A year ago we were gearing up for pork-loving gardener and sweary Yorkshire chef Matt Wilkinson to open his restaurant Hen & Coq, and we were devastated when it didn’t eventuate. Wilkinson has a mastery over veg and offal, and a knack for balance few can beat.
One minute he’ll be making sandwiches stuffed with fatty, salty crumbed pig’s ears, and the next he’s constructing the most delicate and subtle salads. He’ll talk your ear off about the beauty of some biodynamic rice, but he’ll be saying ‘fuck’ a lot as he does so. He raised the breakfast bar with his café Pope Joan, and now he’s applied all his skills and the Pope’s formidable list of local wines and beers to dinner.
It’s a party of simple excellence from warm, malty beer bread with milk curds to sweet banoffee pie.
Don’t expect smears and foams. That’s not Wilkinson’s schtick. It might be as simple as a tomato-y bowl of goat curry with a grilled naan pillow or a skillet of mac’n’cheese: big ricotta-filled shells under a cheesy béchamel doona. You can get all the snacks from Wilkinson’s bar next door too including crunchy- eel croquettes and that pig’s ear sambo, and even some kid’s stuff like chicken nuggets.
Then again, Wilkinson’s idea of simple dinner is more sophisticated than most.
There’s a brilliant celebration of smoked stuff. Soft strips of ox tongue, oily eel cubes, beetroot relish and yoghurt have all seen some smoulder action. Tying together a dish with such a strong flavour is a bold move, but every element still gets its own tart, pickly, or meaty identity across.
The cauliflower salad packs just as much of a taste-texture wallop. Here, roasted florets party with tender rounds of pickled octopus, pomegranate jewels, slivers of toasted macadamia nuts and salty slips of bresaola, all united by the creamy tang of sumac yoghurt.
The café does day to night well. Linen napkins, tea light candles and cut glass tumblers dress things up, while ’60s beach tunes keep the mood breezy.
The staff are more than capable of booze matching too. And not just with wine. That curry comes with a sweet hoppy ale from organic Oregon brewers Hopworks, and they’re playing around with the many shades of sherry. Have yourself a dry Beechworth fino and a wedge of CWA sponge cake. Filled with plum jam and cream, it’s a classic, inelegant way to cap things off that says everything you need to know about Wilkinson and how he does dinner.