Osso Buco Pie
IMAGES DARRIAN TRAYNOR
If the gastropub era hit full gait before you had the wherewithal to partake, you have probably been affected by its legacy. Pubs either reinvented their menus, or tried to. Most upped their prices anyway.
If you were there wielding your credit card and ordering battered zucchini flowers or aged scotch fillet with boutique beers, the term could make you cringe as you recall debates about the merits of a long wine list and the loss of sticky carpets. And you probably remember O’Connell’s.
This South Melbourne hotel was arguably the instigator of Melbourne’s gastropub development and has long upheld the movement’s commitment to revamped pub classics, proper service and an impressive wine offering. It was taken over by its current owners, John and Jimmy Kurtulus and Jon Wooley, last year. The trio also own steakhouse The Railway Club Hotel in Port Melbourne and The Bay Hotel in Mordialloc.
The new ownership team, a recent refurbishment, a changed chef line-up and an expanded menu make it worthy of fresh attention. Young chefs Xavier Mercader, who has come from The Railway, and New Zealander Luke Van de Engel are sharing the head chef role.
Their menu features gastropub classics – beer-battered trevally, veal schnitzel, and eye fillet with vine-roasted tomatoes from the wood grill – but there’s an international bent that comes from Mercader’s time at Rockpool and Chocolate Buddha and his travels through South-East Asia. A strong meat commitment on the menu reflects his four years at the Railway.
Van de Engel, who trained at the Wintec culinary school in Waikato, adds a classic French influence and a passion for pastry.
A charcuterie board for two features a top-notch, house-made French country terrine (sometimes made with rabbit meat, sometimes with confit duck). We scored a poultry night and the flavours of sherry vinegar, shallots and tarragon shone through the lovingly cured duck leg.
Also superb in taste and texture was a chicken liver parfait (an airy, creamier version that would have been called paté in the early days of the gastropub). The nicely presented timber board also included some house-pickled radishes, carrots and gherkins, a zesty aubergine chutney and a selection of jamón Serrano, wagyu bresaola and prosciutto di Parma from Gamekeepers in Moorabbin.
The O’Connell’s pie is a menu stayer that Mercader couldn’t expunge even if he wanted to. It’s been on the menu at the big, white corner pub with its original fireplaces and high ceilings for too long to remove. It’s damn good anyway. Inside there’s osso buco, braised in Guinness for 14 hours with pieces of porterhouse and eye fillet. The protein is rendered to a luxuriant texture and its pastry topping is layered, light and flaky.
The pie looks a little bland sitting beside a verdant mound of crushed peas and a dollop of airy mashed potato, but it fits the pub part of the gastro label.
International elements are scattered across the menu – wood-grilled octopus, fried white anchovies, sesame-crusted tuna and squid-ink tagliatelle – but are delivered with a thud in the Aylesbury duck breast with a date and vegetable tagine, moghrabieh (pearl couscous) and a radicchio and grape salad.
There’s a lot going on in this dish and the flavours complement each other, sort of. The rich broth bobs with a medley of dates, okra, pomegranate seeds, green olives, shredded radicchio and sweet red grapes, and there’s a side puddle of yoghurt. Two firm-ish pieces of duck meat sit atop their accompaniments and are definitely improved with immersion, but it all might have been better without, at least, the olives.
The Andean-spiced chicken with potato tortilla, almond coleslaw and gumbo sauce still beckons.
The wine list is middlebrow, just long enough and includes a good international mix, plus a serviceable selection by the glass. There are about a dozen beers on tap, delivered via pot, schooner or pint.
Service has mostly been praised here over the years, but it was spot-on during a medium-busy Sunday night: charming, helpful, attentive and fun. It did taper a little (about 9pm) as tables were busily rearranged for the following day.
Luckily we were distracted by the excellent tarte tatin for two. Its richly caramelised fruit had the desired almost-burnt finish and was highlighted by fine buttery and just-flaky pastry. An orb of rich honey ice-cream rounded out the flavours to perfection, adding just a hint of sweetness. Apparently it’s about to go off the menu.
Get in quick. Eat this
O’CONNELLS CENTENARY HOTEL
Cnr Coventry & Montague streets, South Melbourne Cuisine
Modern Australian Chef
Xavier Mercader and Luke Van de Engel Prices
Starters $14-$26; mains $22-$39; desserts $12-$15 Open
Daily 11am to late Phone
9699 9600 The Verdict
Put on your list www.oconnells.com.au
The charcoal wainscoting is a bit country, the patterned tiles add a touch of retro and the functional timber and velour furnishings fit in somewhere around the late ’90s. What gives this 137-year-old pub its thoroughly modern mood is a radiant electric and gas fireplace, TV screens installed in bar seating and austere caged bottle racks suspended around the bar (probably the feature most likely to date). The overall impression is one of minimal pretension and understated elegance, where past and present sit together comfortably in leather-upholstered booths.