Is that a gazelle gazing at your dinner? Anthony Huckstep experiences Melbourne’s latest bar and grill, and it’s off-the-wall.
The walls have eyes in a dramatically unique Melbourne diner.
IF YOU’RE FEELING more stuffed than a centipede’s sock drawer after dining at Natural History Bar & Grill, spare a thought for the taxidermy. Yep, that’s right. As you ruminate on your rare hanger steak, an array of former foxes, mountain goats and peacocks – stuffed and mounted – peer over your shoulder from inside a magical mural-meets-diorama glass terrarium.
Created by artist Vanja Zaric, it certainly raises the stakes for a point-of-difference dining environment. Natural History, from the 100 Burgers Group, is housed in a former ’40s bank on Melbourne’s busy Collins Street and fashioned on the ideals of New York’s Grand Central Oyster Bar.
The steakhouse, designed by Michael Delany and Jamie Wirth, is of gargantuan proportions – some 350 seats. As such, there are different areas, experiences and a lot of energy. It’s dark, salubrious and gives off a ‘bowels of the city’ vibe. Banquettes and captain’s chairs run alongside the taxidermy, and chandeliers, chequered floors, bar stools and olivegreen benches fill the cavernous room. There’s a cafe, cocktail bar, porchetta bar and, of course, the pack of wild critters – both taxidermy and guests alike. The epic drinks list is ever-so pro-natural wine and the cocktails lean on the classics.
In the kitchen is chef Morgan McGlone of Belles Hot Chicken, exponent of US Southern cookery. Here, he’s sticking to no-fuss favourites, but making a crashlanding with big flavours.
Light beef-tendon chicharrón provide the vehicle to scoop up textural O’Connor pasture-fed aged sirloin tartare with smoked oysters. With all the condiments to turn through it and a soy-cured yolk on top, it’s fabulous. Then lettuce cups accompany raw tuna that begs to be tumbled with a richer rendition of a
ravigote sauce (think mustard, capers, oil, vinaigrette). Fillets of Cajun-spiced rock ling are stacked on top of pickled green tomato and soused slaw – it’s lovely, but the mix of spices strangely reminds me of a McDonald’s apple pie – a dessert McGlone honoured at his last digs, Hotel Harry in Sydney.
Then a delicate yet rich crab lasagne takes the cake. An amber tomato sauce is ladled over sheets of chargrilled eggplant and zucchini, each layer separated by spanner crab mousse. It’s probably the most satisfying ‘fancy’ lasagne I’ve eaten. An O’Connor hanger steak – black on the outside, ruby red in the centre – comes with café de Paris sauce and roasted onions. Simple but well executed – the hallmark of a mature chef. Natural History isn’t groundbreaking, but it’s not trying to be. It’s generous servings of classic grub in a cocktail-swilling setting that offers a big night out, and if you’re not careful it might knock the stuffing out of you, too.
FROM RIGHT: dine in a salubrious setting; Vanja Zaric’s taxidermy diorama; (inset) charcuterie plate with vegetable crisps and crudités.