Melbourne chef Dave Verheul, who gained a cult following for his culinary feats at The Town Mouse, is expanding his moody CBD wine bar, Embla, upstairs to create a new vision of fine dining, where simplicity, quality and vegetables reign supreme.
Bolting up and down stairs is an arduous workout as Dave Verheul can attest. This season, the indefatigable Melbourne chef will unveil a long-awaited restaurant above Embla, the city eatery he operates with business partner Christian McCabe. “It’s only 18 or so steps, which is easier than what I did before,” Verheul says, referring to his previous venue, The Town Mouse in Carlton, which closed its doors a few months ago after five years of trading. It’s onwards and upwards for Verheul, who’s putting the final touches on his latest ambitious project.
Though it’s been two years in the making, Verheul was still deliberating on a name when he spoke to us. What’s certain is that the two venues will be markedly different. Whereas Embla is a casual, moody wine bar with woodfired share plates, the new 54-seat venture will feature set menus, vegetable-centric dishes and an airy design care of architect Allistar Cox. It will trade four days a week, and mostly serve dinner. It’s equipped with an open kitchen, a two-tonne oven and seven windows that gaze out to the treetops of Russell Street. White tablecloths? Verheul bristles at the suggestion. “No way!”
“It’s not classic fine dining, but fine dining has changed so much,” he continues. “It’s now about being somewhere where you feel comfortable, where service is engaged and you’re not pretending to be old English money.”
As the recipes on these pages demonstrate, Verheul has a way of teasing flavour from ingredients. Given his affinity for cooking with fire, it’s surprising to hear him nominate the cold spinach salad as his favourite. He says the old-school green has been unfairly maligned, but shines lightly cooked, so it is “succulent, refreshing and juicy”. A passionfruit posset, a twist on an English dessert, speaks to career stops in London, where the New Zealand-born chef worked at The Savoy Grill with Marcus Wareing.
At Embla, Verheul tweaks the menu every week, and shuns the notion of signature dishes. His impeccable roast chicken, beloved by many patrons for its golden sublimity, appears on the Sunday lunch menu once a month. “When you get known for something it’s great, but it’s also restricting,” he says. “How do you evolve if you just do the same thing?”