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Monday, 13 January 2014

Scholars Wine Bar (closed)

*This venue is now closed*

All I knew of Scholars Wine Bar (480 Victoria Street, North Melbourne) was that it was a wine bar, in North Melbourne, that did food - mainly because I knew its sommelier and one of its chefs, and that their gal pals spent an inordinate amount of time there. I myself had never gotten around to sampling its delights until a dinner there was suggested. Despite the obvious connections resulting in us being very well looked after, I was surprised and impressed by our meal, and would have no reservations in recommending it for dinner parties, intimate dates or cosy catch-ups with friends. It's a gateway for accessible upmarket dining.

Walking in, the main bar is to your right, complete with both bar stools and lower, more comfortable seating. Decor is simple and elegant with touches of the antique, clearly in keeping with the 'scholarly' theme: serious, dark, somewhat traditional, always well-presented. 

Veer off to the left and you will find yourself in the newer restaurant section, dimly lit with white tablecloths, gleaming glassware, wood-panelled flooring and more modern touches of dark wood, artworks and black-and-white stripes, a la un French bistro.  

At the time of our visit, Michael Cole was Head Chef, however I believe he has since moved on and been replaced by more-than-capable Kiwi import, Timothy Chittenden, supported by a young but hardworking team. Pegged as 'Modern European' cuisine, the French influence was obvious in dishes like the parfait, terrine, steak tartare, duck, venison, and creme brulee. The fare was beautifully presented with blobs (yes, the technical term), drizzles, decorative flowers and quenelles galore, and dishes were plated artistically, many over to one side. 

Beef carpaccio with croutons

Steak tartare with egg yolk sauce and GOLD BITS

Crumbed sweetbreads with sauerkraut, quail egg and kipfler pototoes

Pork belly with crumbed blood-pudding capsicum

Slow-cooked lamb neck with turnips and parsley puree

Whiting fillet stuffed with crab mousiline
served with zucchini and carrot & tarragon puree

...and from the other side, it looked like THIS!

The smaller touches didn't go unnoticed, with my dining companions practically inhaling the asparagus veloute and the crab bisque... actually, inhaling everything. (For three girls, I'm still utterly amazed at the amount of food we managed to consume. The restaurant side of Scholars is not for the half-hearted diner, and probably not as awesome for vegetarians, with so many amazing meat dishes... sorry.) 

Duck liver parfait 'cigar' with date puree

Enjoying the aroma of delicious crab bisque

Crab bisque, served as it should be - in a jar, of course

"Nom nom nom nom nom"

Even the bread came fancy: accompanied by smoked butter on hazelnut crumbs, and balsamic vinegar with oil. Me likey smoked butter. 

The wine, as expected in what began as a 'wine bar', was excellent. We sampled an amazing Tasmanian Pinot Grigio, among other delights. The comprehensive wine list, lovingly adhered to by Sommelier Stuart Quinn, favours mainly European drops but with a decent smattering of Australia's better regions. Clearly I was enjoying them too much, because I can't remember most of what we had, but there were some beautiful reds in there, and with dessert, I recall enjoying a lovely muscat.

Dessert was a palate-cleansing creme de menthe ice cream served with macaron crumbs and chocolate, and a blobby aerated cheesecake served with rhubarb done various ways - my favourite, visually and flavourly. 

Gripes were few, but I will say the menu was rather difficult to read. Too many swirly fonts and too much culinary jargon for my liking. Fortunately, much of the burden of ordering was taken from us on our visit, and so menus were not heavily required. 

There midweek and pre-summer, the restaurant was quiet for our visit, but it shouldn't have been. The vibe could be warmer, but it's certainly an inviting place, so I'm not sure where the disconnect lies. Perhaps louder music? More of a presence from staff? - who are currently subtly available as needed (normally my personal preference). However, all its other elements redeem Scholars to an almost rave-worthy point in my mind. 

It's not an everyday price-range kind of place, but it's well worth what you pay. If Scholars continues this way, with genteel service, classy food and inner-city proximity, I anticipate that it will be bursting at the seams in no time. 

Our bill was delivered inside Sherlock Holmes.

Update: 25 January 2014

Current word on the street is that Scholar's has simplified its menu, to less fine dining/more fine-dining-style bistro options. At this stage, the new menu is not yet up on their website. Perhaps a second visit is in order soon...

Update: June 2014

Scholars has closed, and on its former site is now a second restaurant by John Rubira: Rubira's @ Swallows, with a focus on fresh seafood.

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