The Brandon Hotel, on a dimly lit, residential corner in Carlton North, looks unassuming from the outside. Enter the fairly generic front bar you’ll get a squinty assessment from the locals that says: “Y’all ain’t from round here.” Conquer these gatekeepers and pass the bar, and you pass the test. Your reward? In the back is a really decent bistro serving modern British fare adorned with tidbits from chef Neil Cunningham’s Healesville garden. It’s as exciting as finding $50 down the side of the couch, and twice as delicious.
This is a local pub all right, replete with Wednesday quiz night and Connect Four (oh yes), but there’s no parma and no pie. It’s not quite fine dining either, but they’re definitely landing punches in the middleweight division with some solid dishes in the seasonally changing menu. Seared kingfish with smoked eel, horseradish cream, and soft quail eggs is the first surprise entry, and it’s a winner. So is the sweet, soft, confit pork neck with pumpkin puree, a biting pickled pear salad and sage jus. With a deconstructed Pavlova for dessert of crisp meringues, tart rhubarb and rosewater cream, we conclude that the skill is there and the reputation will soon follow.
For now, this is an unimposing venue where you can sit by the double-sided fireplace that holds a stack of well thumbed cookbooks and drink a decent wine delivered by waiters who more than know their business. We can’t fault Cunningham’s attitude towards produce. The steaks are aged on site, while the black cabbages are off the menu on our visit because they were eaten by a rabbit. You just can’t fake that kind of wholesome.