Do you want to hear a secret? We’ll tell you – even though it pains us to share this absolute gem of a place – but we figured, if you are reading our blog, you are probably the kind of person who deserves to be let into the inner circle. We like to reward our loyal followers once in while.
So here goes – where can you find Melbourne’s best-value degustation menu? No, it’s not in the CBD, but the chef did spend four years at budget-busting fine dining restaurant Vue de Monde. And talking of value, a bottle of wine will set you back about $35, while glasses of vino in the next-door bar linger around the $4 mark. Intrigued?
It’s in Clayton, in fact, it’s in Clayton Bowls Club. That’s right – we have to thank the wonderful @NatStockly at this point, as much as we would love to take full credit. This man knows his food and where to hunt out the best spots – his reviews can be reliably found on Urbanspoon and it is always worth taking a look at where he recommends.
Anyway, as much as we respect Nathan’s restaurant radar, if he hadn’t put us onto Fat Bob’s a few months before the (melbourne) magazine blurted out the location of Victoria’s best burgers (yes, this place could beat Huxtaburger and Tuck Shop Take Away and Mr Burger in an artery-clogging heartbeat when it comes to taste and value, and random atmosphere – situated as it is in an old sign-writer’s garage on a Moorabbin industrial estate) we might not have made the half-hour scooter journey down the Nepean. But we are glad we did, because this weekly-changing menu was awaiting us at the end of it:
Saturday 14 September
Soft shell crab, shaved asparagus, buttermilk
Flinders Island lamb, nettle puree, peas and wild garlic
Dry-aged rib, smoked beetroot juice, bone marrow and charred onion jam
Cold-pressed apple, celery gel and ginger beer sorbet
Poached strawberry, parsnip ice cream
We loved every course, we loved the handpicked flowers on the tables, we loved how attentive and chatty the staff were, without ever being too much. And, as we mentioned before, we loved that this set five-course menu was $50. Is it that simple, you ask? Yes, you rock up, you tell them if you have any allergies or dietary requirements (ideally when you make the booking – although when we returned with a non-shellfish-eating friend they were quick to accommodate us) and then they feed you. See? Simple.
You can even play a spot of bowls before you eat – the pristine green beckons from the dining room window, and it’s a great way to work up an appetite. If you are lucky, one of the professional coaches might be around to explain how to play – we were very grateful to Graeme Archer whose patience and teaching meant we were only vaguely terrible.
And then there is the large bar area and pokies room – if that’s your thing. It might be lacking in creature comforts – head chef Clinton McIver is a long way from the posh Christofle cutlery of Vue, but the dining room is warm and welcoming, and the dim lighting and paper tablecloths almost conceal the conference centre-style tables and chairs.
So why did Clinton make the move? He admits he was initially motivated by the desire to keep a low-profile, but having been made an offer by the team at Clayton – his local bowls’ club – he thought it might be interesting to “see what sort of reaction we’ll get when people started to discover what was on offer”. Well, people clearly like what they see – and the Saturday night menu is gaining in popularity with locals.
Clinton is the first to admit that – having earned his culinary stripes with stages at Mugaritz in San Sebastián, Spain and Oud Sluis in Holland – this was not a strategic career move, but he is pleased he has managed to turnaround Champions’ fortunes, and attract a new clientele to the club.
It’s a small team – partner Aline, who he worked with at Vue, is his pastry chef by day and floor staff by night, and then there’s the kitchen hand. They are realistic about what they can offer and aim to feed around 35-40 covers each Saturday, and it’s this lack of pretension that is really refreshing and enjoyable. The food is there to be enjoyed, and Clinton hopes to experiment a little more once he gets a few extra sets of hands onboard. “So at the end of it all, everyone here is just as important as me in making this achievable and we are all going for the same thing. Fun!”
So how long can this seemingly to-good-to-be-true experience last? Not that long, unfortunately. Clinton and Ali plan to head overseas in February, so you had better make a booking – as there are only so many Saturday nights until then. We returned last Saturday, and will be doing so several more times before we have to wave farewell to what is, finally, wallet-friendly fine dining in Melbourne.
Saturday 28 September
Spanner crab, buttermilk, citrus gel, cucumber and verbena
Pork cheek, quince paste, fresh mustard fruits
Smoked duck breast, blueberry, parsley root and cress
Charred lemon curd, meringue and yoghurt
Clayton Bowls Club Springs Road
Phone: (03) 9544 9929