When Kirk’s sprung up in a historic corner building flanking Hardware Lane and Little Bourke in 2014, the likes of Miznon, Pho Thin, Hardware Club, Rice Paper Scissors and Hawker Boys were nowhere to be seen. There was zero-waste sustainable café Silo By Joost, which shuttered just as Kirk’s took flight due to onerous council regulations. New York-inspired late-night eatery Nieuw Amsterdam took over a former hardware factory in the same street to rave reviews in the same year, only to close a few years later. In the fluctuating mix of cafés and restaurants that have periodically occupied one end of Hardware Lane to the other end of Hardware Street, Kirk’s has remained a constant.
And it’s still hard to get a table, some eight years later. The pandemic hasn’t prompted Kirk’s to switch to a bookings system as it has so many others – it’s still walk-in only, and you’ll struggle to get a table even on a wintery Tuesday night. Rugged-up patrons aren’t deterred by the lack of indoor seating – a heater radiates onto them as they sit shoulder-to-shoulder in a Parisian-style terrace seating. But if you successfully manage to jostle for a table inside, savour it – the curved timber bar and 1950s charm are a perfect backdrop for a leisurely, luxuriant meal.
The specials are reeled off and they’re as expansive as the written menu – pan-fried Murray cod with pickled fennel, braised beef cheeks, goat’s cheese souffle with Jerusalem artichoke, pork and leek terrine. The freshly shucked oysters hail from Merimbula and are served with either mignonette or a house-fermented hot sauce. After our convivial waiter waxes lyrical about how good the hot sauce is with a side of fries – which we’re also planning on ordering – we’re convinced this condiment is the way to go. She’s not wrong. Akin to a more well-rounded, fully developed Tabasco with a slow burn and simultaneous sweetness and heat, Kirk’s hot sauce enlivens the fresh oysters unlike any accompanying condiment I’ve had with them before. (It’s also a treat with the fries, so hold on to it.)
The pig’s head doughnut presents as a deep-fried ball where the layer of batter within is almost the same thickness as the shredded pork it’s stuffed with. If you don’t think this sounds indulgent enough, the accompanying gribiche – like a cross between tartar and aioli except also with julienned egg whites and emulsified egg yolks – ups the richness dial from five to ten. At $8.50 a pop, it’s well worth getting one each. Our divulging waitstaff lets us know a suited gentleman shows up habitually at Kirk’s just for the doughnut and a pint of beer, that’s how iconic they are.
The cured kingfish is at once tantalising and surprising. A fluffy, nondescript white cloud, which we only find out later is lardo, rests on the thinly sliced kingfish, with the pickled green tomato and apple offsetting the richness of the wafer-thin layer of pig fat.
Off the specials’ menu, the hand-rolled ribbed quills of penne’s larger cousin garganelli perfectly capture the savouriness of pine mushrooms. Sliced thinly and pan fried until a shade of brown that makes them look almost like a squid tentacle, the pine mushrooms are interspersed with baby corn and flecks of truffle pecorino, which imbue the entire dish with an earthiness that is, at times, a touch overwhelming.
The medium-rare steak is cooked to perfection, but the dark brown and velvety shiitake and bone marrow butter it sits in steals the show – it elevates the umaminess of the dish and is perfect for mopping up with the second element of this dish, the pomme frites. French fries have never tasted as good as they do at Kirk’s – immaculately seasoned with good crunch and heft.
Kirk’s fashioned itself as a wine bar when wine bars were not yet a thing, and it honours this lineage by continuing to stock small importers of European wines, regions less familiar to punters and cutting-edge Australian wine producers. We try the Hughes & Hughes Dunkel Spritz from the pet nat section, an experimental wine from Tasmania which is possibly the world’s first sparkling made from the dark-skinned German Dornfelder grape. Bright, fresh and fizzy, it’s a fitting accompaniment to our meal.
For dessert, we stick to the old faithful menu and order the dark chocolate pavé where a thin, top layer of blackberry and lime jelly and a crumbly biscuit base sandwich soft, creamy chocolate mousse. It’s bittersweet – the perfect dessert for non-sweet tooths – and somehow light yet extravagant.
With a plethora of new restaurants cropping up every other day in Melbourne, it can be hard to find the time for old favourites. But Kirk’s has the unstinting loyalty of its regulars and for good reason – a perennially inventive food and drink menu is matched by inviting interiors and maybe the most architecturally impressive saloon-style bathrooms we’ve ever visited.