The Rose of Australia's new upstairs restaurant, Howard's Cantina and Cocktail Bar, is a mature older brother to the pub below. The vibe is still casual and laidback, but it's hitting all the right restaurant notes with table service, a refined menu and a creative cocktail list to boot.
The two-page cocktail menu focuses on classics with a twist and does so with style — especially with their Negroni ($18), which is garnished with Grand Marnier-soaked applewood chips and comes out still smoking. The espresso martini ($18) is one of the best we've had, and though the whisky sour topped with a Barossa Shiraz float ($18) isn't quite our thing, we can definitely see the appeal.
The menu is designed around sharing and has some high concept dishes that are equally well conceived and executed by Tassie-born head chef Chris Bell. He boasts an impressive resume, having trained at Cafe Sydney, then under Andrew McConnell in Melbourne, as well as crossing paths with Attica's Ben Shewry and the team from Hobart's Frankin.
This is no simple pub fare, and the black garlic-cured cobia ($16) is a clear example of Bell's creativity. The dish plays on earthy flavours — as opposed to the traditional salty and citrusy route you'd expect with raw fish — by layering components of beetroot, celery, potato and karkalla (a native edible succulent). Bell puts this type of inventive spin on most of his dishes, including the smoked pumpkin wedge, poached in buttermilk byproduct from their in-house smoked butter and topped with whipped garlic and soy sauce-roasted pumpkin seeds ($12). While wedged veg can be a lazy chef move, this is anything but — the pumpkin takes on a meaty quality and the dish is thoughtfully executed while minimising food waste. The cauliflower is similarly treated but presented in a completely different light; it's served with crispy anchovies, peanuts, apple purée and bright pink pickled turnips that brings through Bell's Southeast Asian and Lebanese influences. But he doesn't get away with just seasoning well — as head chef, he builds flavours that complement and balance each other.
If there was ever a time to share, its with the whey-braised lamb shoulder ($60), which comes out on the bone but falls right off — no knife needed. The whey is the byproduct from their house-made cheese and yoghurt — another sustainable nod — and it's succulent, fatty and far too good to waste even one bite.
The desserts are a playful treat, particularly with the Watermelon Challenge, a combination of cured watermelon, coconut tamarind purée and fresh honeycomb topped with bacon-like dehydrated watermelon and basil ($12). The Margaret and David is a deconstructed movie snack, combining the flavours of Maltesers and buttered popcorn topped with cola sorbet ($15). If you want it all — and you do — the share menu is only $55 per person. We'd highly recommend grabbing three mates and making a night of it.