Raising the bar: a Melbourne wine bar crawl

Author: Michael Harden and Larissa Dubrecki
Photography: Julian Kingma, Tess Kelly, Raphael Recht

Melbourne has a fresh crop of wine bars as notable for their kitchens as their cellars. Join us for a crawl?

Marion Wine Bar
Is it a wine bar or a restaurant? More to the point, does it really matter? Sharp, clean, interesting plates and witty, assured service have made Andrew McConnell's latest Gertrude Street venture a new landmark almost overnight. Sea urchin on a squid-ink cracker with finger lime and tiny discs of pickled cucumber? Check. Ribbons of ox tongue and mortadella sprinkled with horseradish and chive flowers? Check. Mussels, out of their shells and hidden under a dark red pile of fiery 'nduja "crumbs". Heck yes. Better still, Marion's snappy 14-page wine list is complemented by access to the full cellar of neighbouring McConnell flagship eatery Cutler & Co. 
Marion, 51-53 Gertrude St, Fitzroy, Vic, (03) 9419 6262; open Tue-Fri 5pm-11pm, Sat-Sun 8am-11pm.

Bar Liberty
Bar Liberty is the lovechild of  Attica  alumni Banjo Harris Plane and Michael Bascetta and Rockwell & Sons
' Casey Wall and Manu Potoi (who also did time at Attica; yes, it's complicated). Start the evening or afternoon with a bottled cocktail or make a start on Harris Plane's 130 bottle-strong wine list. The former GT Sommelier of the Year winner has a love affair with chenin blanc, riesling, rosé and skin-fermented, low-intervention wines, but he's also pulled out all the stops sourcing broadly and deeply into some serious back-vintages. Snackage includes the likes of thin slivers of fried potato topped with puréed mussels, pickled red onion and lovage powder, and a killer GLT, a kosher sandwich of lettuce, tomato and gribenes - crunchy fried chicken skin - on sliced white.
Bar Liberty, 234 Johnston St, Fitzroy, Vic; kitchen open Wed-Sat 5pm-11pm, Sun noon-9pm; bar open until 1am Mon-Sat, 11pm on Sundays.

Embla already feels like it's been around forever and here's hoping it
stays that way. Brought to you by Christian McCabe and Dave Verheul from The Town Mouse and French natural-wine guy Eric Narioo, Embla's smart, comforting food and equally savvy wine list (most of it minimal-intervention stuff) make this a CBD must-do. It doesn't take bookings, so you can anticipate a wait, but a seat at the kitchen bar, watching the chefs roast chicken to order in the custom-built wood-fired oven make it more than worthwhile. Don't miss the whipped 'nduja, either, or the charred broccoli.  
Embla, 122 Russell St, Melbourne, Vic, (03) 9654 5923; open Mon-Wed noon-midnight, Thu-Fri noon-1am, Sat 4pm-1am.

Kirk's Wine Bar
Green tiles scrawled with daily specials, a smoky-pink terrazzo floor, small round tables, framed vintage Italian booze posters and a sculptural timber-topped bar. Is this Melbourne's most European wine bar?
Quite possibly. A partnership between Con Christopoulos, Josh Brisbane and Ian Curley of The European, City Wine Shop, Siglo et al, Kirk's is all about comfort. Swing by for European classic hits such as steak tartare, duck and pork terrine and vitello tonnato, plus oysters with horseradish and bottarga. The wine list is a user-friendly mix of renowned local producers - Curly Flat, Mount Mary, Luke Lambert, Craiglee - mixed with a solid showing of Old World labels, such as the 2012 Bernard Defaix Côte de Léchet Chablis.
Kirk's  Wine Bar, cnr Hardware La and Little Bourke St, Melbourne,Vic,(03) 9600 4550; open Mon-Fri 7.30am-11pm, Sat-Sun 9am-11pm.

French Saloon
Upstairs from Kirk's, meanwhile, you'll find French Saloon, an even newer  Christopoulos-Curley-Brisbane venture. The menu, designed by Curley in collaboration with head chef Todd Moses (late of Supernormal), is a solid bistro don't-scare-the-horses affair: there's dry-aged steak, flounder roasted whole and served with shellfish butter, oysters, caviar and a good range of cheese and dessert, including gelati from the group's own Gelateria Primavera. The booze list, as user-friendly as the menu, leans towards the French and includes a strong selection of apéritifs.
French Saloon, level 1, 380-384 Little Bourke St (enter from Hardware La), Melbourne,Vic,(03) 9600 2142; open Mon-Fri 12pm-11pm.

Owned and run by Jess Ho (freshly minted TV celeb, marketing whiz, one-time blogger, and bar reviewer), Smalls inhabits a fashionably spruced former garage next door to St Ali. True to the name, it's compact but it's not cramped. Wine is the main event and the two-page bottle list, aided and abetted by a single page of glass-pours, combines friendly mark-ups with a trend-savvy collection of interesting labels. There's also an excellent short (or small) menu from St Ali chef Andy Gale, who's all over the wine-bar food brief with quality prosciutto and jamón, a black pudding parfait and a fine croque-monsieur.
Smalls,  20 Yarra Pl, South Melbourne, Vic, no phone; open daily 3pm-11pm.

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