A pang of fear when I saw the email. Clever Polly’s has changed its menu.
Everyone in hospitality knows what that usually signals and it’s rarely a good sign.
However the email said they had decided to go with an “Omakase” menu, which translates to “Chef’s choice” from Japanese. I let out a small sigh as I realised how suited that is to the Clever Polly’s ethos.
Clever Polly’s is a North Melbourne wine bar that specialises in natural wines, sake and a handful of interesting beers. Having tasted wines a couple of times there, snacked once, and dined once; it’s firmly at the top of my recommendation list for visitors to the city. Predating the recent run of natural and esoteric wine bars in Melbourne, Clever Polly’s has an unassuming cool about it. The staff are relaxed and always armed with exceptional knowledge of fermentation. The food unique and prepared in an impossibly small space shared with the bar.
On our recent visit to try the new Omakase menu we settled on the $60 menu, over the $40 option, and perched at the corner of the bar to watch new chef, Sam Stafford (Town Mouse, Momofuku Seibo, Nomad), work. We were happy to let Sommelier Jasmine Wakely (Epocha, The Commoner, Gingerboy) guide us through the drinks.
First course was oyster with trout roe and rice vinegar. Being fans of rice vinegar (honestly, we sincerely are), it was a lovely addition to briny oyster and bursts of trout roe. Served with sherry, it was set the tone for the evening.
Crystal bay prawn with pomelo and ponzu was up next. Delicate, and like the first, a great balance of freshness and umami. This was complemented by a citrusy, cloudy sake. Following that, was my pick of the night in the form of Spring Bay mussel dumplings with xo and a burnt onion broth. The dumplings were light, and nimble; with burnt onion giving an incredible depth to the saltiness and a sneaky rising heat that lingered to elevate it on the palate long after finishing.
Up next was laver roasted radicchio, sour plum, and black garlic. Laver is a type of seaweed and like the dishes that preceded it, this was a cocktail of flavour. Umami, bitterness, decadent garlic and a nice tartness. This was paired with a Gose-style beer that was fermented with watermelon. For those unfamiliar, gose is a German style that is traditionally sour and made with a touch of salt. In my life as a beer writer, I can’t recall many beer pairings and pairings so unique and exciting.
The next course was the first to actually feature wine. And given their reputation for unusual wine, it still completely took us by surprise. It was a Georgian Qveri, and a first for us. The almost turbid orange wine had a depth of flavours that I’m not sure I could do justice to with my limited experience. Let’s just say it was good enough for us to look up where Georgia was geographically and add it to our next European trip. This was paired with steamed sea bream, kombu carrot, brown butter and marinated arame. Like previous dishes, the balance of delicate flavours and umami was spot on and tucked neatly into the depth of the wine.
Finishing up with mandarin curd, marsala sabayon and basil granita; it was paired with an italian rum. Where many places would over-complicate things with gels or foam, a simple few portions of mandarin to provide a fresh burst underneath were incredinly effective. It was smooth and refreshing, with a contrast to the sugary, warming rum.
Talking to the chef he told us working in such a small space, barely able to take a step sideways, was both a blessing and a curse. Having to think slightly outside the box has resulted in a menu that is unexpected and precise. Classic flavours and quality produce presented with a slight twist.
As for the drinks, there was a time not too long ago where “adventurous” drink pairings meant you got a pale ale with your entree and a sake with dessert. Walking into a wine bar and getting one wine across seven courses, Clever Polly’s is pushing the envelope and letting good fermentation speak for itself regardless of the sugar source.
Clever Polly’s will still remain near the top of any future Melbourne recommendations I give.
Contact: Clever Polly’s – 313 Victoria St, West Melbourne VIC 3003, Australia. Ph. 03 9077 9294. Website.
Find Luke from AleOfATime at http://aleofatime.com where he spouts his knowledge as the guru of Australian (but mostly Victorian) craft beer. I have learnt everything I know from listening to his podcast – which you need to iTunes right now. Also Twitter and Facebook.