Juggling the demands of high-end restaurant The Press Club with the emergence of a more casual eatery at the Little Press & Cellar next door, has been a challenge even an experienced chef such as Joe Grbac has embraced.
Little Press was reborn a few months ago after some serious tunneling into the old printing room in the sub-basement of the building as a mezethopolio, or a place to indulge in small sharing plates.
For Grbac, that meant balancing a fine-dining menu, complemented by great wines, with a more casual menu in which food plays second fiddle to a formidable selection of old and new-world wine. There are often dishes that I think about that I would like to put on The Press menu, but they dont quite make the grade. So its nice to see another side of something. I feel as though I have two springboards, and dishes that dont work in the restaurant but are still good, can work well on the Little Press menu, he says.
Croation-born Grbac lists Gordon Ramsays Royal Hospital Road and Phillip Howards The Square in London on a resumé that also includes stints at Arintji, Bistro Guillaume, and earlier Il Fornaio and Marchettis. Hes been at The Press Club for almost a year.
The Little Press & Cellar is open for breakfast and mezze. The breakfast menu features classic dishes with a retro Greek twist, such as double Kapnisto bacon, Hellenic cheese scramble and mushrooms, tsoureki with banana krema and maple syrup ice-cream or porridge with kombosta (compote) winter fruits.
Many ingredients are imported, such the black sea salt from Cyprus and the delicate, fruity olive oil from Crete, but the olives in the dense, earthy house bread are Australian. Like the food, the presentation of each dish is a charming combination of modern restaurant and country farmhouse long white plates, wooden boards, a baking tin holding the bread with a touch of Greece in ornate doily-like glass bowls.
The mezze menu (lunch and dinner) includes typical Greek offerings such as olives, octopus and prawns, again with a bit of a mod-Oz tweak. The winter menu, which will soon change, features larger dishes such as garlic-laced, slow-cooked goat, and a selection of smaller tastes such as taramasalata with hot chips and chicken parfait with cinnamon crisps. The creamy taramasalata, doused with a golden, fruity olive oil is presented in an ornate bowl, on a dark timber board with a tiny, deep-fryer wire basket holding hot, crisp fries.
Its a great snacking or sharing dish and paired well with a 2009 Prentice ramato pinot gris from Whitlands Victoria, listed in the textured and weighty category in the wine list. Ramato is a traditional method of making pinot gris using some grape skins to create a luscious rose-coloured hue and a full-bodied texture.
A marouli salad, with walnuts, seeds and ruby grapefruit is fresh, bright and palate cleansing, but would be more exciting with a leaf other than insipid winter iceberg lettuce. The chicken parfait with cinnamon crisps is a smart combination of flavours, the rich, slightly sweet paté balances nicely with the thin, dark brown crisps and their dominant spice.
My wine choice, a 2008 Weingut Max Ferd Richter riesling from Mosel was too sweet for that particular dish, but the fault was in the selection and the failure to ask for the advice. Im sure it would have been excellent.
The smooth, assured service expected of a top city restaurant ensures a visit to the Little Press & Cellar is relaxed and memorable. Simple mezze dishes and more satisfying main courses, all with a modern Greek twist, are well-considered sidekicks to the quality wine selection. For some, the wine prices will be off-putting, while dedicated wine connoisseurs will welcome the opportunity to sample rare and aged international wines in a smart, modern venue serving them with integrity.
Little Press & Cellar, 72 Flinders Street, Melbourne
Chef Joe Grbac
Prices Breakfasts $7-$19; mezze $4.50-$16.50; lunches $29-$39.
Open Tues-Sun 6-11pm.
Bookings 9677 9677
Open Monday-Friday: 7am until late; Saturday-Sunday: noon until late
The sleek, clubby décor at the reborn Little Press & Cellar is Euro-chic and innately Melbourne, but it does not evoke any particular sense of Greece. The long, narrow space, designed by architects Mills Gorman, is moody and darkly lit; with chocolate banquettes cleverly tucked into booth-like spaces adding intimacy. Matte-black walls and charcoal noise-deadening floors keep the mood subdued, while the addition of large mirrors, slatted vertical timber beams, hanging bulb lights and high overhead windows ensure its not sombre. Homage is paid to the old Herald and Weekly Times building, with the restaurants moniker with hanging clipboard wine lists and menus designed to look like old-fashioned newspapers. The cellar is exactly what youd expect a dense, intriguing bottle-lined space with a central table for 14 and seems eons away from the Flinders Street traffic.