When you first step into the stylish airlock entrance at Stokehouse, the transportation to another world is immediate. Suspended in the liminal space, the door behind you closes and the noisy buzz of St Kilda’s busy streets fades to a calming hum. A journey begins.
Up the stairs, we head to the first floor where the magic awaits. The host is attentive and charming from the outset, offering to take our coats and guiding us to our seats before introducing the other service staff who’ll be taking care of us for the night. But while impressed, we’re not really surprised.
This is Stokehouse, after all, a bastion of traditional hospitality and serene comfort since the early 1990s. But I want to know – after all this time, does the food and drink still stack up to the restaurant’s lofty reputation? Let’s find out.
During the day, Stokehouse’s broad, floor-to-ceiling windows overlook the glistening beach, flooding the dining space with rays of sun. At night, however, it’s a moodier setting, with warm lamps and designer chandeliers elevating the interior decor – a theatre for food and sea under the moonlight.
On this chilly evening, the beach is roaring as loudly as the wind is howling, and my partner and I are feeling cosy and romantic by the window. The only word for it is cinematic. After placing our orders, we’re paid a visit by the sommelier. He’s got drink suggestions to pair with our menu choices if we’re interested – of course, we are. A dry Tasmanian brut and a bright Veneto pinot grigio are the chosen allies for our incoming oysters and saltbush and vinegar potato cakes.
The premium oyster service offers a selection from various coastal locations across Australia. On recommendation, we’ve opted for the petite Merimbula oyster, which is cool and briny on the palate, and the heftier Coffin Bay oyster. It’s got that throat-stretching feel as it goes down, a whole mouthful of intense creaminess. A sea breeze shudders through me. The simple freshness and delicacy of both is uplifting, and washed down with our whites, it’s total perfection.
Now, the potato cakes around here are famous, but they’re a far cry from what you’d get at your local fish and chippie. Plated upon rustic hessian pillows, the crispy batter caves in like tender tempura on its earthy root vegetable filling. It tastes so naturally complex, it really doesn’t need much enhancement, but the vinegary saltbush topping proves a delightfully tangy, lip-smacking complement. It’s a Cupid’s arrow bulls-eye straight to the heart.
As far as bread goes, Stokehouse’s offering is wonderfully satisfying; a dimpled country loaf arrives with a round of cultured butter as shiny and yellow as an egg yolk. Tearing the warm fluffy bread with our hands, the steam rising from it carries aromas reminiscent of croissants or Jewish challah, those butter-enriched doughs with a gentle sweetness. It’ll be our undoing if we don’t hang steady until our next course.
My dish is the yellowfin tuna, as fresh as you can get it, exceptionally balanced by an aged tomato dressing that swims in the mouth alongside smoky eggplant and a kick of horseradish. An invigorating beginning. My partner’s entrée is also a showstopper. Soft films of raw Jerusalem artichoke blanket roasted artichoke and parsley, with sweet raisins folded within like hidden treasures in the bowl.
Our sommelier has recommended a German riesling with this course , and its dry, rich fruitiness two-steps expertly with the bold vegetal flavours. But the mains call for more vino, and so we dip headlong into the delights of a Margaret River cabernet.
A lamb tomahawk from Gundagai blushes a tender pink hue and is bursting with the fatty juices that only lamb can render. The bitter greens do a good job at cutting through the slow-cooked meat and sweetbreads. Does it get tastier than this? It does, I find out, when I move my fork to a plate of steamed wild barramundi. It’s draped with globe artichoke, a zesty barigoule sauce and pickled dill blossom. You beauty, you! The melty, buttery-soft fish has to be some of the best seafood I’ve tasted all year.
Even our rainbow of heirloom beetroots sings with the integrity of thoughtful ingredient sourcing and preparation. Every bite throughout our meal has been superb. And though we’re full, we can’t resist trying at least one dessert each. A sunny strawberry Eton mess is a stunning pairing with an apple-scented Pink Lady Spritz, while my partner enjoys a rich pecan tart with caramel ganache. Again, outstanding.
By the end of the evening, my mind is made up. Stokehouse’s historic acclaim is well-deserved, that much is for sure. When the dishes are so mindfully mastered, you want to just keep on eating, and it certainly makes you rue having but a single stomach.
Buoyed along by the creative and sustainable bent of head chef Jason Staudt at the helm in the kitchen, and smooth service to guide you along the way, Stokehouse’s legendary status continues to stand strong. It’s dining on the edge of the world, yes, but it also cuts right to the very heart of what makes eating out so special. So cheers, Stokehouse. A toast to you.