Melbourne bars like to play hard to get. We’re constantly being sent on hide-and-seek missions down dingy alleyways, or through a fridge at the back of a sandwich shop. And now the Charlie Dumpling team is making us work for our reward with Ba Charlie in Prahran.
To find this elusive boozer, enter Charlie Dumpling Jr, the tiny takeaway joint a few doors down from the High Street original. The shop doesn’t look like much from the outside: there’s a window for ordering and a clutch of stools for dining in, but the bright, unflattering light is enough to dissuade anyone from lingering too long.
Rather than spending the first five minutes trying to pry open the electrical cabinet off to the left (trust us, it’s just a ramen-like jumble of cords back there), zero in on a satay-coloured circle, printed at waist height on the back wall. A gentle tap is all it takes to fling open the bar’s hidden door.
It’ll take your eyes a moment to adjust to the inky darkness, but once they do you’ll register a surprisingly deep, industrial-chic speakeasy of polished concrete floors, graffiti-style murals and wire cages cradling wine bottles. Running the length of the room, a fridge houses spice-friendly rieslings, summer-perfect rosé and sparkling wines to get the party started. Each bottle is chalked with a takeaway price, plus a $15 supplement for drinking in. If you can’t commit, a blackboard menu near the door lists 20-odd options by the glass, which hover around the $10 mark.
Just as chef Dylan Roberts doesn’t pull any punches at Charlie Dumpling, the bar staff here sure know how to sock you on the flavour front. It’s early days, but so far sweetness seems to be in the leitmotif. The True Blood of Tanqueray, Cointreau, blood orange and lime will leave you craving a bitter, sour edge; a sugar-rimmed Geisha Girl of sparkling wine, crème de cassis and strawberries is as sugary as a bag of jelly babies.
Blending vodka, lime, chilli, mint and brown sugar, the A-Chilli the Hun strikes a better balance. And although it may seem a tad bullish on its own, it’s best friends with Ba Charlie’s cheeseburger dumplings, an in-your-face mix of beef and Gruyère, crowned with pickled cucumber slices and served with fiery sambal. They’re polarizing; you’ll either be a lover or a hater.
For a more subdued food and drink pairing, order the aonori rice croquettes with a ceramic flask of Oita Oni Koroshi Dohatsu Shoten Dry sake (it’s a mouthful, so just point to the second sake on the list). This slick, intensely flavoured junmai sake is the perfect foil for the crunchy, golden nuggets of seaweed-flecked rice, served with a lick of creamy avocado and wasabi. Clever stuff.
In a patch of tow that's not short of places to drink, Ba Charlie's aloofness may well work against him. Here's hoping more people brave the neon glow out front for the dark delights within.