There’s a lot to like about Heartattack & Vine. Even if you’ve never set foot inside, you can appreciate a venue named after a Tom Waits album. And it feels like this is the place that Lygon St, needed. It's inspired by Italy, the country who’s immigrants gave Melbourne hospitality its heart, but unlike the old-school Italian cafes that define this strip of Carlton, Heartattack looks forward to a bright future of casual eating and drinking, not back to a nostalgic past.
The tiny shotgun venue manages to feel bright and open, with antique glass lights hanging from old metal window frames lending warmth and depth to the room. During the day it operates as a café, serving simple breakfasts, coffee, sandwiches and interesting options like a Spanish iced chocolate with hints of chili and orange for a spicy jaffa effect. But we’re here for a drink, and after dark they deliver in spades. Service is a bit cold and patchy at first, but as they ease into nighttime service, the crew relaxes and gets chatty about the trickle of food that soon turns into a torrent hitting the bar top. Cicchetti, Italy’s version of tapas, are tiny bites made to accompany drinking. The volume, variety and quality here are hard to overstate, and put most other attempts at aperitivo to shame. Get your growling belly to Heartattack and find out.
Chicken liver parfait with the consistency of clotted cream comes on brioche toast with a slice of sage roasted pineapple. The combo is a bit of a revelation, taking the traditional jammy accompaniments and shoving them off on a slow boat to the tropics. A slice of tuna sashimi on seaweed rice crackers with avocado lingers with ocean funk after the freshness fades, and cold steamed artichoke comes with a mustard sauce so that you can dip the vegetable, leaf by leaf. The hardest part is going to be trying to stop ordering as the bar top overflows with little plates that whisper “eat me.”
The wine list is well curated and fun. Fiano is bright and floral while a Pecorino has an earthy finish that makes it much more interesting than the average aromatic by the glass. On the cocktail list, "Tall & Refreshing" denotes cheaper low alcohol options that still have the creativity and complexity of full-strength cocktails – the highball revolution is here to stay. The Rebujito with sherry, lemon leaf syrup and rosemary is a bit on the sweet side, but a cracker combo of flavours on par with the city’s best cocktail bars. It also matches perfectly to a skewer of anchovies with lemon stuffed olive and fresh basil.
There are rotating specials like a fizz with gin, rhubarb and Pedro Ximiez sherry, and a brilliant bitter twist on the Manhattan with Bourbon, dry sherry and Cynar (an artichoke-based digestive). Although these guys could tighten up on technique and sequence of service, what they’re doing is creative and delicious, and a great expression of the clean and easy Italian cocktail tradition.
The last year or so has seen a welcome expansion of ideas and a serious uptick in quality on Melbourne’s oldest hospitality strip. Right in amongst it is Heartattack & Vine, putting a new coat of paint on this lonesome old town.