Strapping a casual offshoot to your fine-diner is all the rage. Guy Grossi has wine and salumi bar Ombra, and George Calombaris is reopening the main portion of Press Club as a souvlaki bar at any minute. And now there’s Stokehouse Café, the Van Haandel’s new beachy diner propping up the group's bayside restaurant in more ways than one.
In keeping with the aim of pleasing more of the people all of the time, the Café menu doesn’t hold many surprises. Here are your share plates of pork sliders. There are your big dishes of sticky slow-cooked lamb shoulder and your super salads. But since Nick Mahlook is cooking – the chef who’s been carefully curating the menu at Stokehouse restaurant upstairs for seven years – it’s also no surprise that they’re pretty good.
Mahlook knows balance. There’s grilled cuttlefish threaded on skewers like sails and passed through a hurricane of sweet roasted chilli, coriander and lemon oil so they’re all hot, sweet and fresh. He’s doing one of the city’s best takes on the pork and 'slaw roll, too. A ciabatta is filled with a fat slice of meaty porchetta and crunchy golden crackling, countered by sharp sweet and sticky onion relish. It’s all deliciousness without fatty regret. Grilled corn could be juicier, to cut the pecorino cheese and chipotle mayonnaise it’s slathered with, but on the whole, you’re looking at some sharp snacks for a beachside session at sundown.
It’s a shame the service isn’t more attentive. Checkpoints are met, and most things (except water) arrive as they should. There’s just not a lot of focus between and we have to send out an SOS for drinks more than once.
By day, Projects of Imagination’s austere clean-canteen look of white weatherboard, tiles and gunmetal grey chairs is fresh and breezy, and you can step straight from sand to deck into a sweet-sour Margarita slushie. Although at night, sans view, when the beach crowd becomes the sweater set all those hard lines can make it feel a little like a fancy RSL.
If you do dinner, perch at the giant wrap-around bar inside, and add the likes of raw zucchini ribbons with chick peas, hazelnuts and sharp vinaigrette to those snacks. Dessert-wise, you can’t go past their take on a pavlova. Sharp lemon custard and whipped cream envelope fresh banana and crisp-and-marshmallow-y meringue in a bowl. Job done.
There's stiff competition in the area of late with Di Stasio and Joe's bar both bringing the goods in spades, but there's still nothing like booze by the sea. Put on your loafers and hit up this sea-shack for summer fun while the sun still shines.