Dining at Merricote is akin to discovering that first-edition book in a second-hand book shop.
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 young professional. Mirroring this trend, a few inspired dining venues have emerged from its generally nondescript road strips. Nestled between a heritage strip of buildings, Merricote is an unassuming space of rustic domesticity. In the front dining area, less than thirty may be seated at undressed hardwood tables. An increasing rarity in Melbourne’s dining landscape, these tables are well-spaced and far apart, positioned over a well-treaded Persian-style rug. The galley bar that is the focal point of so many Melbourne restaurants is not here. Moved to one side, one’s gaze will instead fall upon figurines of farm animals clamouring for attention from a small display shelf, the snappy monochrome tiling work, and the impressive wine cellar. A large gilt mirror reflects the natural light that streams through the full glass frontage, and the electric lights from the exposed looped ceiling bulbs and the retro-vintage lampshades. Merricote’s uncluttered, somewhat spartan, yet homely decor is at polar ends to the unexpected poetry of its contemporary culinary offerings.
MoMo & Coco visited for a weekend luncheon. Seasonally changing, Merricote’s traditional 3-course-structured a la carte menu was a lovely one-pager, smartly arranged as a six-line marching band. Described with the same military succinctness, there were four items under the six headings of “charcuterie, snacks, entree, main, sides and desserts.” Being lunch and being summer, our dining party decided towards lightness. The complementary starter bread was a malty beer and farrow bun, taken with a lush spread of butter and a sprinkle of hand-harvested sea salt flakes. For starters, we selected an ice-cold jar of House-made Duck Rilettes ($8), with a good meat-fat ratio, though the congealed lard top layer was a little scary for one dining companion. It came with seeded lavosh crackers and a dish of cornichons, and is recommended for sharing. Lunch gathered momentum with two of the most elegant entrees that MoMo & Coco have had the pleasure in partaking in quite a while: the pale peridot salad of Tuna, Kingfish, Tonic, Pomegranate, Wasabi ($19) featured a graceful touch of Japonoiserie, with tonic jelly cubes tossed with ruby drops of pomegranate, and little pink quartz squares of sashimi-style tuna and kingfish crusted with the piercing piquancy of wasabi. By contrast to this fresh subtlety, the Salt Cured Duck, Melon, Pine Nuts, Kolh Rabi ($18) was all robust vivaciousness. Stunningly presented, five thinly sliced medallions of salt cured duck (rind included) were arranged in a crescent that hugged an island mound of pinenuts and peas. An artist may have strewn the pink kolh rabi nubs, orange cantaloupe and the violet petals, but it was a musician that allowed this dish to sing to such operatic heights. If our dining party had arrived with emptier stomachs on a cooler day, we would have had our finger pointed at the Quail Hot Pot ($18), and the well-regarded, more classical mains of the John Dory ($30) and Rump ($29). We would also have indulged in a glass or two from the award-winning wine list.
Framed on a pretty floral vintage porcelain plate (MoMo & Coco would love to see more restaurants use dining ware that is not de rigeur white), the second irresistible sampled was the “Cardamom-infused Milk Chocolate Mousse, Grigottines” ($15). Resembling Ayers Rock during the wet season, a large mousse mound was festooned by a garland of spiced walnuts, pecans and almonds, and cubes of a blood-red jelly that echoed the flavour of their grigottines counterparts (morello cherries which had been feverishly soaked in a french liqueur for what seemed like centuries to give them a fiercely explosive flavour). A reprieve from these charged flavours, the mousse itself imparted emphatic cardamom accents amid the sweet delight of milk chocolate. Seemingly much maligned as evidenced by other restaurants’ predilection for the more adult, illicit bitterness of dark chocolate, it was particularly lovely to have the more child-friendly, universal appeal of milk chocolate feature in a dessert.
The third sweet irresistible of the “Dutch Mess, Homage to Everything Orange” ($14) was certainly no mess of a dessert. Presented like a bird nest in a chaliced plate, it again redefined the pure and simple joy of another sweet irresistible harking back to childhood days. A wreath of orange fairy floss cradled a solitary smooth pink egg of grapefruit sorbet. Beneath this halo cloud, a warm golden palette shone forth from the wedges of tangelo, dusky pink grapefuit, scattered nasturtiums and a curious vanilla icecream square with a smudge of a sponge base. It was an ambrosial irresistible.
The fourth sweet irresistibles were macarons, six little morsels by Josephine ($12). The wait staff was most kind in accommodating our request to purchase to take away, tying it up in a little cute bundle. Our bundle included three pairs of rosewater, raspberry and pistachio macarons. Quite delightful — consistent flavour strength and appearance, though a little soft in texture. We will review “Macarons by Josephine” shortly in a separate, more detailed post, and will link it here. Stay tuned!
A quick mention also to Merricote’s rear courtyard, an extension of that homely feel found in Merricote’s front dining room. This little cloister is turfed with artificial grass, scattered with monochrome picnic furniture and a few kitschy touches of old parking signs, piglet statues and a garden gnome. Sunlight filters through the polycarbonate roofing, basking a bucolic wall mural in its glow. Ensure that you take a sneaky peek.
Rendered by a mature team, service was of the most exacting standards, with none of the insouciance characteristic of a younger generation of wait staff polluting so many Melbourne restaurants. Faultless, really. If there were recruitment agencies in the hospitality industry, Merricote’s accomplished wait staff would be head-hunted and poached. Although MoMo & Coco would possibly qualify this statement as we dined during a quiet weekend lunch hour, we would expect the level of service during busier times to be of the same high standard, given the evident years of experience of the wait staff.
Cast aside one’s prejudices born of its low-key rustic decor and its nondescript northern suburban location. Dining at Merricote is akin to discovering that first-edition book in a dusty second-hand book shop, or that priceless painting in the forgotten backroom of an antique store. MoMo & Coco haven’t been this excited about dining in Melbourne’s northern suburbs nor with modern-Australian/European food since the advent of Cutler & Co. At Merricote, you won’t partake in quotidian European bistro fare, nor will you find the contrived, lightweight, high-falutin, over-priced creations typical of many restaurants with the same modern-Australian/European orientation. Instead, Merricote is an embodiment of a gastronomical flight of fancy, but unlike the ill-fated ambitious Icarus, it is steadfastly anchored with serious conviction and maturity. From start to finish, it never looses momentum, showcasing degrees of great creativity and originality. It all ends with a booming crescendo of three particularly exceptional sweet irresistibles. Overall, it’s a wonderfully realised dream of a dining experience.
Dessert adventure checklist
- ☑ Dessert destination: Merricote Restaurant, 81 High Street, Northcote, Vic 3070.
- ☑ Budget: $$$.
- ☑ Sweet irresistibles: Restaurant dessert. Modern European.
- ☑ Must-eat: Every dessert that you can fit in, but especially the “Dutch Mess.”
- ☑ The short and sweet story: Dining at Merricote is akin to discovering that first-edition book in a second-hand book shop.