizza is chewy and full-flavoured; mine came with a red sauce made from tomatoes and fire-roasted capsicums, pork and fennel sausage from the butcher down the road, and oozy provolone cheese.
Sweet, succulent meatballs are made with pork mince, onion and those capsicums, then long-braised in red wine. They're served with gnocchi. That four-word sentence was easy to write but it does not encapsulate the epic nature of the gnocchi-making.
Potatoes are roasted, the flesh scooped out and formed into dumplings with scant flour. The next step is to boil them but, as you know, there's no stove, so a saucepan of water is placed in the oven to burble and the gnocchi are cooked in that. They're then skillet-sizzled to order. It's laborious and it's worth it: plump, tender gnocchi are a great partner for the meatballs.
The skillet treatment works beautifully with seafood: prawns and fish are caramelised with garlic and white wine, then braised in tomato. There's even a skillet-cooked chocolate brownie, topped with roasted strawberries. Chances are you'll be fed by Leplaw's one employee, Oyku Arslan, who started as a waiter and can now do everything from coaxing the fire to tending the dough.
Leplaw, 45, has travelled a winding road. When he left school he was planning to be the next Jon Bon Jovi so uni didn't seem relevant. His mum coaxed him into an accounting course, then he decided he'd rather be a police officer. Tough times on the beat in drug-riddled Cabramatta catapulted him back to financial services and he worked in banking then for investment newsletter the Eureka Report.
As a career, it looked the business, but work wasn't lighting the fire, so to speak. At home, an interest in fermentation bubbled away, first beer, then vegetables, and finally sourdough. That led to an obsession with wood ovens and, 18 months ago, Leplaw's food dream – cue violins – solidified into Woodcutters Kitchen.
There's something about the simplicity and honesty of fire that seeps through everything here. It's elemental and hearty, the epitome of good mood food, garnished with meaning and joy.
Rating: Three and a half stars (out of five)