Opening a wine bar seems to be the hippest of moves these days, though as you've probably noticed from the likes of Gertrude Street's Marion and Bar Clarine, the game has definitely changed. "Stiff and stuffy" has been turfed in favour of a far friendlier model — and as drinkers become more adventurous, those wine lists get way more interesting.
Embla is the latest example of this new breed of wine bar, and it's a prime one at that. Brought to you by those clever folks behind The Town Mouse, the Russell Street space is instantly inviting, with a chic, yet warm, European charm. The cosy confines mark it as perfect date night material, while stools lining the bar and open kitchen lend themselves perfectly to some sophisticated solo dining.
A considered pouring list plays to both the curious and the more conservative. Here you'll feel just as comfortable sipping a Save Our Souls chardonnay from Mornington ($12) as you will avoiding a hangover with a low-intervention number, like the 2011 Pheasant's Tears Rkatsiteli from Georgia ($15).
Technique-driven, but not pretentiously so, the food is as great as you'd expect from the Town Mouse team; the menu proves a winning blend of comforting flavours and cheffy flair. Sophisticated snackers are in excellent hands with the likes of oysters ($4), delicate anchovy toasts ($3.50) and pickled cucumber, which arrives dotted through a pool of feta and sprinkled with dill dust ($8).
Hungrier punters can aim straight for the half roast chook ($33) or Black Angus bavette ($28), or else dance their way through a parade of smaller plates, cheese and charcuterie options. Meaty njuda packs a spicy punch ($14), while a lively riff on the usual tartare sees cubes of beef tossed with lemon, ginger, radish and coastal rocket ($16). Elegant veggie dishes — like the Insta-famous, wood roasted broccoli ($10) and a creamed corn crème fraîche concoction ($12) — are destined to be much more than just sides. However you choose to tackle the menu, be sure to leave room for desserts — those New Year's resolutions will fly right out the window with one bite of the boozy peach rum baba ($10).
The vibe is polished, yet friendly, and the staff know its stuff. Minor glitches on a busy Thursday night are easily forgiven, smoothed over with deft professionalism and a rather charming French accent. Everything here's designed to make you feel right at home, but far from bored. And what better place to raise a glass to Melbourne's wine bar renaissance?
Images: Thomas E. Graham