One part Spanish hacienda, one part New York magic, another part simply Melbourne…do a Pamplona-run for it.
Spain is a luscious melting pot of Catholic religiosity, Islamic mystique and European charm. As the newly-born sibling to the Gertrude Street tapas stalwart, Anada, the Aylesbury is rather like Spain. It can’t quite be placed. Its name is curiously English. Yet, its arched doorway is a testament to a key architectural feature commonly found in iconic Spanish buildings. It has an inviting air, leading into a short hallway with the mosaic aesthetic of an Italian osteria and an inner door filigreed with arabesque wrought iron. Straight ahead is a lobby that wouldn’t look out of place in a corporate firm, its shiny grey steel elevator ascending five floors to a fabulous rooftop bar (more on this later). Tucked to the left of the entrance, the main dining area precisely reflects Melbourne’s obsession with a decor that blurs the line between restaurant, bar and kitchen. Seating is perched at a galley bar of mammoth proportions, or at small side tables positioned along the wait staff’s bustling thoroughfare. Arguably, the best tables are at the front parlour, with a vantage point of the street and the venue itself. Here, seaweed green banquettes and lacquered chairs contrast with the vintage white walls. Window boxes of pansies, petunias and nasturtiums evoke an English cottage air. Small ceiling downlights and table tea candles inject a moodier sensuality as the sun goes down.
On our second visit, MoMo & Coco visited for an after-work dinner. Following an aperitivo upstairs at the rooftop, we scanned the restaurant’s menu with some trepidation. It featured less of the Spanish accents of the rooftop’s tapas nibbles, diverging also from its older strictly-Spanish sibling, Anada. Instead, the shared-plate-style a la carte compilation of “raw, small plates, share plates, sides” resembled Cumulus in structure, style and brevity, but departed by championing “organic, rare breed, home grown produce and nose to tail dining.” As pork, rabbit and offal were either culturally prohibited or unfavoured respectively, our dining party selected a carousel of small plates and sides. The Wagyu, Bone Marrow, Morcilla ($14) was a show-stopper, an absolute must-eat for the lover of charcuterie. Seemingly laser-cut into paper-thin slices, it was uplifted by a melange of various spices, edible flowers, and the crunch of charred marrow and just-fried breadcrumbs. A table-silencing, flavour minefield. The starter bread deserve a special mention too, a perfect complement with the charcuterie. The stalks of Asparagus, Curd ($7) were slightly undercooked, but the exquisite streak of creamy curd dotted with fried breadcrumbs saved that dish, though it yearned for a more generous dollop.
Presented in a head-turning steaming pan, the aromatic Salt Baked Rock Flathead ($28) was tender white, threaded at the table. If the English love their gravy, the French their cream, the Italians their olive oil, this dish was an authentic showcase of the Spanish love for salt, evocative of sunset dinners on the Costa de Sol. Better than the Saffron Cauliflower ($8) that was yellow in colour but mellow in flavour power, say hello my darlings to the Pink Fur Potatoes, Duck Fat ($8), shaved into wedge crescents. Pity that we wished to save stomach space for the sweet irresistibles, for the eponymous Aylesbury Duck ($38) and the Dry Aged Beef (market price) called to us. Next time, next time. Curiously though, we note that other patrons embarked on a similar, predominantly small-plate route.
Turning to the dessert menu, there were only three irresistibles available, described in succinct duo syllables. Curiosity piqued, all three MoMo & Coco had to have. The first irresistible to be sampled, the “Citrus” ($14), comprised a suite of three components. The ordering of the tasting was not explained by the wait staff, but we discovered it to be essential. One must taste first the baby-pink quenelle of grapefruit sorbet. Making one pucker, it was an effective and revitalising palate cleanser, sitting astride a bed of granulated sherbet-like particles. Tasted next, the helmet of grapefruit and orange slices wore a Roman plume of an almond biscuit, the latter punctuating the preceding soft elements with a crunchy contrast. Suitably soured now, a spoonful of lightly-scented orange panna cotta came as sweet relief, its texture of a somewhat heavier and creamier creme caramel rather than a panna cotta per se. It was dotted with poppyseeds to highlight its milky colour. Sampled in this order, the Citrus proved to be a fruity, just sweet narrative, particularly wonderful if one had embarked on a meat-heavy meal.
The second irresistible sampled, the “Rhubarb” ($8) was another deconstructed dessert creation, again possessing the whole spectrum of flavours and textures. Its centrepiece was a hedge of diced, just-cooked rhubarb and cubes of flamboyantly scarlet, jaw-droppingly bitter campari jelly, tempered with a waft of basil and mint. A crushed trail of sugared pistachio and teardrops of chewy meringue added a desirable, but flickering sweetness. When rolled into an emulsion with the island of sour cream yoghurt, the Rhubarb was a concordant harmony. One dining companion however, disagreed, describing it as one of Bach’s baroque cantatas, too many things at one time, a discordant pandemonium. Although we disagree with our dining companion, MoMo & Coco personally remain unconvinced of the appropriateness of rhubarb in any desserts. The Rhubarb represented a contemplative experience, nonetheless.-
The “Beignets, Chocolate” ($12) was the only classical dessert option available. Not your generic Spanish churro things, this French-inspired irresistible was a bold anthem of universal appeal. It made for a stunning endnote to our dinner. Four decadently sugared, deep-fried orbs were served warm, to be dipped into a pool of molten dark chocolate. A menu misstep not to have had a “do not share” warning,” the Beignets had a simple gravity that had seemed somewhat lost in the contrived complexity of the other two desserts. Simply hmmmmm…irresistible…
A special mention to the rooftop bar also, its inclusion on the premises a masterstroke. Contrasted with other Melbourne rooftop institutions, you won’t find the Alannah Hill-esque frippery of Madame Brussels, no often-inebriated crowd of the Rooftop Bar, not so much of the older scene of Campari House, not so much of the dressed-up fuss of the Red Hummingbird/Emerald Peacock (a MoMo & Coco favourite nonetheless), nor much of the banking boast-fest and politics gabfest of Siglo (another favourite). In a league of its own, the Aylesbury’s rooftop is one part Spanish hacienda, one part New York magic, another part simply Melbourne. (*Apologies for the terrible i-phone generated photo, MoMo & Coco are still overcoming camera-etiquette issues, and we were preoccupied with enjoying the Aylesbury, rather than photographing it.*)
Perfect for the indecisive, the drinks list was succinct — the cocktails at $14 or $18 stirred in some Spanish-inspired fire, but the longer, very decently-priced wine list generally did not. Cooked to order from the behind-the-bar kitchen, the bar snacks covered the base from caviar, oysters to olives, beans, and meatier tapas. They rivalled that available at many Melbourne bars, including one of MoMo & Coco’s favourites, the Waiting Room. Arriving as a shareable pair, the Lamb Ribs with Zataar ($7) were moist and juicy under a crispy skin, with a squeeze of lemon for zing. The ever-dependable drinking nibble of croquettes were infused with a unique smoky, earthy essence in the re-interpreted Smoked Eel and Horseradish Croquetta ($3). Another must-eat must be the Chorizo and Piquillo Roll ($5), a mini-burger in a slightly sweet (but thankfully, not brioche) bun, sandwiching a bed of chorizo, slices of piquillo, covered in melted cheese. It exuded warmth, fun and pure joy. Eat me, and eat me now, it cried. There are times like this that we sometimes wish that this journal-blog was not dedicated to chronicling sweet irresistibles only — we rate it as a favourite burger miniature, alongside the Little Press‘ mini-Wagyu burger and Movida‘s calamari mini-burger. All in all though, the perfect end to a sultry, balmy evening was found, not in the oft-seen Churros ($10), but rather in the bowl of Granita, Citrus, Yoghurt ($7) snow — gently sweet, a little zesty, an ever so refreshing jolt of cold simplicity.
From our very first visit two weeks after opening to the subsequent fourth at the date of this writing, the service delivered both upstairs and downstairs continues to impress. Exceptionally well-versed with the menu and incisive in their suggestions, the service staff were also focused and diligent — refilling glasses without being summoned, checking up on dishes without being requested, and exceedingly apologetic when the kitchen seemingly tended to become a little overwhelmed as the venue filled to capacity. And by contrast to wait staff in other shared-plate-style restaurants, the staff at the Aylesbury either had the foresight or common sense or simply all of the above, to coordinate the arrival of plates in complementary pairs, rather than as a slow one-by-one process or all at once. It was a superb level of service that longer-running restaurants often fail to deliver and/or remember as important.
In London, the Ledbury has been awarded two Michelin stars for creating a haute gastro-pub experience that elevates basic but quality produce with eclectic finesse and decorative flair. The English St John’s Restaurant & Bar is notable for re-introducing rare-meats/nose-to-tail dining into the 21st century. But it’s not just a shared name suffix and culinary focus from which parallels may be drawn. There’s far more also, that distinguishes the Aylesbury from becoming yet another self-absorbed member of the small-plate/shared-plate phenomenon. In truth, overlooking the few quixotic quirks in the food, there’s much to love about the Aylesbury, and love it MoMo & Coco does. We love the menu’s cosmopolitan confluence of various European culinary influences. Translated into cooking that’s inspired, anchored with a sonorously stronger masculine presence than the metrosexual Cumulus. The knowledgeable, crack team of the wait staff. The buoyant, but not raucous atmosphere that still permits intimate conversation with both food and people, rather than with only the former (as seems to be the focus of newcomers such as the over-hyped, over-loaded, over-stuffed, so-over-it Chin Chin). The presence of a bookings system for people (young people, mind you) who do not wish to queue for food as for war rations. The absence of a timed-seating policy, allowing for leisurely immersive dining from the time of la merienda to la cena. And yes, the very convenient nook of a rooftop bar, for bebidas and tapas “before, after, whenevs,” as serenaded by the short but sweet cocktail list. So, add it to your dining and drinking agenda, and make it a priority (and a favourite) before the rest of Melbourne does a Pamplona-run for the Aylesbury.
Dessert adventure checklist
- ☑ Dessert destination: The Aylesbury Restaurant and Rooftop, 103 Lonsdale Street, Melbourne CBD, Vic 3000.
- ☑ Budget: $$ -$$$.
- ☑ Sweet irresistibles: Restaurant dessert. Modern and neo-classical Spanish/European.
- ☑ Must-eat: The “Beignets.”
- ☑ The short and sweet story: One part Spanish hacienda, one part New York magic, another part simply Melbourne…do a Pamplona-run for it.