Sandbar Beach Café, on Beaconsfield Parade in Middle Park, boasts that it’s “one of Melbourne’s only venues located right on the beach front”. But is that proximity to the water directly related to the quality of its service?
Grab your own menu – if you can find one (they’re tucked in a wooden box on the counter); order at the till and fill your own glass from the water station. A smartly clad staff member (most have European accents) will bring your food and take your finished plate away, with efficiency rather than good cheer. But if you want a second coffee, or more food, you’ll have to get up and order again.
It’s probably a successful model for an “open-all-day café”. Perhaps most patrons don’t mind. I won’t dwell on it.
This former beach kiosk opened again last November after a $700,000 renovation. It’s a classy, elegant fit-out that capitalises on the asset that gives the restaurant its moniker. Rob Maisano and his brother, Joe, bought the venue in 2007 after Rob received a call from an excited real-estate agent. Rob, who says he has made more money out of renovating and selling restaurants than operating them, visited the site unwillingly. The agent walked away with a sale and Rob and Joe are still running Sandbar.
Between them, the brothers own a stable of seasonal outfits that include The White Room and Zirky’s at Mount Hotham and Snow Pony at Mount Buller. Many of those accents at the café belong to backpackers or members of the group’s team of travelling workers, signing up for a short tour of duty over summer before heading back to the snow or their next destination.
Head chef Jimmy McHugh is also in charge of the kitchen at the group’s upmarket White Room during winter. This modern ski-resort restaurant was reborn during last year’s snow season and given a strong Spanish emphasis. For McHugh, the challenge of running Sandbar in the summer comes from its “all-day” operation.
The menu is Italian-focused and built around share plates that work well both during the day, and at night, he says. It’s accessible and designed to please all comers. The day-to-evening menu offers a chicken Caesar salad, a steak sandwich, fish and chips, a seafood paella and assorted pasta dishes. The brunch menu includes ricotta hotcakes, muesli and several interesting egg, meat, vegetables and toast combinations.
But it’s in the share plates that McHugh has been able to be most creative. They are well suited to snacking, sharing or as starters before the more substantial offerings.
We tried an assortment. Zucchini and mint fritters – a neat trio – on a bed of cumin-spiced, sumac-sprinkled yoghurt. We tried them at two different sittings.
The first time, they were light but with a doughy texture and a smattering of zucchini. The second, they were packed with lightly cooked, grated zucchini and flecked with Spanish onion and were much better.
An arancini selection of three cheesy, pyramid-shaped, crumbed rice creations was easy to split up and share, but the rice was slightly heavy and overcooked and the flavours all fairly similar. The accompanying olives, filled with mushroom, were a good foil, and the heat of the dipping sauce was rich and strong.
Salmon rillettes & eggplant dip
An eggplant dip and salmon rillettes combo was a pleasant flavour and texture combination. The rillettes, a thick dip-like combo (rillettes are traditionally made with pork cooked in fat and then shredded and blended into a paste) was of good texture and strong, salty flavour. It was decorated with dressed rocket leaves, and paired well with the milder eggplant dip and warm, toasted bread.
The haloumi salad was a generous serving of the warm cheese, spread over finely sliced fennel, raddicio and cos leaves. It received a liberal sprinkling of the crimson pomegranate seeds and was enlivened by a vivid, fruity dressing.
For many, the mainstream dishes will suffice, the sharing plates will go with drinks and good conversations and the fantastic location will be their lasting memory.
Battling the line between a canteen, a daytime café and an evening function centre, the service at Sandbar can seem offhand and disinterested. Most patrons don’t seem to mind. They are here for the bay views and a brief resort-like interlude.
Sandbar Beach Café
175b Beaconsfield Parade, Middle Park
Phone \ 9696 6334
Chef \ Jimmy McHugh
Prices \ Brunch $7-$21; sharing plates $9-$26; mains $30
Open \ Daily 8am-midnight (weather dependent)
The low, bronzed-timber deck stretches out to the sand, its islander theme augmented by palms, tropical plants and breezy beach umbrellas. White plastic chairs, matte silver-topped tables and a glass heater box complete the upmarket resort impression. The attached renovated pavilion is crisp and fresh, with arctic walls and ceilings, matte silver chairs and pale timber-topped tables, given a “weathered” look to add character. Glass partitions and a split-level layout create a sense of light and space, while ash-toned timber floors add a rustic touch. A dark-tiled service area provides some contrast; it’s neat and well organised with obvious bar, coffee and ordering areas. Broad glass windows front and back help Sandbar bring the mood of the day, and the bay, inside.