As you may well know, The Commoner had to close its doors for a few months due to a fire in the kitchen. Head chef Adam Liston headed back to his hometown of Adelaide and worked the pans at Bistro Dom (reviewed here) while the kitchen was being rebuilt. And while Adam won’t be returning to the helm, we heard on the grapevine that the menu will stay true to The Commoner’s modern European offerings with a strong focus on local produce and seasonality.
So, since they have recently reopened their doors, it seems like the perfect time to sing their praises and go in and support the team! Here’s our review from when we visited earlier this year:
I’m just going to come out with it – we were blown away by The Commoner. And it wasn’t just due to the locally sourced, beautifully presented food – it was the sense of genuine passion for feeding diners that infused every staff member we encountered. How has it taken us so long to discover this gem? Well, keeping up with Melbourne’s incessant openings meant we just hadn’t given this Johnston Street restaurant a look in. No hype and no grand opening often meant no visit. What a tragic oversight on our part. If the cavernous and, quite frankly, impersonal Virginia Plain, queuing-out-the-door Mamasita and two-hour waiting list Chin Chin are the teacher’s pets (or class bullies), then The Commoner is the quiet achiever. There are no bombastic press releases, no pretentious concepts, no look-at-me mentality. And that is utterly refreshing.
The converted terrace house started out with 30 seats in the main dining room before owner Jo Corrigan and the team felt ready to expand to the walled courtyard out back and upstairs rooms. It’s exactly how a place should evolve – honing its craft and putting the customer’s experience first. Many restaurants struggle to survive their first few years – no amount of fireworks and funky fit-outs can save them – it’s simply a case of slow but steady wins the race.
Talking of the fit-out, the dimensions of the original residence remain almost intact. The front room is cosy without being cramped and has a view into the bar and kitchen, which run almost the length of the building. Down a narrow corridor you reach the charming covered courtyard (with outdoors heaters), where the wood oven is fired up every Sunday lunch. Ascending the rickety staircase you come to two dining rooms, utilised only when downstairs is fully booked but also available for private parties. The Rabbit Trap contains one long wooden table that seats 10 and the larger Long Room (originally a balcony, now s space flooded with natural light) has its own bar.
For a restaurant that prides itself so highly on meaty mains and a rural welcome, it seems only fitting that there is a slight agricultural feel to the decor. Rusty barbed wire and antique cutlery form macabre chandeliers, and a large skull on the wall overseas proceedings upstairs. The mechanics of butchery is a theme established in the dining room, where an old-school meat grinder sitting on one of the tables is populated with bright yellow flowers.
Something about the food reminded us of another unassuming institution, this time in London, which has kept going strong amid hundreds of restaurant openings and closings over the year. If you are ever in town, Andrew Edmunds on Lexington Street in Soho is a charming dinner spot with daily changing hand-written menus and a casual capability that is really refreshing.
On arrival, we headed outside to soak up the last of the day’s warmth and, after a glass of fizz (Amie Sparkling NV, Macedon Ranges), we knew we weren’t going to be making any decisions, so went for the ‘Feed Me’ option – five courses for $65. It went a little something like this:
Two savoury profiteroles – choux pastry pipped full of lusciously creamy chicken liver parfait with a hint of citrus imparted by droplets of nectarine vinegar jelly.
Next, house bread, cumin-toasted sesame seeds and a gloriously green-hued olive oil for dipping. The sesame seeds made a subtle change from the ubiquitous dukkah and didn’t distract from the subtle flavours of the starter dishes, for example, the insanely more-ish cheese and onion croquettes. The dish was an exercise in the importance of nailing the simple things – you can keep your complex culinary flourishes with a mash this deliciously smooth and creamy and breadcrumbs this bite-worthy.
Fried and salted padron peppers were refreshingly juicy, and neither of us stumbled upon the one-in-20 mouth-tinglingly hot specimen. Crystals of salt added crunch; we felt like we were in Spain again.
We moved inside and on to an incredible drop from Brown Magpie winery in Geelong – their pinot gris is sensational, full of fresh flavour and citrus notes. This next dish might have looked like a side, but the roasted heirloom carrots and mixed grain salad was worth savouring in its own right. The quinoa had a few cracked almonds dotted through it adding great textural contrast, and little piped towers of labneh imparted a creamy richness. A dish like this simply doesn’t work if the produce isn’t up to scratch – head chef Brook Petrie clearly takes pride in sourcing and respecting great ingredients.
One of my favourite dishes of the night was the chargrilled calamari with ‘Sunday lunch’ (according to Jo) stuffing – a rich and meaty bacon and bread paste. It doesn’t sound that appetising, but bear with me. Tender calamari, perfectly cooked, filled with a rich and comforting stuffing that reminded me of Christmas dinner back home. Yes please.
Our main was a really substantial dish – and equally divided into two halves on the serving plate to make divvying up the wood-roasted lamb, roasted red onion yoghurt salad and cumin-fried chickpeas very easy. Juicy meat and crunchy chickpeas, with smooth yoghurt imparting moisture alongside the rich reduction. Also loved the breaded lamb components, a really well thought out dish.
As a side – zingy and light watermelon and ricotta salad with roasted shallots and mint.
Lucky us – we got two desserts. The first consisted of two little squares of dark stout pudding with a salted caramel sauce – lovely fluffy sponge that delivered a rich, savoury hit – kind of like a beer-inspired take on a sticky toffee pudding.
Then lecce merengada (ice cream meets meringue) and caramelised oranges (nothing too tart or overly acidic here, just a little touch of sour to balance the sweet).
All up, our (roughly) five-course meal probably cost $10-15 less than if we had ordered all the elements individually, but for us the real selling point was that we ate items we might not otherwise have ordered. We were sad that the curious sounding ‘Birthday chicken’ didn’t show up among our selection, but there’s always next time.