Warm and radiant, approachable and intimate, ringing out with an “assuredness, simplicity and honesty” that endears all – that’s how the New York Times describes the voice of legendary jazz singer Rosemary Clooney, though if you ask us, you could just as well be talking about the aniseed milk bun at Clooney Kitchen and Bar, the Port Melbourne bar named in her honour. Dark caramel crust cracks open like a sable, revealing a pillowy warm interior. Dipped in featherlight turnip cream, like much of the offering here it feels both easy and special, uncomplicated but inspired.
Bracketed by a fluorescent pho shop and froyo café, Clooney’s solid black frontage makes it an otherworldly transplant next to its more suburban neighbours. Inside the snug venue, the team do triple duty; taking orders, mixing drinks and explaining dishes from one moment to the next. Despite this juggle their soft-spoken service is generous, whether walking older couples through the bar’s extensive range of foreign whiskies or pre-emptively offering to adjust cocktails to your preference.
No need, for they’ve got it bang-on with Stari Ate’s Sting, the Negroni’s sweeter, tangier cousin in which šljivovica, a super-strong traditional Eastern European plum brandy, is balanced with bitterness from Amaro Montenegro and brightness from lime and amarena cherries. This knack for drinks with personality and a sense of place also shines in the Tequila Verde, the precise composition of which varies from day to day depending on what greens catch their eye at Footscray Markets. Recently it’s been Vietnamese mint, parsley, paddyherb and “a couple of herbs there wasn’t an English translation for”, blitzed up and strained into lime juice before being shaken with tequila. Take it straight up rather than tall, maximising the intensely fresh flavour.
The kitchen is no second fiddle to the bar. They’re not flogging a fusion agenda, but they are doing Asian-inflected modern Australian right. Tiny cubes of pickled radish are woven through the aforementioned turnip cream to add texture and zing. It evokes the pickled daikon of a bento box. Slices of smoked pig cheek, its lattices of fat expertly rendered and edges charred to a gentle crisp, hits you with the unmistakable sticky-savoury flavour of char siu. They’re already perfect on their own, but undeniably more fun swiped through kewpie mayo and carrot puree. Top marks go to the kangaroo tartare, earthed with pepper leaf and porcini, then lifted by a dash of kecap manis, the molasses-like sweet soy cushioned by soft almond cream.
The old world-y plush look of Clooney, with its plum velvet booths, art deco chandeliers and brass inlays belies its unpretentious, light-hearted spirit. There’s a whole page celebrating “holiday cocktails” should you desire Melbourne’s most dotingly constructed Piña Colada, and an impressive craft beer list stretching from Spotswood to Scotland. A 40-strong wine list favours French and Italian bottles, but mixes in a few local highlights, including a delicate old style Syrah from kosher winery Six Parallels South that waves goodbye with a soft mineral twang.
Clooney seems happy to lay low for the moment, with no website, online booking system or buzz-drumming Instagram to speak of. But there’s already a happy crowd here eating bowls of fragrant mussels and yuzu gin spiders. In a city overflowing with great bars, it’s always a delight to find one that has earned a repeat visit before you’ve finished your last drink.