Aside from the coincidental irony when an eponymous fable becomes the restaurant, desserts know no boundaries at this edgy wine bar.
In the last half-a-decade or so, Melbourne’s northside has been increasingly viewed as an up-and-coming place, a favourite of the hipster and bohemian, the student and emerging professional. Mirroring this trend, a few inspired dining venues have opened for business along its generally nondescript road strips. A short gust of wind away from the bustle of Lygon Street, the TownMouse is one such space. There’s a cartoonish signage painted gold and stickered to its windowed frontage. Inside, it has the buzz of a casual watering hole, filled with the raucous chatter of locals and urbanites in their third and fourth decades, as well as small flocks of north-side hipsters sporting geisha red pouts, retro-punk coiffures and logo shirts. Yet in furnishings, the TownMouse is more a mod-Melbourne version of an Italian aperitivo bar. You either peck at your food while seated on adult-version high chairs, or perch and bob your head around the huge bar. The typical roman vermilion red has been modernised with a shiny, patent black paint job that hints at a seriously slick attitude. Think neighbourhood wine bar then, with a distinctive edge.
MoMo & Coco visited for a weekend dinner. The TownMouse’s sharing style, modern European, a la carte menu was a short, six-phrased song, titled “To share, Raw, To start, Vegetables, Meat and fish, and Desserts.” For $3 each, the tawny brown Profiteroles filled with goats cheese and laced with Melbourne Rooftop Honey satisfied their appetizer criteria perfectly — a touch savoury and a touch sweet. It was our favourite savoury dish of the night. From the “To share” section, the Lamb Belly ($22) was set over a grid of of carrots, pea balls, goat’s milk, and pistachio. It looked so ordinary, but appearances can be so deceiving. Carrots had been “dehydrated” to such an extent that they were carotene-free, transformed into charcoal black twigs, yet still surprisingly imparted a carrot’s characteristic sweetness. We have since been informed that the carrots used were actually “purple carrots,” rather than orange carrots. The four squares of lamb touched with the sticky sheen of orange blossom were delectable, but … we were left a little stupefied by its one-tablespoon dimensions. Shareable? From the “Vegetables,” the Kipflers ($12) were described as cooked in “toasted hay, buttermilk, crisp sage and almond brown butter.” Captivated? But… we tasted a nutty, earthy tone that quickly dropped away to bland dryness. It was a potato-based dish that reminded us of Pei Modern’s Dutch Cream Potatoes — that same complexity of ingredients, that same muted taste, not for unrefined palates such as ours. From the “Meat and fish” section, we selected the Roasted Wagyu Rump Cap ($55), but… notwithstanding that we requested medium/well-done, it arrived ruby red with only a browned outer crust of fat. Sashimi-style, not roasted. The walnut butter countered neither the squishy texture nor the increasingly nauseating, metallic meat taste. Perhaps we should have followed instincts and selected the Barramundi ($36) in a heart-warming chicken broth, or the Venison ($35), intriguingly accompanied with “cocoa, smoked beetroot, dried fig, hazelnut, blackberry & bay leaf.” Indeed, friends who visited on a subsequent weekend and whose opinion can be considered most reliable couldn’t be silenced in their praise of these latter two dishes. Next time then.
The TownMouse offered four desserts, of which we bypassed a “fermented sorbet.” The desserts at the TownMouse are the reason we feature the TownMouse in this dessert-only blog — they were the highlight of our TownMouse experience. The “Honey Figs, Poached Fig Meringue, Soured Orange Juice, Brown Butter Ice Cream” ($14) was the most traditional of the dessert options in the sense that it fell directly within the “sweet dessert” genus. However, there was nothing conservative about it. Spangles of toffee glass were anchored by wispy soft meringue, fresh fig quarters, and a solitary pale, mushroom-brown quenelle of brown butter ice cream. One spoonful yielded a spectrum of sweetness — molar-sticking hardness, airy chalky softness, then creamy/grainy earthiness ending with a hint of acidic sharpness. It is the dessert to order if your wish to end your meal with a sugar bang.
Straining, rather than straddling, the boundaries between sweet and savoury, the “Chocolate Tart, Thai Flavours” ($15) was probably our favourite TownMouse dessert. A glossy mound of chocolate ganache flickered with a lick of what we thought was soy sauce, a tinge of peanut or peanut butter, and a snappy clap of chilli. It was partnered with a necklace of diced apple cubes, pineapple and something else, sparked with coriander and lime. Serving as an initiation into the curious world of “savoury desserts,” this dessert belongs to the category of desserts that at first, widens eyes and furrows brows, before after a few more nibbles, causes the creased visage to morph into a soft satisfaction, and lastly, scrape, scrape, where’s the rest?
The “Lemon and Yuzu Curd, White Chocolate, Burnt Coconut, Spiced Rum & Coconut Sorbet” ($14) resembled a shovel of fireplace ash… and tasted similar. Warning — this is a Korean bibimbap dessert. Before eating, you need to stir and mix, swirl and toss, like a dancing flapper. Balancing on a mound of crumbled meringue, flaked coconut, and penne pasta-like tubes of white chocolate, a meringue cigarette enclosed a length of icy coconut sorbet. Burrowing beneath, you will positively overdose yourself on the seemingly innocuous tiny rum jelly cubes, and then you spot a streak of yellow. You hope this is relief from the boozy brutality, but the yuzu curd is more wasabi bitter than citrus twang. Some things are better left buried perhaps. A softer acidic edge would have been ideal.
On our visit, service was faultless — friendly and timely. No hipster condescension here, no rushing diners, no pushy business.
Dining at the TownMouse is akin to trying on a dress — sometimes, there may be nothing wrong with the fabric or the cut, and it may even flatter you. Yet somehow, it’s difficult to substantiate the assertion, it’s hard to place the source of the sentiment, somehow, it just isn’t quite “you.” The TownMouse is an audacious wine bar with a convivial atmosphere and pleasant wait staff. It has one of the most fascinating menus in Melbourne (although the 2D-3D translation occasionally requires more sensitive palate radars than ours). Desserts are born of a daring mind possessed by an agenda to elasticize and evolve dessert’s traditional sweet profile. The results? It’s difficult to compare desserts at the TownMouse with desserts sampled elsewhere. One of a kind. If you are seeking the above, the TownMouse is most certainly, your type of place. There is most definitely, nothing significant to cavil about the TownMouse, but to us, it embodies its eponymous fable perfectly.
Dessert adventure checklist
- ☑ Dessert destination: The TownMouse Restaurant and Wine Bar, 312 Drummond Street, Carlton, Vic 3053.
- ☑ Budget: $$$.
- ☑ Sweet irresistibles: Restaurant dessert. Modern European.
- ☑ Must-eat: The “Chocolate Tart, Thai Flavours.”
- ☑ The short and sweet story: Notwithstanding the coincidental irony when an eponymous fable becomes the restaurant, visit this edgy wine bar for desserts that knows no boundaries.