The service at Speakeasy was excellent; our attendant was assured, swift and charming. But the food we ate just didnt meet the high expectations created by its inspired surroundings.

Speakeasy Kitchen bar

15:28:PM 11/07/2012
Leanne Tolra

From the darkened laneway off Commercial Road, South Yarra, twinkling fairy lights and intricate graffiti lure customers into the rear courtyard of this imaginative diner. From Chapel Street, they enter via a narrow metal gate.

The name Speakeasy – and the idea of the shadowy illegal saloons that existed in the US during the 1920s and early 1930s prohibition period – is alluring too.

The fit-out of the 100-seat, all-day diner, which has made the most of this 1880s-era building on Chapel Street is stunning too. The bar and upstairs 40-seater function area feature library ladders salvaged from the old Borders bookshop on Chapel Street, and original gaslight fittings have been retained.

Speakeasy is a first venture for Petros and Alexis Lambis, whose family have owned the building for generations. Most recently it housed the Silom Thai restaurant, and from signwriting around the walls, must have been a jam factory.

The Lambis brothers worked in bars and cafés during their university days but have lived lives far removed from the hospitality industry – Petros in engineering and construction and Alexis in international relations.

It was the building’s hidden entrance, the series of interconnecting laneways and the existing graffiti around its rear courtyard that inspired the theme. The interior fit-out was by Eon Design Architecture, and Studio Mecano created the elaborate light fittings and mirror frames.

Graffiti artist Paul Round, of Urban Enhancement, who has installations at the South Melbourne Market and Hellenic Republic in Brunswick East, was commissioned to produce the stunning cityscape graffiti murals that wrap around the exterior walls, telling the story of prohibition and featuring an image of the Brooklyn Bridge.

When the aesthetics and the concept of a restaurant capture your imagination and you run off into the night with it, being objective about the quality of its food is tough.

The service at Speakeasy was excellent; our attendant was assured, swift and charming. But the food we ate just didn’t meet the high expectations created by its inspired surroundings.

Speakeasy is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner most days. The “kitchen” menu, offered of an evening, seems a little outdated, but I don’t think it is deliberately retro. It includes a list of light choices such as prosciutto with melon and aged balsamic, crab bisque, shucked oysters and marinated olives.

We opted for lamb ladies’ fingers, which were finely minced and nicely herbed lamb rolled in filo pastry. They came with a zesty minted yoghurt, but the ratio of meat to pastry was too low.

The arancini of the day, tomato and oregano, was an excellent rendition; the rice was of sufficiently coarse texture with a judicial addition of cheese and a smartly fried finish.

Tomato and oregano arancini
Tomato and oregano arancini
From the share plates list we selected the stuffed zucchini flowers. It gained approval from my dining companion but I found their filling of eggplant, haloumi and nuts too overpowering for the delicate flowers and the batter around them too heavy. The eggplant had been too heavily charred and dominated the other ingredients. The dish was accompanied by a watercress tabouleh that did lift its heaviness slightly.

More impressive was the roast spatchcock with Jerusalem artichoke and spiced coleslaw. The poultry had been well treated, it’s skin nicely browned and its flesh tender (although one thick portion near the leg was a little undercooked).

The velvety artichoke purée it rested on was luscious, dressed with a rich jus, and the finely shredded coleslaw had a surprise addition of currants and toasted pine nuts that added texture and sweetness.

My companion was pleased with his ricotta and herb gnocchi tossed with cherry tomatoes, prawns and cream, although I thought the pasta a little bland and a binding sauce lacking.

Speakeasy has a comprehensive bar menu that includes cocktails “from the prohibition era and earlier”, such as the gin, Campari and sweet vermouth-based Negroni, and a modern list too, including a pleasant “Speakeasy” with gin, soho, watermelon, basil and limonite.

But the desserts list didn’t tempt, with baked chocolate mousse and vanilla and cinnamon panacotta, again sounding a little dated.

Given the passion and attention to detail at Speakeasy, I think the food could be lifted a notch or two. Its identity is difficult to define and deserves a little more attention, there’s just too much competition out there.

Eat This

Speakeasy Kitchen Bar

359 Chapel Street, South Yarra

Cuisine Modern Australian

Owners Petros and Alexis Lambis

Head chef George Bilionis

Prices Light dishes $7-$18; share plates $16-$19; large plates $29-$36; desserts $14

Phone 9824 0770

Open Monday to Friday 7.30am-3pm; Wednesday to Friday 5.30pm-10pm; Saturday 8am-3pm; 5.30pm-late; Sunday 8am-3pm; 5.30-9pm.

The Verdict Worth a look

Folding metal screens swing back off Chapel Street to reveal clean lines and contemporary furnishings that have transformed this two-storey 1920s building. The original pressed-metal ceiling has been retained in the front room and now hosts a modern, black-metal chandelier above a slick black and timber bar. Polished floors, stark white walls, exposed beams and blond-wood furniture add a slightly Scandinavian feel, but most of the drama comes from a huge silhouetted image of a face with a whisper finger to its lips. Be transported to another world in the outside courtyard, where stunning graffiti murals and rows of fairy lights create a fantasy city beyond.

Speakeasy Kitchen Bar on Urbanspoon

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