It’s telling that our Restaurant of the Year was conceived as a second-string operation: a simple wine bar serving food. It says plenty – both about the prevailing restaurant culture, and the over-achieving nature of Embla itself – that it was introduced to the world by Christian McCabe, Dave Verheul and Eric Narioo as a mere tributary to the questing fabulousness of Carlton’s Town Mouse. Yet this no-bookings “wine bar in the middle of town”, to quote its perennially understating owners, has surprised everyone. What we have here, Melbourne, is a crew from Wellington, New Zealand, showing Melbourne how it’s done.
The service, for one, bucks the trend of every restaurant and café in town bleating about the dearth of good waiters. The wine list is natural but not weird; unorthodox but far from undrinkable (scarily the opposite, really). And lastly, but in no way leastly, the food. Oh god, the food. The wood grill and oven lending a primal layer to things like ocean trout with horseradish and purslane, or the roast chicken of fantasy. As for the anchovy toast with cultured butter and shallot… more of those, please.
They’re still talking about a “proper” restaurant upstairs, later on. No doubt it will be thrilling, but for now we’re happy to cool our boots at ground level. Embla sums up what we love about the restaurant scene right now. A lack of attitude. Style without fuss. Above all, a place that you visit intending to have a quick glass of wine and a snack, and then emerge blinking, two bottles and eight courses later. Anything they do come up with will have to be good to beat Embla. In fact, it’ll have to be damned good. Just saying.