In Japan, you expect the unexpected — the best ramen you've ever had down a small unnoticed laneway, a one-barista cafe serving a cup of joe that makes you stop and see the light, an award-winning chef serving you dishes himself — so it makes sense that a small strip of shops on an unloved stretch of Victoria Street in West Melbourne is where you'll find a wine bar serving up a Japanese-inspired five-course omakase (or chef's tasting menu) that's one of the best feeds in the city.
Clever Polly's has been around for a couple of years, but the current iteration, with Sam Stafford (formerly of The Town Mouse and Momofuku Seiobo) in the kitchen and Chris Dobson (most recently at L'Hôtel Gitan) on the floor and wine, has the kind of alchemy you don't see — or taste — very often.
You don't know what you're in for straight away, though. When you push open the glass door for one of three seatings (6pm, 7.15pm or 8.30pm), you'll find yourself in a cosily lit space with a few tables at the front and an open kitchen with bar seating up the back. The small space is well-designed, but not overwhelming so; the vibe is more about making you feel comfortable than winning an award. The welcome from Dobson is similarly warm — you might chat about his dog as he takes your coat and gets you a glass of something interesting. At this point you'll know that you're in for a good time, but it's not until the food starts to hit the table that you'll realise there's something unexpected about this wine bar.
Stafford's menu, like poetry, has serious rhythm. From the cured kingfish with pomelo, avocado and a smokey eel dressing, to the rich, but not overwhelming, dish of ramen noodles coated in a black garlic sauce that tastes like Vegemite and miso. While you're still marvelling at the refreshing rockmelon sorbet palate cleanser, the dessert, an homage to citrus on a sugary slice of brioche, takes over the table and your tastebuds.
In Dobson's hands, the wine keeps pace with Stafford's tasting menu. Clever Polly's focus is on natural wine, but Dobson doesn't let that distract him. He's all about the taste and how the wine enhances the food. He'll tell you about the perfect white to pair with the kingfish — a dangerously drinkable Mt Edward riesling from 2014 ($64 bottle) — or a red for the duck, in this case, a Mayer Granite pinot noir ($105 bottle) that's light and almost syrupy. While the drinks list offers some stellar (and affordable) drops by the glass, and even more by the bottle, you may as well make the night a celebration and get the wine pairing ($120).
This is the sort of place that, once you've discovered it, you'll want to return to again and again. Although, at $70 for the tasting menu, you might have to save it for special occasions. And that's what it is: special. If Clever Polly's was hidden down an alleyway, in a subway station or on a suburban street in Tokyo, you can be sure that people would make a pilgrimage to its tables. It's just our luck then that it's only a tram ride away.
Image: Kristoffer Paulsen.