PORT OF CALL
Stephen Lunn finds safe harbour and a taste of the sea at a cosy Melbourne brasserie
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.
Shell shucked: Oyster lovers are lured by the variety, left; smoked kingfish, spelt blini and scallop dust’