It takes a while for the eyes to adjust to the sultry Saturday-night lighting at The Commoner’s new upstairs bar, so visitors might not immediately notice owner Jo Corrigan’s latest design whimsy.
Corrigan hails from wool and wheat country in rural New South Wales and, after a recent visit home, she brought a little of the outback indoors, in the form of sunbaked sheep skulls and mandibles.
The skulls decorate one wall of the first-floor bar while the jawbones rest on top of a glass candleholder, lit eerily from below. Downstairs, in the restaurant proper, a cow’s skull dangles above the window table.
Corrigan’s paddock-to-plate decorating aesthetic might not appeal to all, but the menu she serves, courtesy of chef Matt Donnelly, is a genuine crowd-pleaser. Donnelly did a stint at the award-winning Moro in London, which explains the food’s distinctive Moorish/Middle-Eastern accent and emphasis on smokey wood-roasted meats and vegetables.
We take a seat first at the bar, already buzzing just weeks after opening, and order three snacks to begin and a glass each from the trim list of wines that embraces everything from Spanish albariño and French chablis to Italian chianti and Heathcote shiraz.
The first plate to arrive contains four crostini piled with hapuka mashed with aioli, parsley and paprika. They’re good, but the soft-boiled egg sitting on a pool of aioli and showered with crumbled pork crackling is better still, like having breakfast at dinner time.
The standout of the trio is the ham-and-cheese croquette, a fat, crunchy brown bullet stuffed with pleasantly sharp Mahon cheese and The Commoner’s house-cured bacon. I could eat these all night, so we make a wise retreat downstairs to our table for some proper, sit-down dining.
Far from being commoners, our fellow diners look like well-heeled Fitzroy types with interesting haircuts and statement spectacles. They all seem to be having a fine time amid the candlelight, the knickknack-filled shadowboxes and the sweet vases of thyme on each table.
Corrigan and her team of vivacious staff lend a house-party feel to proceedings, fuelled by good food and wine (the proceedings, not the staff).
Act two of our meal begins with the recommended devils on horseback, Mildura prunes wrapped in the house bacon, which tastes too gamey here and overwhelms the sweet fruit. Likewise, a potato cake filled with North African-style spiced lamb and pine nuts and drizzled with home-made yoghurt misses the more-ish mark for us.
We’re drinking a glass of tonight’s suggested white, a strikingly unusual blend of viura, white grenache and malvasia from Agricola la Bastida vineyard in Rioja that smells just like blue cheese.
It’s not ideal with the lamb and potato but comes into its own when we tuck into a slab of semolina gnocchi scattered with wild mushrooms, thyme and salted ricotta. Unseemly groans all round as earthy food and wine work their magic.
The problem with The Commoner’s menu is that almost everything sounds appealing and the varying portion sizes encourage you to keep working your way through the more seductive dishes.
Take the pork belly: two plump wedges of crackling goodness slow-cooked overnight in cider and then flame-crisped on top. It is served with poor-man’s potatoes, a jumble of slightly caramelised roasted potatoes and green capsicum, and a gorgeously cloying quince aioli made from Spanish membrillo mixed with a smudge of garlic, olive oil and lemon. Paired with a glass of Nanny Goat pinot noir from Central Otago, it all slips down like velvet trousers.
The gluttony continues with a tranche of brown-ale pudding, a grown-up alternative to sticky date with its malty, molten character. It’s served with a silver dish of runny custard and Melbourne’s favourite It ingredient, salted caramel. We made very short work of it in between decadent sips of Pedro Ximenez.
After three years of solid trade, The Commoner continues to shine with its feel-good food and the genuine warmth and passion of its hospitality. Amid the cut-throat competition of the thriving Fitzroy food hub, it’s a restaurant with real heart and soul.
The Commoner, 122 Johnston Street, Fitzroy
Cuisine \ New British
Chef \ Matt Donnelly
Hip pocket \ About $80 a head all up.
Open \ Wednesday-Sunday 6pm-late and for lunch at weekends, noon-3pm
Highlights \ Uncommonly stylish food, wine and service
Lowlights \ A couple of misses in a menu of hits
Bookings \ Yes; 9415 6876 or www.thecommoner.com.au
We rate it 8/10