Paul Mathis leads the dining charge into South Wharf, but will his gamble pay off?
You’ve got to admire Paul Mathis. The prescient restaurateur started a sustainability seafood restaurant (SOS) way back when people were still proudly not recycling. He takes risks, plays the long game, and the fact that most of his ventures (Taxi, Chocolate Buddha) have been successes makes one suspect he knows something we don’t. Tell yourself that anyway, as you walk to his restaurant at the end of Melbourne’s universe.
Mathis’ Sharing House, pushing a modern take on the 80s greatest hits (duck a l’orange, a la ex-Vue de Monde chef Mark Briggs) is one of twelve, twelve, new joints lining South Wharf. Everything in this formerly dead zone is so shiny and new, you’d think you were in Dubai. Except that there aren’t any people – which is a little creepy. But conquer that hurdle and you’ll be rewarded with some of the most bright and breezy (and queue free) dining spaces in Melbourne.
Admittedly, the Sharing House design is a little kooky. Marble tables and industrial bare bulbs collide head on with $12K worth of Lego lining the bar. The good news is you get to play with it. The bad news? Staff wear gaudy matching tees, so it’s all a little Fisher Price.
The idea is (obviously) sharing, so amp up with some snacks like a cute paper bag of rabbit and cauliflower popcorn. Equally sized pieces are crumbed and deep-fried a uniform gold so you can’t tell which is which. In fact, once dipped in aioli, it’s still not entirely clear once you’re eating them. The ocean trout, house-cured in apple vodka is the clean antithesis. Fresh, sweet, the rosy fish is laid out in relaxed waves, and polka-dotted with horseradish cream, and tiny shot pellets of apple, impregnated with citrus. It's a great dish, although jewel-like cubes of apple jelly are redundant.
We wouldn’t race back for the cocktails, which are a little topsy-turvy balance wise, but a sharp list of French and local wines at the non-pointy end of the financial stick should steer you right.
Pinot-up and hit the “whole roasted chicken” ($36). Done two ways, your bird arrives on a board, breasts raunchily basted in a none-too-raunchy chilli-garlic harissa and yoghurt paste, while the legs, which have been separately subjected to a multi-hour dip in their own fat, are confited to within and inch of their life. It's let down by the tabouli, which is more cous cous and bitter lemon zest than the bright herb dish we want to cut through the fat. Especially since you’ll want dessert. Briggs joins the list of chocolate-bar obsessed chefs. His is a “Mars Bar” délice – bitter chocolate outer, with a smooth vein of rich caramel and striations of pop-rock crackle throughout. It’s a winner.
Currently it’s a transient crowd – DFO shoppers, conference goers. Weeknights see you with little company save your waiters. And yet this is a considered, neatly turned out restaurant. If Melbourne can conquer its collective apathy towards the area and inject some life into the place, it could be great.