On common ground
Author: Michael Harden
Photography: John Laurie
These restaurants have closed.
To hear some Melburnians tell it, the cultural divide between the north and south of the Yarra River is so great that it's a gap beyond bridging. But in a recent piece of cliché-dismissing symmetry, two small restaurants on opposite sides of the river have arrived to prove that when it comes to food, at least, there's more that unites the city than divides it.
In the southern corner is Il Fornaio, the former St Kilda bakery where dessert queen Philippa Sibley has taken over the stoves. She's ditched the bread side of the business, concentrating on a menu that divides its time between her rightfully legendary sweet things (yes, her famed take on the Snickers bar gets a guernsey) and some simple but quite lovely savoury stuff, like fresh broad bean felafels served with mint and sheep's milk yoghurt, or beautifully plated hand-cut applewood-smoked salmon strewn with sieved egg, dill and baby capers.
In the north corner there's Next Door Diner, a gently idiosyncratic dark-hued local in a converted Northcote pharmacy. It champions artisan produce (big-flavoured Plains Paddock lamb is a menu stalwart) and seasonal eating not by blustering about it but by dishing up the sort of skilfully cooked, vibrantly flavoured food that can have you plotting a return visit mid-meal.
But Il Fornaio and Next Door have more in common than being well-crafted neighbourhood restaurants. Both have women running the kitchen, and those women, Sibley and Next Door's Leilani Wolfenden, once cooked together at Melbourne's now quasi-mystical fine-diner Est Est Est. If you want to push the "sisters are doing it for themselves" barrow a little further, the wine lists for both places - an all-boutique Aussie list at Next Door, a blend of well-priced Old and New World personalities at Il Fornaio - are also compiled by women, Emily Pullen and Jane Thornton respectively.
Il Fornaio was recently bought by Salvatore Malatesta (of St Ali fame), and, in addition to the coup of getting Sibley on board, he's planning to spruce up the space, something that the well-used former café surely needs. The bones are there - the industrial split-level space with its polished concrete floor has a certain grace - but the furniture is showing signs of wear and doesn't match the quality coming from the kitchen.
An elegant glass and metal display case at the top of the central stairs gives some indication where the look might be going. At night, its minimal, spotlit displays - carefully arranged cheese, wine boxes filled with tomatoes and chestnuts, a side of smoked salmon, meticulously aligned bottles of Champagne - mirror the cinematic, artful quality of Sibley's food.
Il Fornaio's menu is divided into "Salty" and "Sweet" sections weighted slightly towards the salty, though it would be easy to just use the place as a dessert bar. Certainly the "Poire belle Hélène my way", Sibley's take on Michel Bras's classic, is worth a trip across town: it's a sculptural combination of a cylindrical chocolate coulant filled with a richly oozing chocolate ganache flavoured with honey and an exquisite poached pear hiding a centre of ice-cream made with Heilala organic vanilla.
Then there's "Snow White and Rose Red", an ever-evolving dessert on the theme of rose geranium and rose petals that at Il Fornaio takes the form of a pink and white sundae with layers of rose geranium ice-cream and moscato-poached rhubarb, sugared rose petals, strawberry consommé and delicate meringue.
Hazelnut and quince clafoutis or mandarin crème caramel might provide further encouragement to hang the savoury stuff and go on an all-out dessert bender, but that would mean missing the coq au vin pithiviers, a ripper of a chicken pie made with superb puff pastry, a shiny, golden triumph of a casing that's chock full of little onions, bacon, button mushrooms and chicken and served with a jug of gravy.
There are also prawn and saffron arancini, little beehive-shaped beauties that deliver flavour and texture in equally satisfying amounts, handmade pappardelle tossed with a rich lamb ragù studded with black olives, and a simple but inspiring salad of apple, carrot, a couple of types of shredded cabbage, and currants soaked overnight in red wine vinegar, all tied together with a restrained olive oil and pomegranate molasses dressing.
Next Door Diner also has a noteworthy salad featuring currants, this time macerated in dry sherry. They're added to a mix of burghul that's flavoured with thyme and garlic, slices of sweet fresh pear, and chopped and roasted organic almonds. It's an earthy, homey dish but one that's also refined and balanced, which is a pretty good indication of Next Door's entire approach.
The split-level dining room goes for the semi-industrial, recycled look (loved on both sides of the Yarra, apparently) with concrete and timber floors, a bartop fashioned from the timber laneway of a bowling alley, exposed brick walls and flattering lighting courtesy of a fleet of hand-painted shades. It's a warm, appealing room, fashionable in a low-key way that speaks more of comfort than trend.
Leilani Wolfenden's menu is all about comfort too, with a slight European bistro bent and a good understanding of texture. There's artichokes barigoule, the artichokes cooked in a combination of vegetable stock and riesling and combined with steamed mussels and fresh chervil. There are brilliant little cauliflower croquettes where roasted cauliflower is teamed with béchamel, mozzarella and Dijon mustard before being crumbed and deep-fried, and chicken wings salted, confited and roasted before being served with a Jerusalem artichoke purée and celeriac salt.
Wild barramundi, its skin stuffed with herbs, is combined with preserved lemon, fennel and leeks and then baked/steamed in paper, dressed in a combination of grapefruit and blood orange pieces and dill and topped with a small crowd of tiny, crunchy, salty onion rings.
Wolfenden has a whole Plains Paddock lamb delivered every week and on the menu there's a constantly changing lamb dish that takes shape according to which parts of the animal are still available. One version sees the leftover "scrappy" lamb pieces braised in lamb stock and then flaked through pearl barley, bacon and anchovies before being served on wilted baby spinach and topped with a couple of char-grilled lamb cutlets.
Desserts at Next Door also toe the comfort line, perhaps cinnamon doughnuts, some filled with vanilla cream, others with apple sauce, or a classic chocolate mousse teamed with prosecco-poached rhubarb.
There's probably a gender studies thesis somewhere here on why these two restaurants run by women have appeared as the dining zeitgeist swings towards simple, humble, honest dining. But that would be missing the real point: that Il Fornaio and Next Door Diner are improving the lives of Melburnian diners, regardless of which side of the river they're from.
2c Acland St, St Kilda, (03) 9534 2922.
Cards AE MC V.
Open Mon-Fri 7am-11pm, Sat-Sun 8am-11pm.
Prices Snacks $3.50-$14, mains $18-$19, desserts $14-$19.
Vegetarian Two snacks, two mains.
Wheelchair access No.
Plus Access to Philippa Sibley's sweet and salty sides.
Minus The room is shabbier than the food deserves.
NEXT DOOR DINER
204 St Georges Rd, Northcote, (03) 9939 1350.
Cards MC V EFT.
Open Wed-Sat 5.30pm-11pm, Sun noon-11pm.
Prices Small dishes $7.50-$14, large dishes $12-$22, desserts $10-$12.
Vegetarian Three dishes.
Wheelchair access No.
Plus Finely crafted comfort food.
Minus More robust heating on cold nights would be a comfort.