No one likes to comes across as a difficult customer. I mean, you can't complain about everything - the raw pizza, the missing horseradish, the spacey service, the inedible pasta. Unless you have a 900-word food column like this one. So, avid Stokehouse Caf fans, best look away now. The "shack", as regulars call it, has emerged from a designer makeover to shimmer anew on the St Kilda foreshore. The restyled interiors are polished but restrained - a fishbone terrazzo floor (that could use a mop in spots), lashings of white weatherboard, caramel leather benches, grey tubular seating and a nice big bar area with glass walls onto the barefoot wonderland of St Kilda Beach. A stone chimney and fireplace indoors will warm up the space when winter sets in for real. Those seated with backs to the beach can still soak up the vibe, thanks to Rennie Ellis' vintage vignettes of seaside life. Just make sure you don't get the table beneath the dental-floss bikini bum. It could arouse the wrong appetite.
The drinks list is a party waiting to happen, with spirited slushies (margarita, pia colada) and 1.145-litre "sharing cocktails" - aka buckets o' booze. There are the usual beer and cider suspects and a wine list that's functional rather than flashy. Head chef Nick Mahlook's menu is a catholic collection of chilli dogs, pizza, burgers and pasta, with a fair choice of fish to go with those bay views. There's nothing too complicated here, and the headline Josper grill, the Catalonian king of charcoal-fuelled ovens, ensures meat offerings are a cut above. But still the kitchen can't get it consistently right. Take the pizzette smeared with a creamy green pure of broccoli, roasted florets, ricotta and sliced chilli, and seasoned with some lemon and shaved Parmesan. The tastes are well matched and I'm enjoying it very much until my mouth starts clagging up. Nyap nyap nyap. Then I realise the remaining slices have a translucent, doughy line through the base. No wonder the texture's unpleasant. The pizza's raw. It's such a disappointment I do something out of character and send it back. The waitress is apologetic and takes the charge off the bill, no questions asked. But I still have a question to ask. How is it that one of Melbourne's best-known and loved restaurants cannot cook a simple pizza? Then there's the ocean trout. We've got no problem with the quality of the fish, all glistening fresh and eat-me pink, frotting against some avocado and slicked with extra virgin olive oil. But all those silky textures cry out for a little lemon, perhaps, and horseradish. Both of which were promised on the menu but are absent on the plate. As my date remarks: "The reason why it didn't taste like anything is because they didn't make it properly."
Things improve, you'll be pleased to hear. We're not keen on paying $6 for bread so skip instead to a curious-sounding dish of pickled mussels, cuttlefish, anchovies, toast and saffron aoli. Or "aoili", according to the menu. (I know. I'm an annoying pedant.) I ask the waitress how the seafood is cooked. "Um, it's kind of mixed," she says. And it's served "all in a tin". Interesting. If she'd said, "It's sort of like a salad, with flat-leaf parsley and red onion and carrot and quite a bit of seafood, and it's served in a cute round tin," she would have been closer to the mark. In fact, it's scrumptious strips of white anchovy tumbled with tendrils of cuttlefish and tangy pink bits of pickled mussel. Meanwhile, a surprisingly good side order of zucchini comes in long, oiled strips tossed with hazelnut chunks, chickpeas and brain-tingling fresh mint. There's a terrific plate of charry, grill-marked olive toast with gorgeous figs and goat's curd drizzled with truffled honey. And the short ribs turn out to be three sexy hunks of blackened cow, braised in stock, port and red wine and then blasted in the Josper at 300 degrees or so. The texture's outstanding - like meaty marshmallows, scattered with fried shallots and resting on roasted capsicum. But disappointment returns in the form of spaghettini with clams, chilli, lemon and breadcrumbs. There must be two dozen vongole shells piled on slinky pasta that's riddled with sliced garlic. The sauce itself is less garlicky than briny - a salt slurry with a mild chilli bang and plenty of shell-like grit. Unpleasant to eat, in other words. I can't finish it. Desserts run to a chocolate, peanut butter and ice-cream jelly sandwich but we stick to a classic crme caramel. The taut, textured vanilla custard is drenched in caramel that's slightly burnt and utterly delicious. The pale strawberries and crumbly almond biscotti on the side are mere distractions. Stokehouse Caf has 240 seats to fill (100 fewer when weather shuts the terrace), which is a lot of people to make happy every mealtime. Obviously I wasn't one of the happy ones. But that shouldn't put you off visiting Stokehouse Caf. In some ways it's just like St Kilda Beach - you're unlikely to be blown away, but there's always the chance of some sunny breaks. eat this
Stokehouse Caf 30 Jacka Boulevard, St Kilda Cuisine
Olive toast with figs
Nick Mahlook Hip pocket
A hearty lunch for $50 a head; drinks extra. Open
Tuesday-Friday noon-midnight, Saturday-Sunday 8.30am-midnight Highlights
Seafood by the seashore. Lowlights
Pizza, service, charging for bread and Heinz tomato sauce. Bookings
For groups of 8-24. Otherwise, walk-ins. Phone
9525 5445 we rate
6 out of 10 www.stokehousecafe.com.au