Clever Polly is a character from a children’s book who outsmarts a figure much larger than her. If this is a metaphor for the venue’s diminutive size not being indicative of its aspirations, we’d like to subscribe. Clever Polly’s isn’t just a wine bar, but a retail shop stocking an interesting range of wines, sake, beer and spirits from small, innovative producers while pushing equally as clever food.
If you blink, it’s easy to miss the entrance in a small pocket of eateries just past the Victoria Market. Luckily, when you walk into the well-lit room, which is perhaps a little too well lit, you’re greeted by part-owner Louisa Chalmer, who has up until now, flown relatively under the hospitality industry’s radar.
The focus here is on natural wines, but there's no mention of that on their menu, as here they value picking great wine over staying on trend. You are in good hands as it is evident that Chalmer has tasted everything she’s put on the list. Tack on $15 to anything in their retail store and it’s yours to drink in the bar. A bar seat is prime location if you’re a bit of a voyeur and want to learn about what you’re drinking.
With a few sakes by the glass, we go for an unpasteurised, undiluted, unfiltered, cloudy sake from a seventh-generation brewing family, Uehara Shuzo Soma No Tengu 2013 Junmai Ginjo Muroka Nama Genshu, which fits the bill perfectly for the way the list is chosen – interesting, small producers who have introduced as little influence to the product as possible. To follow, Chalmer easily recommends a “fun and interesting,” easy drinking Jumpin’ Juice from Patrick Sullivan in the Yarra Valley, comprised of what the winemaker describes as a blend of “left overs”. Not to list Shobbrook on a natural wine list is unheard of, as he was one of the loudest voices of the local movement, and he features regularly both on the walls and in the glass.
For a measly $19 a generously filled board of cured meats of the porcine variety comes alongside chunks of rye, a rough, punchy, but addictive pesto and batons of pickled capsicum by the hands of chef Catie Perherin. If you’re up for something cooked, the just-seared wallaby loin rolled in macadamia is better than great and obviously made to match the list. Once you get past the visual, the warmed morcilla wrapped in mint and nori with a blood-plum sauce is a winner, but the braised quail needs some moisture to offer relief from the mound of buckwheat it comes served on.
So, just how is Clever Polly stacking up against the big city? Our money’s on the little guy.