Upstairs above l’Osteria and Woodstock, on the corner of Nicholson and Reid streets in North Fitzroy, what was long ago an illegal gambling venue is now one of the most popular restaurants in the inner north. After operating for a few months and gaining a positive anecdotal reputation, I was very surprised to find that no food bloggers have reviewed it (or at least I could find no reviews). How odd, I thought, until I remembered that food blogging is (mostly) over.
I was willing to rely on the verbal recommendations I had received and, chancing my luck on a Saturday evening, I arrived early, about 6.30pm, with a friend but without a booking. We were lucky to get the last table that wasn’t used or booked and was available for walk-ins. For the rest of the evening we had an excellent view of the busy staff in the open kitchen and the regular arrivals who screwed their noses up at the idea but then accepted sitting at the bar and those that turned around and left sober and hungry.
The wine list by the bottle is extensive, and the selection by the glass suits the curious and adventurous drinker. We tasted our way through various reds including a negroamaro from Puglia and a cabernet franc from Friuli (both Italian), a Portugese touriga nacional / alfrocheiro / jaen blend and a shiraz / mourvèdre blend from the Barossa.
Next, the food. We started with orange cured olives and ‘Sicilian’ anchovies (not photographed, also known as Spanish boquerones (anchovies that go white from being marinated in vinegar rather than brown from being being salted and preserved in oil). I wasn’t sure if they would be boquerones and was disappointed when they were, because that meant they were over-priced. When you can buy a packet containing about 50 of these delicious slippery morsels for about $7 at Casa Iberica, paying the same or more for about 8 on a plate cannot be anything but.
We decided on sharing two smaller plates and one larger one in order to leave room for dessert. We ordered the lemon marinated mushrooms (below) and salt roasted beetroots (bottom), which are both amazing dishes, and what the menu describes as ‘slow cooked jumbuck with burnt eggplant, asparagus and mint sauce’ (above).
The dish that arrived featured meat pulled from the bone, but there was no evidence of the mint sauce or asparagus mentioned in the menu. The meat was topped with a few rocket leaves and a kind of babghanoush (the burnt eggplant). The waitress explained ‘jumbuck’ as being sheep meat older than lamb but younger than mutton. I’ve never heard this definition before and suspect that they’d made it up, and that it was simply lamb shank, but I can’t be sure. As far I know, jumbuck is slang from Waltzing Matilda.
At a table behind us a couple in their 50s discussed the menu. They’d been there before and wanted to not eat what they’d had last time so as to appreciate the diversity of the menu. The man suggested the food was quite basic and the woman disagreed. I’d categorise the food as being equivalent to a gastro pub or bistro style. It’s not trying to be overly fussy or formal.
They do steak and chips, not that there’s anything wrong with that. We watched in fascination at the chef who was plating the chips. He looked like the Rain Man of chips, instantly know exactly how many were on each plate. He’d pluck one with his tongs from a plate and move it to another to make each plate the same as the next with a constant expression of calm concentration.
The food is good and consistent. I’m not sure it’s good enough, or good enough value, to explain the popularity of the restaurant. The ambiance is excellent and the wine impressive, which I think are the dominant factors. The service was good despite it being full. The kitchen seemed to be operating smoothly and the front of house staff moved sinuously through the rooms. A couple of glasses were dropped along the way but that barely slowed them down.
The desserts were good too – chocolate stout cake with caramel ice cream for me and meringue with vanilla ice cream, butterscotch and salted caramelised almonds for my friend (not photographed).
I’m not saying Neighbourhood Wine represents style over substance. The food is good and I’d happily eat there again. If the wine by the glass changes regularly I’d also consider a drink there occasionally and maybe eating elsewhere afterwards. But its appearance is impressive and this is significant. The value is reasonable given the overall experience but it may not appear so if the same food was presented in a less appealing space.
While their website is bereft of illustrative images, and its use of scribd to display the menu is awkward, all the photographic eye candy you could want is on their Facebook page. It’s unclear how much online marketing contributes to a restaurant’s success, but Neighbourhood Wine has evidently achieved success. The clientele precisely personified the white bourgeois bohemian demographic that resulted in North Fitzroy being labelled the whitest suburb in Australia a few years ago. Again, not that there’s anything wrong with that. I’m one of them.
Perhaps part of their popularity has to do with the immediate vicinity. In terms of nearby competition, the wonderful Bistro Flor is gone and its very new Italian replacement Da Palladino is an unreviewed and unknown quantity. There’s plenty of pizza nearby, and a few pubs. Haskins in the North Fitzroy Arms used to be good but has declined in recent years (demonstrated by offering vouchers last year). Nearby St George’s Rd has Horn Please and Jorg. Neighbourhood Wine’s best existing competitor may be Bramble and Vine a little further north on the other side of Nicholson St in North Carlton, but it can’t compete in terms of style.
The entrance is off Reid St and up via a narrow staircase, so the disabled access is very poor. The bathrooms are labelled as ‘Ladies’ and ‘Unisex’ and as a man, when you enter the latter, you find yourself in a large room facing three cubicles, one of which is labelled ‘Gents’ and contains a urinal, with the other two containing toilets. The fittings are deco throughout.
Neighbourhood Wine is popular because it is new and fashionable to be seen at, and it is probably the best restaurant in the area. Based on my experience, if you want to get in on a busy night it would be wise to book.