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The Best New CBD Restaurants to Hit for Dinner One Night This Week

Add these pasta joints, rooftop barbecues and Korean eateries to your mid-week dinner hit-list.
By Concrete Playground
August 22, 2018

The Best New CBD Restaurants to Hit for Dinner One Night This Week

Add these pasta joints, rooftop barbecues and Korean eateries to your mid-week dinner hit-list.
By Concrete Playground
August 22, 2018


Add these pasta joints, rooftop barbecues and Korean eateries to your mid-week dinner hit-list.

When you're leaving the office at 6.45pm with a head swimming with unread emails and a tummy rumbling like the number 109 on Collins, you really are in no state to make dinner plans. In that moment, it feels like you've eaten everywhere of note in the CBD — but that's likely not true. In the last few months, even more new restaurants have popped up within the grid, filling out the laneways with more delights than ever before. You can down bone marrow (and drink whisky from the bone when you're done) in a basement, eat top Korean nosh in a laneway and barbecue on a Bourke Street rooftop. Work through this post-work dinner list — but the time you're done, we'll no doubt have some more new CBD restaurants to add to it.

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    Embla was one of our favourite bars of the year when it opened in 2016, so expect big things when you head upstairs to Lesa. Christian McCabe and Dave Verheul have transformed the space above their Russell Street wine bar Embla into the ultimate escape from all of that CBD hustle and bustle.

    Exposed bricks and reclaimed farmhouse benches lend a warm, rustic feel, completed by wooden banquettes with black leather cushions. A window at the back of the space looks through to McCabe’s prized wine room, its sprawling collection heroing minimal intervention drops and Old World iterations. The duo has created a slower, more intimate sort of dining experience, with both food and a setting to linger over. Lesa has forgone an a la carte offering in favour of a four-course set menu, with a six-course and late-week lunch options to be added in the upcoming weeks.

    A woodfire takes pride of place in the kitchen, preparing dishes such as slow-roasted pumpkin, aged pork loin and hapuka with fermented fennel butter. Not everything touches fire, however, first courses feature raw flounder — paired with hazelnut, green almond and pear leaf — and veal tartare with braised saltbush. At the other end of the menu, you’ll find salted bergamot meringue, preserved nectarines with buttermilk and a tart of délice de Bourgogne — a French cow’s milk cheese from Burgundy. Well, for now, the menu will change regularly.

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    The clever team behind Fancy Hanks and Good Heavens (Kent Bell, Mike Patrick, Daragh Kan and Myles Munro) know what makes a good party — and party you will as soon as you enter Heroes. As soon you step out the elevator, senses are assaulted. Your eyes by a cacophony of colours from the treasures gathered on the owners’ ten-day jaunt around Malaysia. Your ears by music reminiscent of roller skating rinks from Saturday afternoons in the early 80s. Your nose by the smell of the smoky grill. And this is before you put anything in your mouth.

    If you like your cocktails to have qualifications, order a Doctor Jones (rum, Melbourne moonshine sweet tea, turmeric and Malaysian sour plum) and the assault on the sense will be complete. It’s served in a ceramic Willow Pattern high ball ‘glass’, too.

    Then there’s the food. All the cooked offerings come straight off the charcoal grill. Already a firm favourite is the deep fried and barbecued brisket. It’s flavoursome — smoky, salty and tender — made pretty with tiny pickled radishes and musky pops of green peppercorn, and served on roast garlic puree. Offset that with the vegetarian winner, an eggplant swathed with black bean paste, roasted over coals, skewered and topped off with some spring onions. You really can’t beat beautifully cooked eggplant and this one good.

    You can also eat and drink in the rooftop garden, one floor up, with its gaudy coloured fibreglass tables Karaoke is alive and well throughout China, Japan and East Asia and has steadily moved westward to land quite squarely on the floor beneath the bar. You do have to book the karaoke room and you need at least nine friends but that will get you two hours of belting out some Joan Jett and Kings of Leon — if you so desire.

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    If you learn — and respect — the intricacies of particular cuisines, you can successfully fuse them together. And that’s exactly what is being done at Punch Lane’s newest restaurant. Tucked behind Chinatown, Sunda marries together the flavours of Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam with native Australian ingredients. The use of native plants and flora in Australian restaurants noticeable flourished after Copenhagen’s Noma popped up in Sydney for ten months in 2016, where Khanh Nguyen, now at the helm of Sunda, worked as a chef. Nguyen has also had experience working at Sydney restaurants Red Lantern and Mr Wong.

    The two-storey restaurant is located in a former car park and the design of the 78-seat space gives away absolutely no clues as to the cuisines the restaurant is serving up. Walk in and you’ll find bar seating right near the open kitchen, which could be the most exciting place as the sounds of blowtorches and cocktail shakers add to restaurant’s energy. The waitstaff recommend ordering two to three things per section if you visit in a pair. After having some house-made pickles to start, you could indulge in the oysters with coconut curry vinaigrette and Tasmanian pepperleaf ($5 each). Or the roti with Vegemite curry dip ($10). Yes, you read that correctly: Vegemite. It’s combined with sourdough and blended to make a salty, creamy accompaniment to the Indian-style bread — the perfect intersection of cultures.

    Bigger dishes include a cured kangaroo with purslane, smoked egg yolk and toasted rice ($22); and a Fremantle octopus paired with bush tomato and a lemongrass sambal ($24). The menu effectively covers a range of proteins, from land, sea and sky. If you’re a seafood fan, don’t look past the marron, cooked with belacan (shrimp paste) butter, wakame and Vietnamese mint ($42).

    The inventive cocktail list continues the same theme of uniting flavours from several countries. The Saigon punch ($18), for example, combines cognac, Chartreuse, lemongrass, ginger and lime; and the Sunda Sling pairs Tanqueray with andaliman pepper, Benedictine and soda.

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    Restaurant Shik

    It’s not every day you go out for dinner and receive the gift of longevity. But at Restaurant Shik you do, alongside an array of dishes that defy the usual labels applied to Korean cuisine. While owner and chef Peter Jo, affectionately known as Kimchi Peter, says that what he’s doing can’t be pigeon-holed by tradition, but it’s also not fusion. His food is constantly evolving. His philosophy is to use great local produce, respect it, treat it well, and apply Korean techniques to it.

    It would be easy to over order here , but Jo won’t let you. He really enjoys looking after people and making sure they have a good time. Ask him to take you through the menu and he might suggest the starter of finely cubed Rangers Valley beef tartare ($18). It’s lightly marinated and served with cubed Korean pear, cucumber and the teensiest dollops of egg emulsion. It’s an excellent choice — a combination of fresh and smoky all in one mouthful. The little wisps of fried saltbush are a delicious flourish, too.

    On the menu, is the elusively described Goolwa pipis ($26) soya bean sprouts and water parsley. On the plate, it’s a big bowl of savoury spicy broth filled with succulent pipis and the textural sprouts. Another standout is the kimchi marinated pork neck ($32).

    Jo favours natural wines and Shik and has an extensive list of local and international wines by the bottle, and a handful of wines by the glass. You can certainly try some Korean fermented rice wine and beer and there is even a ‘token Aussie light beer.’ And yes, that is how it’s referred to on the list.

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    Tucked away off Little Collins Street, this new Italian place would put a smile on nonna’s face. A passion for quality Italian cuisine is evident at Pentolina, which means ‘little saucepan’ in Italian, with a respect for cooking instilled into head chef Matt Picone by his father, who migrated to Australia from Puglia in the 60s. Learning about the importance of fresh food and ingredients at his father’s Sydney restaurants throughout the early 90s, Matt decided to uproot and move to Melbourne in 1997.

    At Pentolina, the focus is firmly on classic Italian fare with rich, but unpretentious flavours. As well as pasta that’s made fresh each morning, there are some carefully chosen entrees and sides, like prosciutto melone and calamari, plus classic Italian desserts like tiramisù and panna cotta. The daily house-made pasta is vegan and the menu is littered with GF, DF and V symbols, which means that it’s the perfect place to dine if you love Italian fare, but also have dietary requirements. Drinks are equally exciting — and Italian — with spritzes, twists on negronis, a lineup Italian beers and pinot grigio, sangiovese and prosecco on tap.

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    Tapping into Norse mythology, Mjølner has been imagined as an earthly version of the feasting halls of Valhalla. Taking up the lower level in the old Nieuw Amsterdam space, the bar is a moody, intimate space that’s primed for late-night whisky sipping sessions. Worth a visit in its own right, it’s sporting a 3am weekend licence, a solid craft beer tap rotation and some pretty clever cocktails. Above it sits the modern feasting hall, with its neat collection of viking paraphernalia and a very serious display of whisky stretched behind the bar. Here, you can opt to drink your beer from an animal horn, and select your own custom-made knife when you order any meat dish.

    The menu was made for feasting and begs to be shared. Kick things off with the likes of rich Stormy Bay clams, cut through with umami butter and pickled sea greens ($23), or play viking with the most-famous Mjølner Sydney carryover, the roast bone marrow ($20). This one’s the gift that keeps on giving — once you’ve spooned out all that buttery inside, back it up with one of the coolest shots around. For The Whisky Luge, that empty marrow bone gets a lick from a blowtorch, then you pour in your choice of whisky, choose the best slurping angle and voila! If that move doesn’t leave you feeling like an extra from Vikings, nothing will.

    The carvery selection sticks to a simple quartet of bird, beast, fish and vegetable. Opt for the likes of charred bonito matched with a fennel pollen vinaigrette and green tomato ($39), or go large with that day’s meat feature special, dry aged on site and cooked on the rotisserie. On our visit, it was a share-friendly lamb chump ($60), paired with a winter-worthy ensemble of kale, barley and tomato, and waiting to meet your weapon of choice. Gnawing those last bits off the bone is definitely encouraged. Sides lean to the hearty, with seasonal offerings like roasted cauliflower teamed with IPA-soaked raisins and almond dukkah ($12). And, if you’re in the mood for yet more theatre, you can wrap things up with a Blazing Glogg ($22) — a flaming cocktail blending cognac, port and cranberry, infused with a house-made teabag of rich spices.

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    Garcon Paris Steakhouse

    Melbourne has scored a serve of 80s French-chic flair, with the opening of Garçon Paris Steakhouse. Taking over the space previously home to the CBD outpost of Entrecôte, the restaurant is a trendy take on the classic Parisian bistros and steakhouses of yesteryear — with white tablecloths, walls lined with bottles of wine, cosy booths and orb-like lights hanging from the ceiling — and your new inner-city go-to for oysters, Champagne and some really good beef.

    The menu, designed by chef Matt Franklin, previously at Geelong’s Le Parisien, pays homage both to the classic and the contemporary — and heroes top cuts of grass-fed Aussie meat. Go for the classic steak frites, which stars a 250g Cape Grim porterhouse with café de Paris butter, or try the lunchtime mitraillette — an elevated steak sandwich, teamed with herb butter and loaded onto a fresh baguette.

    Other French favourites include the signature steak tartare, a twice-baked goats cheese soufflé, and escargots — bien sûr. Oysters come shucked to order, with shallots and an aged red wine vinaigrette, and there’s a host of proper French bubbly to match. A coffee window caters to the fly-by crowd, while after-work visitors will be all about the daily 4–6pm happy hour, offering $13 glasses of Heidsieck Champagne, $2.50 oysters and a chic snack menu.

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    Bar Saracen

    If anyone has treated Melbourne to a modern taste of the Middle East, it’s Joseph Abboud — first with iconic Lygon Street restaurant Rumi and then with the non-traditional pizza offerings of his two Moor’s Head outposts. And now there’s even more Middle Eastern magic to experience — but this time a little more refined. Abboud has opened Bar Saracen on Punch Lane with his Moor’s Head front-of-house star, Ari Vlassopoulos.

    Keeping it in the extended family, the kitchen here’s being headed up by Rumi alum Tom Sarafian, who’s nudging Middle Eastern flavours into a more contemporary place across a menu of mezze plates, barbecue dishes, mains and sweets. To match, there’s a drinks offering that might just keep you on your toes. Expect lots of local drops, backed up by a range of wines from across Greece, Spain, Southern Italy, Lebanon, Turkey and wherever else Arabians have left their mark. Some hard yakka by the boys themselves has transformed the space once home to Rosa’s Kitchen into the setting for this culinary project, complete with bar seating, comfy banquettes and room for just over 50 diners.


Top image: Sunda by Kate Shanasy. 

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