Stephen Lunn finds safe har­bour and a taste of the sea at a cosy Melbourne brasserie

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence -

WHAT a dif­fer­ence be­ing greeted at the door by a warm grin can make. It’s the Satur­day night be­fore the Lo­gie awards and the idea of a pre-din­ner drink in Melbourne’s city cen­tre has be­come an or­deal. One es­tab­lish­ment, where some of the cast of Un­der­belly have taken up res­i­dence, is so happy to bask in the glow of B-grade celebrity that other cus­tomers seem a bother.

So, slip­ping through the doors at Oys­ter Lit­tle Bourke to the wel­com­ing smile of co-owner Luke Stringer is like find­ing an oa­sis in a sand­storm of glit­ter. Ex­pe­ri­ence re­ally does count. Stringer is a con­sum­mate front-of-house man­ager, hav­ing held the po­si­tion at Noosa’s Ber­ardo’s and Melbourne restau­rants Ezard and Circa.

His gen­uine hos­pi­tal­ity is ev­i­dent. In­stantly we feel in safe hands.

Along with two other ex­pe­ri­enced coown­ers — head chef Joseph Var­getto, who has worked at the Vene­tian in South Yarra and along­side Philippe Mouchel at Lang­ton’s, and long-time restau­rant owner Frank Wilden, whom Syd­neysiders would know from his restau­rants Coast and Manta Ray — Stringer opened Oys­ter lit­tle more than two years ago to much ac­claim. So, has it main­tained its form?

Sit­u­ated at the top end of Lit­tle Bourke Street, 100m or so re­moved from the hus­tle and bus­tle of the restau­rant hawk­ers in Chi­na­town, Oys­ter com­petes with near neigh­bours Becco and Kuni’s for the suits dur­ing the day and the­atre­go­ers at night.

Its night guise is invit­ing, with cosy light­ing from the street and a lay­out that makes it pos­si­ble ei­ther to pop in for a dozen oys­ters and a glass of chablis at the white mar­ble bar in front, or take your time in the restau­rant proper. The cream in­te­ri­ors, set off with chrome light fit­tings, give the im­pres­sion that the bistro is larger than it is, and the choco­late-coloured car­pet cush­ions the din, mak­ing con­ver­sa­tion eas­ier.

We settle in at a ta­ble for two af­ter an­other busy week, with much to muse over. Does the West Aus­tralian Lib­eral Party re­ally be­lieve some­one who will for­ever be known as a ‘‘ seat snif­fer’’ could be elected pre­mier? Which way to head on a win­ter hol­i­day, north to the sun or south to Tas­ma­nia? And, of course, the menu.

Var­getto’s menu fits on to a sin­gle page. Eight starters, six mains, five steaks, and oys­ters just about any way you want them. We make an early call to share a dozen oys­ters and for­sake dessert. This is no easy de­ci­sion. As we dis­cuss it, the man at the ta­ble next to us is handed a serv­ing spoon, and a deep pan with a full tiramisu alla nonna is placed in front of him ($15). He is in­vited by the wait­ress to spoon into his plate as much as he wants.

‘‘ What’s the greed­i­est any­one’s been?’’ he in­quires. ‘‘ Three gi­ant scoops,’’ says the wait­ress.

Our fear of break­ing the restau­rant’s greed­i­ness record tips the scale in favour of the oys­ters. They come fresh and cool from South Aus­tralia’s oys­ter beds, six from Cof­fin Bay and an­other half dozen from Port Douglas, served in a stylish alu­minium tray filled with rock salt ($40).

Var­getto sources his oys­ters from far and wide, from Mer­im­bula in NSW to Pipeclay La­goon near Ho­bart. We opt for min­i­mal ac­com­pa­ni­ment — lemon, shal­lot and red wine vine­gar — though there are sev­eral more or­nate, cooked op­tions: floren­tine, kil­patrick, gratin or crumbed and fried (all $23 for six, $42 the dozen).

At this stage, hol­i­day plans are shelved. It’s a long-forgotten plea­sure, pick­ing away at a dozen beau­ti­fully pre­sented oys­ters, plump and flavour­some. It won’t be so long be­tween shucks next time, we de­cide.

The safe hands we felt our­selves in on our ar­rival ex­tend be­yond Stringer’s own. Our waiter, when asked, gives us a run­down on the restau­rant’s his­tory. He’s been here since its in­cep­tion (a good sign). He of­fers to match wine with the oys­ters, and we each choose dif­fer­ently. I or­der a tart 2006 Gil­bert Picq Chablis ($13 a glass), she a 2002 Tyrrell’s Sin­gle Vine­yard Belford Semil­lon ($13). The zing in the cit­rusy semil­lon is the win­ner here.

Seafood and pasta dom­i­nate the starters. My part­ner chooses a com­bi­na­tion of the two themes, More­ton Bay bugs with ri­cotta gnoc­chi, green peas and basil ($20). It’s a clever dish, the rich sauces set off against the light­ness of the peas. The bug meat is ten­der.

I try the seared scal­lops atop cros­tini swathed in a spicy homemade rel­ish ($21). Four is a gen­er­ous serv­ing, and the yin-yang of del­i­cate scal­lop meat

‘ against the rel­ish works well. Again, an en­joy­able dis­cus­sion with the waiter ended in his rec­om­men­da­tion of two wines with our en­trees, a 2006 Tar­raWarra Es­tate Chardon­nay ($18) with the bugs, and a 2006 Bollini Pinot Gri­gio ($11) with the scal­lops.

The dishes away, and our sat­is­fac­tion with the first half of the meal high, our tra­di­tional be­tween-course game of ‘‘ spot the restau­rant’s de­mo­graphic’’ can be­gin. We need go no fur­ther than the mu­sic, au­di­ble but not over­pow­er­ing. Joe Jack­son’s In­totheNight. There might even have been some­thing from the Smiths.

It’s hard to re­sist duck at the best of times, and the roast duck breast with green lentil sauce and a madeira jus ($38) that passes by on its way to an­other ta­ble makes it even harder. But I stick with seafood and opt for the roasted bar­ra­mundi fil­let ($38), perched on two lay­ers of sauce, one of viner­ipened tomato, the other wa­ter­cress.

This dish ex­em­pli­fies fresh in­gre­di­ents done well, noth­ing more, noth­ing less: the white bar­ra­mundi flesh a del­i­cate sponge for the zest of the tomato sauce.

My part­ner heads to the iron-rich end of the menu, or­der­ing Gipp­s­land ten­der­loin steak served with an ar­ti­choke puree ($38).

The lack of con­ver­sa­tion at this point, de­spite the need to clear up some of the weekly is­sues, such as whether Madonna should just give the game away at 49, is ev­i­dence of culi­nary suc­cess. The sides of sugar snap peas ($8.50) and roast potato ($8) are gen­er­ous.

From the grin at the start of the night through to the mac­chi­ato at its con­clu­sion, ex­pe­ri­enced hands at the tiller of this well-run bistro make it a place a vis­i­tor from in­ter­state or a first-timer from Melbourne won’t re­gret visit­ing. And they will very likely re­turn. All Ta­bles vis­its are unan­nounced and meals paid for.

Pic­tures: Stu­art McEvoy

Shell shucked: Oys­ter lovers are lured by the variety, left; smoked king­fish, spelt blini and scal­lop dust’

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