It’s all cafés, markets and dodgy takeaway shops when you think of North Melbourne, but the bar scene is picking up with the arrival of Clever Polly’s and Joe Taylor. Joe Taylor, indeed, is arguably the first proper cocktail bar this side of Melbourne. And by proper, we mean they have a few varieties of each spirit between the house pour and the top shelf that the bartenders can recite like a roll call. There’s a cocktail menu, cocktail specials and table service. It’s always a surprising touch when you’re greeted at the door and shown a table in a bar, especially when you’re used to standing in line and fighting for the attention of a bartender in some of the city’s best.
The room is stripped back without feeling cold. Though it’s a white-walled and mirror-lined room, the deep, candle-lit, dominating walnut bar reinforces what Joe Taylor is all about: booze and chat. The cocktails sound gutsy with combinations like whiskey and blood plum jam, Sazeracs in anise-smoked glasses and Cognacs with Fernet Branca floats. They need to be executed expertly, or they could fail dismally. Fortunately, their Casanova Flip hits its marks. “Rich and creamy, Pierre Ferrand 1840 Cognac, Massenez Crème de Cacao, Fernet Branca, Pedro Ximenez, chocolate bitters,” it’s a perfectly balanced drink that comes out tasting surprisingly light for its narrative and is emulsified correctly, so you forget it’s actually a whole egg binding the drink together. Negronis come with enquiries of a preferred gin and vermouth rather than being made with the stock, standard recipe, before it is served to you over a large block of hand-cut ice, showing craftsmanship.
The food reads like typical bar snacks – olives, goats curd and crudités, wagyu bresaola – but you will be guaranteed another pleasant surprise. Like the drinks, the six-plate menu is technical and modern with classic flavours. The bresaola for $9 isn’t just a blanket of thinly sliced air-dried beef lying lifeless on a plate. Instead, they’re presented with height and thin rounds of pickled shallot, wedges of fig and dots of truffled mayo. The crudités have an aversion to symmetry, being plated off-centre and made to look like they accidentally fell that way on the whipped goat’s curd- it’s deliberately modern and pretty, but it doesn’t add anything to the dish. And since when did a bar put sorrel on your raw vegetables? Nice touch, we’ll pay that.
Joe Taylor wants you to look at it as just another suburban bar, but it exceeds expectations from every angle. Even with the very sudden departure of their General Manager, Dan Monk, for Singapore, the venue is left in the safe hands of Pita Dixon and Dan Nathan who have been there from day one and are cut from the same cloth.