A microcosmic experience of Melbourne dining 2012, Albert St is so easy to love…but for the shoe-gazing service.
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. The relatively new Albert Street Food & Wine exemplifies the increasing pace of a demographic change in Melbourne’s inner-north. Although attracting a crowd generally not drawn from that more traditionally associated with the Sydney Road area of Brunswick, Albert St’s patrons canvass the general spread of Melbourne society — well dressed and under-dressed, rough and dainty, loud and demure, hipster and conservative. Melding a savvy day and night, eating in and eating out business model, Albert Street is a brunch cafe, food store, restaurant, wine bar, local pub all at once. Behind a old bank-like frontage, booths and stools are propped at communal tables and along an enormous bar which imposes itself upon the space. The rest of the restaurant is cloned from the mind of some overpaid interior designer firm peddling its exasperating fixation with black wood, matte steel and raw timber all across Melbourne.
MoMo & Coco visited for a weekend dinner. Drawing lightly on the Middle Eastern heritage of Albert St’s Sydney Road location and injecting it with the European flavours more appealing to its dining crowd, Albert St’s a la carte menu was set up as shared-plate-style, with “to start, pizza, from the grill, other, pasta, sides, cheese and desserts” from which to select. Between our dining party, we shared the Grilled haloumi zucchini pickle ($14); the puffy Albert St Special Pizza ($18) studded with sausage and strewn with roasted peppers and mozzarella; the Quail ($22) married to the moreishness of black truffle; the classical Spanner Crab Risotto ($28) with mushrooms and chestnuts providing an autumnal/wintry touch to the creamy indulgence; and the Grain salad ($9) embedded with the ruby jewels of pomegranate and snowy white of fromage blanc blobs. At Albert St, flavours were light, sometimes bordering on too careful, a little bland. Neither ground-breaking nor too rustic, it was reasonably good. Perhaps the wine list was more successful, extensive, with a number available at a reasonable range of below or at $10 per glass.
There were 5 desserts are Albert St, of which we sampled all except the poached pear thing. The first irresistible was the “Strawberries, Balsamic, Ice cream, Basil, Meringue” ($15), a pretty pink dish that made us nostalgic for summer and spring. On an ice cream mound, sweet halved strawberries provided the fulcrum to a web of feathery meringue sticks which seemed to invoke that old childhood sweet treat of musk sticks. Simple, refreshing, but we couldn’t taste any alleged balsamic or basil.
The second irresistible was the similarly summery, “Sauternes Creme Caramel, Mandarin, Passionfruit” ($16). At Albert St, the centrepiece of the creme caramel demonstrated an assured understanding of the distinction between creme brulee, creme caramel, flan, custard etc, an understanding that is too often lost in renditions of the like at other restaurants. At Albert St, its smooth roundness was accentuated by the discs of orange, and sweet thickness complemented by the sharp acidity of the citrus entourage.
The third irresistible was the more wintry “Quince, Ginger Breadcrumbs, Preserved Lemon Ice Cream” ($16). MoMo & Coco cannot fault the constituent components — a quince that had either been heavily poached to mushy softness or reconstructed into a paste, the handful of spiced crumbs, nor the ice cream that was only gingerly infused with lemon — but this dish didn’t really warm our hearts.
The fourth irresistible was preceded by the most gushing recommendation of not one, but two (we kid you not), wait staff. The “Meyer Lemon Tart” ($14) arrived unfanciful. Stark on its plate, dusted with icing sugar, it was all sour palate cleanser. Thank heavens that there were four of us sharing this tart! We liked the pastry base especially, and believe we have found our top three lemon tarts in Melbourne — this one, and our two favourite lemon tart desserts from Mr Hive and Hare & Grace. However, we cannot say that Albert St’s version was the best. Sorry Albert St, but that is our honest answer to your waiter’s rhetorical question “I told you it was simply the best lemon tart in the world, didn’t I?” Such a pre-emptive question was rather irritatingly presumptuous.
On our visit to Albert St, service was…what service? Like its well-stocked wine cellar, Albert St was very well-stocked with waiters. On our visit, there was a lot of walking up and down empty-handed, a lot of idling about near the bar’s counter, a lot of hand-shaking with select patrons. Not much table-serving. Oh did we mention that waiter, the one staff member whose eye we finally caught after 10 minutes, who told us that we had to order all the desserts at the same time and that the chefs couldn’t accommodate an order for the pear dessert because we had “run out of time”(?) Any value of a timed booking policy flies out the door when a customer is not informed of the policy when booking, when the wait staff prefer being seen rather than serve.
Dining at Albert St is more than merely eating-out or drinking-out. Dining at Albert St is to be part of a social commentary, a microcosmic experience of Melbourne 2012. There’s the dining crowd characterised by an edgy cosmopolitanism, co-existing for the most part in unruffled ease. There’s that heavily plagiarised black-steel-timber decor that was once unique, now mainstream. There’s the neo-classical Mediterranean-European-infused food that is egalitarian to most budgets, appealing in its unfussy lightness. You see, Albert St is so easy to love. But then, there’s that level of non-service, courtesy of a veritable troupe of shoe-gazers, coiffure-organisers and walkabouts. Everyone understands that a restaurant is a business. The basic principle of business is that a business will exist so long as it has clients for whom to exist. This applies to every business, whether in resource exploitation, corporate acquisition, public policy, healthcare, consulting, manufacturing, education, social justice etc. No business — especially not one claiming to operate in the business of hospitality — has the prerogative to stop overlooking and dismiss the very tenet that underpins their survival. That tenet by the way, is not the food alone.
Dessert adventure checklist
- ☑ Dessert destination: ALbert St Food & Wine Restaurant, 382 Sydney Road, Brunswick, Vic 3056.
- ☑ Budget: $$$.
- ☑ Sweet irresistibles: Restaurant dessert. Neo-classical Mediterranean-European.
- ☑ Must-eat: The Meyer Lemon Tart, and any pannacotta on the seasonal menu.
- ☑ The short and sweet story: A microcosmic experience of Melbourne dining 2012, Albert St is so easy to love…but for the shoe-gazing service.