Address: 136 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy, 3065
Phone: (03) 9418 3400
Tuesday to Saturday
10am until 3pm and 6pm until 10pm
10am until 3pm and 6pm until 10pm
If you can help others by eating out it's more or less a selfish abomination not to... which is why you must cancel your plans this week and head to Charcoal Lane for lunch and/or dinner. Charcoal Lane is an innovative concept by Mission Australia that provides hands on hospitality experience to Aboriginal and disadvantaged young people in a real—and impressive—restaurant setting.
As part of the accredited hospitality program, individuals are able to work in a supportive and educative environment while building their people and service skills. The restaurant is backed by the state government and works closely with the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service and a number of other sponsors.
Charcoal Lane takes its name from an Archie Roach song and refers to an old local briquette factory in the area, where Aboriginal people would socialise after work. The 145 year old bluestone building is grand yet unassuming from both inside and out. The interior fits snugly into the ‘contemporary’ category, but some artistic touches (such as the traditional Aboriginal fishing trap feature light and the ceiling splashed with black and white paint) boost the space beyond ordinary.
A sleek, white tiled bar sits on one side of the square room, across from a spacious seating arrangement of black chairs paired with wooden tables. The theme continues with polished floorboards, luxurious black banquette seating and exposed light bulbs on black wire that look as if they’ve sprouted haphazardly from the walls.
It is difficult to tell that Charcoal Lane is a training restaurant. While there are some barely noticeable subtleties, the service is superior to many hatted eateries in Melbourne. Water glasses were constantly refilled, orders were smooth and our level of satisfaction was repeatedly checked. At the end of February, Andy Bedford joined Charcoal Lane as Head Chef. He is obviously fastidiousness when it comes to ingredients, as evident by the fact that the Barramundi — which was supposed to be smoked in paperbark and served with parsnip cream, sautéed chickpeas, raisins, broccolini florets and sauce vierge — was removed from the menu halfway through service as the flesh “just wasn’t quite right”.
During lunch, there is a 2 course menu available for $35, or a 3 course menu for $45. Both include a glass of wine. We visited for dinner and loved the modest but modern menu, punctuated with native Australian ingredients. We skipped entrées in favour of dessert, but we couldn’t help but be curious about the heirloom tomato salad with avocado mousse and Parmesan marshmallows. The wallaby tartare with horseradish potato salad, egg yolk gel and Melba toast was also eye-catching, while the Coffin Bay Oysters with rosella flower dressing and Yarra Valley salmon roe would be matched well with a glass of white from the exclusively Australian wine list. We went with Austins Pinot Noir 2010, an initially fruity variety with a more complex, earthy aftertaste.
Although tempted to stick to our Aussie roots and order the wildfire spiced kangaroo loin with pomme pureé, autumn vegetables and cranberry jus, we opted for the steak and pork belly dishes. Two tender medallions (200g) of eye fillet (requested medium) arrived pink and perfectly cooked, resting on a bed of crunchy black cabbage, succulent Shimeji mushrooms and piquant saltbush. A half disk of crisp, herbed potato rosti was an added bonus.
On the other side of the table was the pork belly, slow cooked for 18 hours until the excess fat had melted away, leaving a rectangular slab of soft, unctuous meat with a golden crust. Dotted with plump, seared scallops, a smooth artichoke purée and a finger lime dressing, it was the best pork belly dish I've sampled in a while.
Aside from the steak, pork belly, kangaroo and fish mains that have been mentioned, there was also pan-fried potato gnocchi with pear, rocket, Gorgonzola and basil pesto. We were treated to a selection of side dishes including a velvety pomme purée, tender broccolini and a simple, fresh salad of thinly sliced beetroot, orange segments, rocket, goats cheese and a Vincotto dressing.
The meticulous presentation of dessert was an extra treat. I had the lemon aspen tart, a rectangle of buttery (although unfortunately rock hard) pastry with a sweet and zesty filling, served with a quenelle of velvety finger lime ice cream on a mat of macadamia and ginger soil, then finished with a decorative smear of cherry gel. The combination of textures was delightful.
As for the stout cylinder of vanilla bean mousse, it was so light and airy that eating it became an appreciation of its subtlety rather than its flavours. It was saved from being bland through it's pairing with a semi-frozen hazelnut and wattle seed chocolate bar, crowned with a bleb of blood orange sorbet with an elongated wafer balanced on top.
Charcoal Lane is about “reconciliation and understanding through food”, but just because they are part of a charitable and worthwhile initiative doesn’t mean the quality of the fare they serve is compromised. If anything, they show a greater level of care and respect to their guests, staff and what they send out on their plates. So now that you know that Charcoal Lane not only serves a high standard of food, but that it supports others in the process, you have no reason to book elsewhere next time you eat out. Alternatively, if you didn’t previously have dinner plans this week, you now have an excuse to make some.