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On a hot Tuesday night in mid-January only seafood specialist Claypots Evening Star and Turkish mezze bar Koy were open. Patronage at both was light, quick and quiet. A couple of nights later, when the weather had cooled and an Elvis impersonator and his supporting three-piece band took up the space between Claypots and the Italian Brasserie, the atmosphere was racier, but crowds remained thin.
When this strip of five restaurant stalls offering Spanish, Chinese, Italian, Turkish and Mediterranean seafood cuisine was launched in mid-winter, it seemed such a Melbourne solution intimate restaurants celebrating diverse cultures and attached to the market. It was in a space and a suburb that pundits would surely have backed as a success, particularly as the weather warmed.
Claypots Evening Star, sibling to the 18-year-old St Kilda institution Claypots in Fitzroy Street, seems the most popular of the venues, but its chef and owner, Renan Goksin, says he may have misjudged the location.
I liked the idea of being near the market and thought it would be popular, but so far thats not happening. But we will stick it out and try to make something of it.
Lack of numbers is nothing to do with the quality of the seafood and the fresh produce, sourced from Goksins long-time supplier, Clamms Seafood, and many of the market stalls. South Melbourne, it seems, has just not embraced the concept.
The crisply caramelised cuttlefish sail, a charred, tender piece of flesh that billows over a wooden skewer ($4), delicately seared single scallops ($4) served in their shells with a rich soy dressing and octopus skewers ($10) threaded with grilled capsicum and fresh chilli make for quick, easy starters.
Goksins stingray, a noteworthy dish at the St Kilda venue, is more finely wrought in Cecil Street. Trimmed pieces of the wing, with their cartilage still attached, are served in a dense sambal that contains lemongrass, chilli, ginger, coriander and fish sauce. The flesh, with a texture similar to flathead, soaks up the spices but retains a delicate flavour all its own (staff prepared a chilli-free version on request).
The French serve stingray just fried in some burnt butter, and in Singapore and south-east Asia its popular wrapped in banana leaf and grilled, Goksin says. I am probably the one who brought stingray to Melbourne in a big way. No one served it here years ago. But now some of the big restaurants use it too.
The chalkboard menu changes daily with dishes that range in price dramatically, according to market prices. Think shellfish stir-fry for $75, a $55 seafood gumbo and a generous serve of mussels on the run in their shells at just $10. There are about 10 daily fish offerings, priced between $15 and $35, perhaps a crisp-coated piece of cajun flathead, a lime-infused kingfish cutlet, or mackerel grilled with harissa.
Next door, at Oliver Buenaventuras casual, gingham-clad Italian Brasserie, traditional Italian fare such as meatballs, pasta, bruschetta and lamb shanks, is created from market ingredients.
Pale timber and smooth surfaces give Koy, a traditional-style mezze bar, a modern edge. But the rustic, village-inspired food includes a vibrant smoked eggplant salad, rich with tomato and onion, mezze tasting plates, gozlemi, or red capsicums bulging with rice, herbs and pine nuts.
At Simply Spanish, the paella pan operates daily out on the pavement under an open tent, grilled lamb chops are popular and glasses of sangria readily available, while at Linx BBQ and Yum Cha, roast duck, pork buns and dim sum complete the global experience.
Eat thisCLAYPOTS EVENING STAR
Corner Cecil and York streets, South MelbourneCuisine Seafood Chef/owner Renan Goksin Prices Small dishes $3-15; larger dishes $15-$75; sides $4 Open Daily 11am-11pm Phone 9645 5779 The verdict Put it on your list
Scrubbed concrete floors, sturdy steel and timber posts give this streetside restaurant a raw, unfinished charm. In the intimate central space, glossy seafood rests on crushed ice in a glass case atop a white-tiled, timber-topped bar, while on the pavement in York Street garden-setting tables and old folding theatre seats add a sense of the impromptu. Low stools rest at rustic tables, claypots hang overhead and evening performers entertain the small crowd. Despite being just seven months old, this hawker-style diner feels as though its been at the market for ever.
Koy 9696 9640
Tues to Sun 7am-10pm
Simply Spanish 9882 6100
Wed 8am-4pm; Thurs to Sun 8am-10pm
Linx BBQ and Yum Cha 9696 7302
Wed to Sun 11am to 11pm
Italian Brasserie 9690 0098
Wed to Sun noon-11pm