In Melbourne hospitality, there are two primary camps – the traditionalists and the trend-chasers. When well-executed and willing to evolve, the latter can be stellar. But it can also quickly become a parody of itself, making the rounds on niche inner-north meme accounts before fading into oblivion as the new hotspot swoops in to steal its place.
Full disclosure: I predicted Waxflower would follow that path. With not-so-savoury online reviews and a too-cool reputation, it seemed the wine-cum-listening-bar’s best days were behind it. But after visiting for dinner the other day, I confidently rescind any doubts I had about the venue.
It was a weekday evening and the venue was comfortably full, vinyls blasting through the custom wooden speakers. Too loud to carry a conversation, the volume was my one gripe but as if the DJ could read my mind, this was amended shortly upon my arrival.
Despite the noise, Waxflower makes a perfect date spot – loud enough that you need to get close with intimate booths perfect for sidling up in. And the staff are just attentive enough to keep your drinks flowing without third-wheeling you.
Wines are the focus here and the list is decent with by-the-glass options scrawled on a chalkboard on one wall. It's barely visible from where we are sitting, so we opt instead for cocktails, which are mostly Japanese-inspired (as is the “listening bar” concept, an homage to Tokyo’s jazz kissa). The options aren’t super extensive and two are Spritzes, which barely count as a cocktail, but are tasty nonetheless. If you must pick just one, the Whisky Sour, made with umeshu, amaro and walnut liqueur, is the most interesting of the bunch.
Food doesn’t follow the Japanese theme, instead taking influence from Italy and, less explicitly so, Latin America. We're usually wary of a white guy cooking Latin food but apparently the chef’s got ties to Peru and his grasp on the cuisine is evident.
The hands-down highlight of the night were the dadinhos de tapioca, Waxflower’s riff on the deep-fried Brazilian snack. If we didn’t know better, we might say it’s the most interesting snack in Melbourne right now. Aside from the addition of salt and vinegar seasoning and some fermented chilli oil, this take isn’t groundbreaking. But the fact that they’re offering it at all, when tapioca is so criminally underutilised in Australian cuisine, is commendable.
To the chef’s credit, every bite that we try is a winner – even the freekeh risotto which, though lacking visual appeal, more than makes up for in flavour. Our experience of risottos leans towards underwhelming or tedious, but with its heavy punch of Comte and delightful crunch of hazelnuts, this is neither.
Though Waxflower has built a reputation as a bar first and foremost, I’d argue that the food is its best feature. The jury’s out on whether it will have staying power, but if the benchmark for eats stays this high, count on Waxflower retaining its bloom for some time to come.