Friday, May 23, 2014

The Town Mouse Carlton

As Loud as a Mouse

Address: 312 Drummond Street, Carlton, Victoria 

Phone: (03) 9347 3312

Open: daily from 5pm + lunch Friday to Saturday from 12pm

I have a confession: sometimes when you ask me for a restaurant recommendation I’m so underwhelmed by sameness that I turn to Urbanspoon to jog my memory. Asian fusion this, ‘American’ barbeque that, poached eggs here, salted caramel there – the problem with eating out more than you eat in is that you become immune to good food. By the same logic, it takes a superb restaurant to reignite the excitement; to spark the feeling epicureans experience when they taste something that makes their chest swell and – on the odd occasion – turns them teary. The Town Mouse is one such place, and if you’ve asked me for a recommendation in the past six months, chances are I’ve pointed you in their direction. 

It’s difficult to refuse the “come in for good times” invitation transferred onto the concrete outside the entrance. There are plenty of good times to be had, with an impressive Australian-European wine list covering red, white, pink and orange; alongside craft brews from around the globe and a brief selection of cocktails and aperitifs. If you don’t Instagram the custom stemware with its adorable mouse print, you’re a minority.

I dove in head first with the Vice & Stormy, coffee-spiked rum in a martini glass with an initial zing of yuzu and bitters and the smoky aftertaste of cigarettes. It was enough to turn a teetotaller, but that stool seating might pose a challenge to the easily excitable. The stools might not be practical for nanna, but they certainly suit the high timber tables and curved metal and oak bar. Glossy black tiles line the walls, creating a contrast sandwich with the off-white ceiling and speckled, pale stone floor.

The food here is just as stylish. GQ critic Alan Richman recently coined a new term: ‘Egotarian Cuisine’. It’s a wave of food that’s emerged because chefs want to put it on the plate, not because diners demand it. The problem with Egotarian Cuisinie is that is swings between brilliantly creative and downright awful. This is not the case at The Town Mouse, where chef Dave Verheul (who co-owns the restaurant with Chritian McCabe) bravely matches ingredients with the technique to back it up, and without drowning diner with descriptives like ‘soil’, ‘foam’ and ‘dust’. Melbourne could learn a thing or two from these New Zealanders.

You’ll start with bread. Pray it’s still sourdough with salty seaweed butter when you visit. The menu, designed for sharing, is divided into raw, to start, vegetables and meat & fish. There are single bites that appear before the menu categories, such as puffy goat’s cheese profiteroles fastened to the plate with honey (from The Town Mouse’s own Rooftop Honey hive, no less) and laced with caraway and thyme. These morsels set the bar high from the first mouthful, especially if you order smoked duck liver parfait piped onto paper-thin potato crisps with semi-transparent slices of pickled cucumber at their peaks.

We skipped oysters from the raw section in favour of something a little more unique. Originality is part of every plate at The Town Mouse and the shaved calamari – the texture of young coconut, the shape of millimetre-thin fettuccini and the taste of sea spray – was no exception. The ocean was more obvious in the globules of oyster cream, surrounded by a rock pool emulsion of fermented apple juice and dill-infused oil. It disappeared quickly and a collective sigh escaped from our table. Not that anyone would have heard it above the clamour reverberating off the hard surfaces of the room.

Although we had well and truly started eating, we had only just arrived at the ‘to start’ section of the menu. The marvel continued. Fatty, caramalised pork jowl paired with charred chunks of octopus, bound by a liquid lattice of ink, delicate disks of turnip an elongated shaving of kohlrabi and some chickweed for greenery. Smoked brook trout could have slotted under the ‘meat & fish’ subtitle, it’s deep, carroty-pink colour reminded me of a trip to the Sahara Desert while in Morocco.

If the calamari was a rock pool, the trout was a canvas. Pink radish circles were almost opaque, standing out against the black plate beneath a three-dimensional doodle of wild onion. Verbena appeared both as a pureed smear and purple buds. “What’s with the sheet?” we asked our faultless waitress. Apparently it was dried milk skin, noticeably flavoured with garlic.

Preconceptions of meat dishes exceeding their vegetable counterparts were thwarted when the heirloom kale arrived. Fried to a crisp, it rested on bubbly foam made with comte cow’s milk cheese and mustard. An oozy, slow cooked egg lurked beneath. Presentation at The Town Mouse is intricate, but the food remains balanced, even grounded.

Pink slices of duck breast arranged in a log were flanked by caramalised yoghurt, tender pine mushrooms, elk leaves and sprouted wheat (more recently referred to by wholefood nuts as ‘activated’ wheat). Perhaps the least attractive but most surprising dish was the slow roasted red cabbage, a whole quarter of the stuff with bursts of sweetness from red apple and prunes, blanketed in grated Parmesan melting slightly from the heat.

Desserts were almost on par with dinner. The halo of ricotta doughnuts crowning fennel and mandarin custard were let down only by the addition of a lengthy hair, but the incident was soon forgotten in favour of a feminine arrangement of cherry sorbet, dried milk, berries (both fresh and freeze-dried), Verjuice jelly and tiny white flowers. The standout sweet was the buttermilk-poached pear with refreshing pear sorbet and a snaking squiggle of caramel. It rested on a gravelly mound of roast chocolate and crumbed walnuts, interspersed with juicy, green apple.

Since we visited for dinner, there have been slight seasonal variations in the menu which can be seen on The Town Mouse website. There has been plenty of chatter around this Carlton restaurant-cum-bar since it opened, and it lives up to the expectations. For some ludicrous reason, it missed out on scoring a hat in The Good Food Guide 2014. I would bet some serious dollars that we will see it in the next edition.

Next time you go to ask me where to take that special someone for dinner, celebrate a birthday or score a superb feed in Melbourne, try The Town Mouse first. Praise the lord; they’re even open Monday nights. And they take bookings.

The Town Mouse on Urbanspoon


  1. You just made me so hungry. This looks beautiful and tasty.

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