Almost everything at The Meatball & Wine Bar is likeable – from the balls to the wine, the staff and the sultry, mod-urban space. So I’m going to start with a gripe.
Scrupulously considered food based around fabulous produce should not be served with bog-standard bread (some kind of bland, dried out focaccia). Particularly fine hand-crafted charcuterie and cheese served with said bread as its primary accompaniment. Artisan bread suppliers of Melbourne, pick up the phone.
Better to talk about the balls, and all.
The Meatball & Wine Bar opened about 10 weeks ago. It’s a first restaurant for director Matteo Bruno (Big Mamma’s Boy and Stefano’s Cooking Paradiso, aired on LifeStyle Food), who has shrewdly identified an unexplored niche in Melbourne’s dining scene (who knew there was one?). If you can see the next, feel free to run your idea by me. Meatball bars could yet pop up like Mexican cantinas.
Bruno is working on a new show for LifeStyle, Ask the Butcher, which will feature Australian chefs who sound as though they will be invited to provide “guest” meatball recipes for Bruno’s restaurant. Top multitasking.
The space is a cross between that Melbourne glossy-magazine look that’s working its way along Flinders Lane and a New York dinner-cum-bar – although the brief was apparently a New York butchery. There are posters of meat cuts on the wall and there’s an oddball, but cute, installation that features hanging meats and toy plastic cows.
Pork meatballs in cream sauce with polenta
Just in case you missed mine, ball puns are omnipresent here too. The menu’s loaded with them and patrons add their own, finding them funnier with each glass of wine from a list that features a breezy collection of Australian and Italian varietals, a cool grappa selection, plus beers, ciders and spirits.
The service is fun too, with that “we work in a new, trendy place and we are thrilled to be here vibe” – and the honest enthusiasm is catching.
The menu, inspired by Bruno’s northern-Italian family’s meatball recipes, features a selection of cured meats and artisan cheeses, plus balls made from pork, beef, chicken, fish and vegetables. Brendon Jones (ex-Hotel Spencer) is working marvels with mince.
Each plate of balls features three 60-gram spheres; the beef made of pasture-fed O’Connor Black Angus from Gippsland, the market fish and vegetable varieties vary.
Choose your balls and sauce – Italian tomato, creamy white, or pesto. Then add something for them to sit on – potato smash, homemade pasta sheets, Italian beans, polenta or the day’s green-vegetable selection.
Chicken balls, made from free-range Lilydale chicken, retain superb texture and are blended with pistachios, muscatels and parmesan. Served with the pesto salsa verde, they were dense and satisfying, needing no accompaniment, but could have had a little more of the well-made, bright sauce.
Pork balls, made from Byron Bay Kurobuta pork, were given finesse with fennel, sage and orange and worked divinely with our choice of creamy polenta and white sauce. The meat’s consistency again was a feature and its density enhanced the subtle flavourings.
With this sort of menu carte blanche you are always left wondering what other combinations would have worked (or what you’d try next time). But it’s the balls, all gluten-free and without padding such as onion, that shine – as expected in a venue using this moniker.
There are also sliders, served as a trio of balls on mini brioche buns and heroes, three balls on a ciabatta roll. Hopefully that bread is better.
The charcuterie selection – ours was very fine prosciutto di San Daniele, sourced by Sydney butcher Victor Churchill – includes capocollo and fennel or truffle salami. They can be served solo, or as a foursome on a sharing board. It’s the same deal with the mozzarella selection, from That’s Amore Cheese in Donnybrook. The board of three features fior di latte, a fabulous diavoletta (served warm with green olives and chilli at its centre) and buffalo. There’s also burata (mozzarella and cream in a mozzarella
skin), some mini balls and beef jerky.
Desserts, cutely named Whoopie Macs, stick to the theme with a selection of ice-cream orbs – coffee, cherry, vanilla and chocolate – sandwiched between excellent macarons, either coffee, berry, pistachio or chocolate. A big thumbs up for the superb cherry ice-cream with delicate chocolate mac.
There are plans for breakfast balls – creamy egg with charred bacon and aged cheddar, and baked eggs with meatballs – says the “coming soon” menu.
The Meatball & Wine Bar, 135 Flinders Lane, city
Owner \ Matteo Bruno
Chef \ Brendon Jones
Prices \ Snacks and starters $8-$24; mains $14-$18; desserts $11.50 Open \ Daily 11am to late
Phone \9654 7545 (group bookings only)
The Verdict \ Put on your list
Neon-lit messages have been a staple of certain 2012-style restaurant designs. And the “MEAT BAR” sign here is one of the flashiest, if you count bulbs per centimetre. It plays hero to an otherwise rustic, pared-back look – think sandblasted brick walls, bespoke black metal stools and light fittings, polished timber surfaces and low, white-washed exposed beams. The best perch in the house is the petrol-blue alcove with space for four at a three-sided banquette, but some will prefer to be seen at the copper and marble bar, facing the good-looking staff and the metal cages filled with an eclectic wine collection.