Yep, the rumours are true. After nine months of trading as Virginia Plain, Marco Santucci's cavernous Flinders Lane restaurant has had a do-over.
Saturday (June 15) was the restaurant's last day as the natural wine and fancy snack-loving Virginia. Now it's Mercy Bar and Eatery – a far more casual operation where the focus is more on beers and casual mod-European comfort food.
Some things haven't changed – head chef Andy Harmer is still bashing the pans, and they're still spinning vinyl behind the long marble bar. But you can expect to find the wine list more concise and the space a little less corporate.
"The changes aren't huge," front man Mat Beyer tells us, "but they will make a big difference. We always wanted Virginia to be a more casual and now we've finally decided to go for it."
The dining room's round tables have been recycled as stools and a whole lot of communal tables and new artwork thrown in.
Stay tuned for a new review.
Virginia Plain is Marco Santucci’s new semi-formal bistro meticulously ticking all the boxes – mod-European share plates, waistcoated staff playing vinyl records; they’ve even got ex-MasterChef contestant Mat Beyer running front of house and doing social media.
In a word, it’s big. Not just in size – although, unimpeded by any partition, the mammoth slate-toned Finders Lane cavern seems to run the length of a city block. With those high ceilings and 25 seat granite bar it’s pretty grandiose – something you’ll enjoy if you’re sick of eating at places where you have to sit on someone else’s lap, although it can feel like you’re the only person who RSVPd to the party, even on a Saturday.
There are big names too – executive chef Andy Harmer (ex-Vue De Monde) is overseeing the highly technique-driven menu where even the spring vegetables are subjected to a bacon foam facelift, while Raúl Moreno Yagüe (also ex-Vue, and SOS) is filling your wine glass. Nobody does it like this guy. The charismatic Spaniard flourishes those bottles with the flare of a magician-cum-matador. He’ll push some upper end gear, perhaps a Croatian Malvazija varietal treated on cedar so it has a warm smoky edge, but more because it’s delicious, not because it’s expensive.
There are a lot of things we enjoy about drinking in this restaurant. House pinot noir on tap; non-sparkling super dry ciders that are more like wine, and decent cocktails – go a La Rosita of tequila, Campari and vermouth served straight up and guaranteed to take you from struggle street back to party central in two sips.
Food wise, the rule of thumb here is keep it simple. Start with some fat Batemans Bay oysters or aged jamón (air dried Spanish ham – extra salty and extra piggy) over the foie gras and quince croquettes. The indistinguishable breaded and deep fried balls of creamy foie gras are intense, while those filled with the fruit paste are plain odd. It’s Russian roulette.
We’re right behind a marriage of sweet seared scallops and a nutty black pudding, cooked in a deboned pig’s trotter, sliced and fanned across buttery mash. Oof. Vegetarians should get the artichoke salad, a tangle of shaved raw heart and baby greens enriched with a buttery cep mushroom purée.
Skip the salty seafood stew for lamb three ways – fatty, soft slow roasted shoulder, breaded sweetbreads (those tasty, spongey thymus glands - a little overcooked in this case) and a neatly trimmed cutlet turned into an ugly-delicious meat paddle-pop with translucent stomach lining enveloping a basil mousse, binding it to the meat. The smoky eggplant dip and dehydrated crisps do more for the dish’s looks than taste.
We wish the milk ice cream and coconut-lime sorbet were desserts in their own right – we're less keen on the cakey chocolate fondant and eggy coconut souffle they're supporting.
The ideas here are big, ballsy and ambitious, and for us, not all the dishes are quite there yet. Hopefully, time and tweaks will bring things together. Until then, stick to snacks or go the great value four-course tasting menu for $55 and spend your spare pennies on their excellent booze.