23-25 Hardware Lane
Melbourne VIC 3000
+61 3 9600 1574
Hardware Lane. A lane that was once upon a time considered cool and sophisticated but has since gone down the same road as Lygon Street. Gone is the good food, soothing jazz tunes and cool bars and hello annoying spruikers, generic (and boring) food and pubs where lame-o slurries get desperately smashed on Monday nights (only at Pug Mahone’s on nearby Hardware Street). In my opinion, the lane’s only saving graces are La Belle Miette, a quaint macaron shop that do amazing macarons, and Campari House’s rooftop bar where pizzas and beers rule the roost, literally among the pigeons on the very top of the four-storey 1960s building.
I used to go to Campari House rooftop during the warmer months. The buzzing atmosphere, the lively after-work crowd buzzed on one too many Americanos and the decent pizzas makes the sight of Astroturf and climbing four flights of stairs in heels worth it. However, up to this point I’ve yet to visit Campari House’s ground level restaurant which has received quiet nods of approval from fellow–bloggers. So when I received an e-mail from the Publican Group, inviting me to dinner at the restaurant, I knew I couldn’t say ‘no’ to the offer. With Marty as my guest, I arrived for my Friday evening dinner booking to a dining room filled with happy diners obviously relieved that working week was over. Although it was a nice autumn night with conditions ideal for sitting outside, we decided to stay away from the smokers by grabbing an inside table by the window.
With two waiters welcoming and looking after us for the night, a steezy guy who could pass for Prince’s long-lost brother and a bubbly Gold Coast blonde, we got down to business. Choosing our dishes was easy (there were plenty of yummy dishes to choose from), but wine selection was a bit difficult. There were a lot of decent local and international wines on the list, and many by the glass too, which made it hard to choose. Thankfully, Mr Nelson v.2 was on hand to happily assist us with wine selection. In the end, Marty ordered a sangiovese and I ditched my usual choice of a riesling, going with a pinot gris instead.
Marty had the crab cakes ($17) to start off with. Marty reckons he ordered this only because ‘rich people order it in movies.’ I don’t know what sort of movies this idiot watches because as far as I know, stereotypical rich folk order stuff like caviar and bottles of Dom Pérignon in movies but anyway. Looking very much like Jamaican saltfish fritters, his crab cakes came with an aioli and a herb salad. The crab cakes were delicious; we were delighted to discover generous chunks of crab meat in each cake which contained mashed potato and a myriad of spices to make them taste deliciously Moorish. Meanwhile, the potato aioli was creamy and delicious, though lime juice was on hand if we needed a tangy respite.
Meanwhile, I had the lamb skewers ($18). Although they will never beat a lamb kebab from Footscray, I was nevertheless happy with them – the meat was laced with a healthy dose of cumin and was beautifully tender. They paired well with a simple side of crushed chickpea and coriander salad, and a dollop of yoghurt.
Marty had the veal medallion with grilled polenta, pepponata[sic], burnt butter, sage ($26) for his main. Cooked medium rare, the veal was beautifully tender. Meanwhile, Marty was not particularly impressed with the grilled polenta (he ain’t a polenta lover) but so I happily helped myself to his share. He did enjoy the peperonota, though – the warming mixture of stewed peppers, onions and tomatoes provided a lovely rustic touch to the dish and made it rich. What also made the dish rich, according to Marty, was the liberal use of butter. While this would not go down well with some people, we actually liked the extra richness. Yep, we were buttered up alright.
I decided to go light with my main by ordering the blue swimmer crab spaghetti with lemon, chilli and herbs ($26). Upon first glance, the pasta appeared to be covered in a light olive oil-based sauce which pleased me immensely as I don’t like pastas which are supposed to be light being covered in a heavy cream-based dressing. While they were, again, generous with the crab meat, they held back with the chilli to give the dish only the slightest kick. So simple, so good.
We were told that this was to be two-course dinner so this was our cue to say thank you to our hosts and leave. There was a problem though: Marty wanted dessert. Obviously, we would be paying for the dessert we were going to share so we told Mr Nelson v.2, who happily handed us a menu.
We shared a white chocolate mousse with balsamic macerated strawberries ($10). Like most of the dishes we enjoyed this evening, the dessert was beautiful in its simplicity. The mousse was smooth and light, and I actually tasted vanilla rather than just sugar, sugar, sugar – a mistake that a lot of restaurants made. The mousse and the strawberries, fresh and tangy in all their macerated goodness, made for a Hird and Thompson combination to create a premiership-winning dessert (hah!).
We flagged Mr Nelson v.2 again so we could pay for the bill but he simply smiled and told us that it was on the house. Wow, how nice of them! After saying goodbye to our hosts, we retreated into the Melbourne autumn evening. In all honesty, I didn’t particularly have high expectations for this place despite liking Campari House’s rooftop bar and despite positive reviews from fellow-bloggers. I don’t know why, but I’m guessing it’s probably Hardware Lane’s bad rep for being tacky and the fact that it generally hasn’t garnered too much praise from elsewhere. Hence, I was surprised to find that we enjoyed our time there. The food was great, and the service incredible despite it being a busy Friday night. The thought that the good service was perhaps due to me being a food-blogger dining on the house did cross my mind but throughout the meal, I saw all the waiters giving other patrons equal attention and equally good service so I knew this was not the case. Although Hardware Lane remains tacky in my eyes, Campari House is anything but and I would recommend this place to anyone who wants to find a non-spruiking restaurant on the strip within walking distance of Pug Mahones.
Disclaimer: libishski and martypantz attended dinner as guests of Campari House and The Publican Group.