Here at Stately Prick Manor we sometimes play a cheese course game called “Literary Restaurant”. The idea is to come up with puns for dishes at a literature-themed eatery. Thus, “Would you like still, sparkling, or tap water for chocolate?”
When customers sit down, the waiter brings “Catcher in the Rye bread”.
And players might imagine the “Old Man and the Seafood Platter”.
You get the idea. It’s a moderately above-average IQ dad joke.
But wouldn’t you know it, someone has actually gone and opened a functioning literary restaurant, sort of. Andrew McConnell of Cutler & Co (we loved it last year) and Cumulus fame and one of the Pricks’ favourite chef-restaurateurs, recently added another string to his bow in the form of Moon Under Water, an ethereal little dining room off the back of the Builders Arms Hotel in Melbourne’s Fitzroy – a bar that once upon a time was known for its all-in brawls at closing time.
How is it literary? Well, “The Moon Under Water”, for the non-George Orwell buffs out there, was the 1984 and Animal Farm author’s last contribution to London’s Evening Standard newspaper back in 1946. The story described Orwell’s perfect pub (“draught stout, open fires, cheap meals, a garden, motherly barmaids and no radio”). Which is a helluva ballsy inspiration for a name: perfection is a pretty high bar.
But if perfection is impossible to achieve in this life, McConnell’s efforts – combined with those of chef Josh Murphy – come awfully close. There’s something almost other-worldly about the dining room, all whites and off-whites with painted white floorboards and a lovely pastiche of a sideboard full of wine with the only contrast coming from classic bentwood bistro chairs. It is dream-like in the fashion of Orwell’s fantasy pub and thus utterly Orwellian, but not in a DoubleSpeak – Room 101 kind of way.
Instead it is a little gem of a place which gives us Pricks a bit of Melbourne-envy. Sydney is currently enduring a culinary cultural revolution that is smashing up fine dining rooms left and right in favour of whatever taco-slider-dumpling “concept” the ADHD-afflicted vandals of the restaurant publicity industry are pushing this week. Down south, they’re not destroying the old genres, just re-inventing them. And to judge by the crowd the night we visited Moon even Gen Ys, whom in Sydney we are told want nothing more than to queue for a taco in a $3 million fit-out that will be in the hands of receivers 24 months from now, are coming along for the ride.
The deal at Moon is four courses for $75, though there are extra bits and bobs, some free, some not, but even so it is astonishingly good value. Multiply $75 by 25 per cent and compare that to what they’re charging for steak and chips at your local. And it’s sophisticated stuff, too – it may be a pub dining room, but Moon is not about glorified pub food.
Little parmesan cookies whet the appetite. These are followed by little slices of mackerel on lavoshy-type wafers (served on a box that cleverly conceals the bread and butter). But what makes this amuse is house-smoked – smoked! – crème fraiche. Good Lord, what a cool idea.
We Pricks elect to go with an optional extra, a dozen fresh-shucked oysters shipped down from NSW, plump and sweet and not requiring so much as a squeeze of lemon.
All along we’re getting wines: A sparkling chenin blanc (oh, is there such a thing?). A white Grenache. We go off the suggested pairings and get turned onto a lovely French number after the sommelier brings a few choices to the table. We didn’t write down the name, but it was bigger than a fruity Burgundy but not quite the heavy-hitting cab franc either. (If you happen to read this, kind sir, drop us a line and let us know: We were the couple in the corner that laughed a lot, held hands nauseatingly, and finished off on grappa.*)
Then a little composed plate of vegetables, based around something called romanesco – like broccoli, but not. Crème fraiche again, with almonds and mint coming in all over the place with high, low, and crunchy notes. A bit of brown butter, too. Slightly out of our comfort zone as nothing took it in the neck to join us for this course, but still great.
Steamed mullet is next, perhaps the most “cheffy” and composed of the courses: While Mrs Prick found it a bit too fishy, octopus hidden underneath was deftly handled, tender, briny, and a couple of dots of pepper sauce pulled it together.
The most “main-ey” of dishes, beef both corned and roasted, is stunning, two kinds of tender, with a mustard sauce and crust on the corned beef and salad and big, sharp flavours. Dessert is an apple confit with mace ice cream, lovely but almost too subtle at this point in the night. None of these plates were dressed with the sorts of smears and smoodges one expects these days (no photos, sorry, our phones were out of batts, and snapping would’ve ruined the mood in any case) but everything was technically excellent without losing soul.
Your results, of course, may vary, and we may have just gotten lucky on a winning combination of dishes (though I doubt it): The genius of the business model appears to be that everybody gets the same thing, which must make provisioning easier, and the menu can be changed whenever depending on mood or season, drawing customers back for repeats. They may very well do something different tomorrow or next week.
Meanwhile the service is professional, knowledgeable, chatty or not as required. The floor staff seem less like “help” and more like a bunch of guys who are really into food and wine and love to talk about it and thanks to a particular set of circumstances are serving as guides and hosts through the meal. To return to Orwell (specifically Down and Out in Paris and London): “The waiter comes to identify himself to some extent with his employers. He will take pains to serve a meal in style, because he feels that he is participating in the meal himself.” That’s how it feels at Moon, and that’s not a bad thing.
Moon Under Water is one case where the behavioural economists are right and it’s nice to just have all that pesky choice taken away for once. In fact there’s no real choice about it: If you’re in shooting distance of Fitzroy or will be any time soon, book in. And tell ’em the Pricks sent you.
* UPDATE: Angus, the manager at Moon, has kindly written in to let us know that “the wine was the 2010 Hilberg-Pasquero ‘Vareji’, from Piedmont in Italy. It’s a blend of Brachetto and Barbera. There’s a bit more information here: http://addleyclarkfinewines.com.au/growers/180. That page also contains a link to the producers website.
“In case you’re interested, the other wines you had were the 2011 La Grange Tiphaine ‘Nouveau Nez’ Petilliant from the Loire Valley, France and the 2011 Espelt ‘Vailet’ Grenache Blanc/Macabeu from Emporda, Spain. The spirit you finished with was the 2004 Capovilla ‘Grappa di Barolo’, also from Piedmont.”