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Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Bourke Street Imperial Rooftop

The Imperial Hotel, corner of Bourke and Spring Streets, Melbourne

Touted on its website as Melbourne's third-oldest pub, there's no doubting that the Bourke Street Imperial Hotel (2-8 Bourke Street, Melbourne) is old-school. Established in 1858 and boasting red cedar doors of the same age, "the Impy" is one of those comfy drinking holes you tend to forget about, even though you pass it on the tram every day. It's on the corner of Bourke and Spring Streets, right on the 86/96 tram line, and a hop-skip-jump from Parliament Station.

Red cedar doors dating back to 1858

I'd been to the Imperial a few times before. It's an easy meeting point considering its proximity to PT, and a safe haven from the unpredictable Melbourne rain when all you feel like is a drink on the way home. I've watched footy there, sipped wine at their footpath tables when I couldn't get into City Wine Shop, seen comedy upstairs, and even been through a break-up there (meh, not a dramatic one). So when I read that the Imperial was gaining a rooftop bar, I was rather keen to see what it would be like.

The Evil Stairs

Downstairs, the pub is all about sports, tourists, hugging your pint perched on a traditional bar stool, or scoffing a parma as quickly as possible before a show at the Princess Theatre. The rooftop has a much younger, fresher vibe, but is still a casual drinking space frequented by all walks of life. The evil three-storey climb is worth it when you come out onto the large, simple wooden deck, with a full-frontal assault of Parliament House to your left, and a pleasant vista down Bourke Street directly ahead.

Melbourne's Parliament House

Bourke Street view from The Imperial rooftop

To your right is general city skyline, the kitchen and the bar, housed in a specially-craned up shipping container.

Colourful, cushioned bench seating runs alongside the glass-fenced edge to maximise the great views, and bench seating is also laid out to create seating nooks around the deck, interposed with little wooden stools and garden chairs. Towards the middle are a few tall tables for you to herd around with your drinking buddies - some with accompanying stools, if you're lucky. (There's a rant in me somewhere about uncomfortable stools - and yes, I mean the seating kind - but I think we'll save that for another day.)

Cushioned benches

Benchy nooks

A handful of Pimm's umbrellas reduce the sunburn potential slightly, and you can try and follow their shade, but you'd most likely end up in someone else's lap. So be warned, this is basically a full-exposure rooftop. Slip-slop-slap! (Especially you, tourists... and opaque-skinned locals like me.) On one of my visits, water mist sprayed out from the roof line's edge - O, sweet relief on those sticky, 40-ish days! But I haven't seen it since (over two further summertime visits), so I'm starting to think maybe it was a mirage...

Yes, this is another rooftop bar, something which we all know Melbourne is not short of. If so inclined, you could include the Impy in a Rooftop Hop (Copyright WordHappy!) with the likes of the nearby Madame Brussels, Loop Roof, Tuscan Bar, Siglo, Bomba... and so on. Interestingly, the Impy rooftop is 100% smoke-free - possibly a new point of difference in a sea of Melbourne rooftops.

Food and drinks-wise, the Imperial rooftop isn't breaking any new ground, with (yawn) yet more offerings of pub-style, fried Americana morsels designed to be drunk copiously with (or is it the other way around?). At least they're affordable. There are a bunch of beers on tap to keep everyone happy, plus a limited but decent smattering of wines - and they definitely carry Cafe Patron, a fact of which I am now happily aware. Jugs of Pimm's also seem popular, but that could be due to the liberal Pimm's branding.

Apparently, this is now Melbourne's largest rooftop bar (let's see how long that lasts, shall we?) at 185 square metres, enough space to hold up to 270 patrons. I wonder if the capacity was tested in its early weeks, with one of its first big events after completion a 2016 New Year's Eve rooftop party with free entry.

All kinds of folks being happy together

What I like about this rooftop though, is that unlike many of the others, it's unpretentious. You really do get all walks of life here - a mixture of locals and tourists, the elite and the ordinary, varying ages. Everyone seems happy and relaxed - and why wouldn't you be, drinking in the sun on a CBD rooftop with a view?

The Imperial, its rooftop and Parliament House at dusk

Run by the Melbourne Venue Company (with a bunch of other well-known Melbourne watering holes to its name), the Imperial offers smooth functions packages and events galore, but seems to be hitting an everyman niche in the CBD that I believe is sadly dwindling. The rooftop has added another element to its mix, that may just see it through another 158 years.

Bourke Street from Parliament in ye olde days

The Imperial is open seven days til 11pm, or 1am on weekends.

The Imperial Hotel Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Thursday, 4 February 2016


Is it, though? So normal it's super normal? I think maybe not.

There are a lot of 'normal' things at Supernormal (180 Flinders Lane, Melbourne) - you go in, get a table (if you're lucky), order food, eat it at said table. But there are a few things that set this restaurant apart.

Kitchen behind the bar

One is size. Supernormal is quite big for a Melbourne CBD restaurant. There are different sections: a looooong bar (behind which sits the kitchen, and which pretty much runs the length of the restaurant), a line of booth-style tables, a couple of walls hosting tables with bench seating, and stand-alone tables in the middle.

Bench seating tables and random display flowers and bottles

It also has a very high ceiling, which makes the interior feel very spacious and airy. Hard surfaces everywhere do echo the noisy chatter from so many covers, but the space above all the heads helps absorb it.

Stand-alone tables in the middle and hi

Another is style. A lot of venues go for an industrial look, but they usually overdo it. Supernormal feels like a big empty warehouse with cement floors, large-scale fluorescent ceiling light panels, exposed support beams and pipes. Maybe it doesn't sound that attractive, but when you're in among all the bodies, eating at a table of light wood, surrounded by the odd display plant or sake bottle, it actually seems quite nice. It's simple, open and clean, without feeling harsh or cold.

Cement and exposed beams everywhere

The curly staircase

The pow-wow '80s Japanese vending machine

There are a few interesting design touches, like an excellent spiral staircase that runs down to the loos (which apparently leads to a private dining room with karaoke facilities - who knew?!), a Japanese vending machine (what it is vending, I have no idea), lit up but not garishly so, sitting quietly to one side, and some neon cherries (??? -- I admit that I and my table members also identified eyes, balls or boobs. Yes, we are mature adults, promise) on the front window. But overall, minimalist industrial Asian is the aim here, and it has definitely been achieved.

The cherries/eyes/balls/boobs

When it opened in mid-2014, Supernormal's initial buzz was all due to the food - or rather, the chef. Andrew McConnell's reputation (Builder's Arms, Cutler and Co., Cumulus Inc., the former Golden Fields) meant buzz was guaranteed (i.e. small group dinner bookings aren't available; you have to put your name down early) and delivery was a slick affair (you know, he has PR releases and cook books and stuff). The food is Modern Fusion with elements of Chinese, Korean and Japanese, and of course McConnell generally nails it. I have eaten here twice now and neither time could I name a menu item I tried but didn't like. Don't get me wrong, there could be room for more wow factor, but I would happily eat Supernormal food on a regular basis, if time and money would allow it.

Instructions. Helpful for some.

On both visits, my dining companions and I opted for the banquet menu - currently $65 per head (plus drinks, of course). Starting with some delicious and moreish soy roasted pumpkin seeds both times, here is what we ate on the first visit (in September 2015):

Pickled fennel, cucumber and wagami (i.e. seaweed)

LOVED this: Soft meaty tuna with avocado, dry salty seaweed,
fresh crunchy cucumber (--my descriptions, not theirs! can you tell?)

The famed Lobster Roll - just amazing.
I didn't think I'd be a convert, but I was. Something about the textures...

A chickeny salad thing

Another 'amazing' - prawn and chicken dumplings
with chilli and vinegar sauce... nommmmm

Beef sirloin - cooked rare but beautifully tender, with a strongly
flavoured sauce that the accompanying salad help cut through

Accompanying lettuce and pear salad

I'd say this one's pretty self-explanatory :/

Dessert - Peanut Butter Parfait. Yes, this was as good as
it looks/sounds, but it was also very rich. Go cautiously!

The banquet menu we received in January 2016 featured many of the same items - thankfully including the lobster rolls, the dumplings, and the very same parfait - but here were the items that differed:

Sesame cucumbers. Weird sounding and looking, and a simple dish,
but quite inspired I thought, and pleasant to eat, particularly texturally 

Duck fish with white soy and ginger. Again, not something
I would usually have ordered, but surprisingly good

Chicken salad (different to the last one, I'm pretty sure)

Bass groper (that's fish - yes, we had to check, too) with lettuce and rice

Meanwhile, the people at the table next door during my first visit ordered this amazing looking thing:

Whole duck served with bao, cucumber, and plum sauce

They just broke off bits of the duck with a fork and then made their own little bao buns. It looked so good, I am going back JUST to try this (okay, and maybe a lobster roll to start).  *salivates*

...I will leave it to you to make your own decision on the food at Supernormal, but I quite enjoyed it.

Exemplary service. And massive sake bottles.

Sake in a wine glass, the best way

The last factor that makes Supernormal more super/less normal is its exemplary service. All the way through both my visits, the waitstaff were unerringly polite, helpful and friendly. Each dish was explained upon delivery to the table - although the explanations could not always be heard due to the white noise level. Sake and/or wines were recommended, and attendance to the table was neither too frequent, nor too lacking. Seriously exemplary service. Thumbs up.

I liked these
Necessary evil. But not too evil

I realise this is a bit of - how shall I put it? - 'overpraise', so I would just like to say that, as with all my blog posts, (a) this is not a review, but a recap of my experience(s) at this venue, (b) I always pay my own way and rarely inform the venue I am planning to write a blog post about them, (c) I did not expect to like Supernormal as much as I do. You know how when songs are overplayed on the radio or everyone's wearing the same fashion trend and you just get really sick of it? Well, I don't get that with music or fashion, but I do with buzz around chefs and restaurants. Honestly, I wasn't pitching for Andrew McConnell's food here to be that amazing... and I was pleasantly surprised. Not just at the food, but the whole package.

Sure, there are normal elements here, but the super bits are what make me happy.

Happy customers

Supernormal Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato