Event: Whisky Business @ The Commoner

122 Johnston Street
Fitzroy VIC 3065
+61 3 9415 6876

It seems like Matt and I just can’t get enough of Jo Corrigan’s mod-British restaurant, The Commoner. Not only do they boast awesome weekend brunches, they’re also running movie themed dinners throughout the year. We attended Poultrygeist, a bird themed dinner, as guests in February and loved it so much that we HAD to return again for another themed dinner.

Because Matt loves his whisky and because I’m always looking for an excuse to dine out, we decided to go to Whisky Business, the title of the movie themed dinner that runs all throughout June. Unfortunately, our busy work schedules meant that we were only able to attend this dinner very late in the month (as in, last night) and so those of you who are reading this and would like to book a table only have a few more nights because Jo and her crew pack away the whisky bottles.

Matt was the founder of his work’s whisky club so it’s obvious that he knows and loves the stuff. He believes that whisky isn’t meant to be matched with food, but he was curious to see how it was done. Meanwhile, I didn’t know much about whisky and the only prolonged exposure I’ve had with a Scotch of any kind was that of an all boys school in Hawthorn (no, not the dirty kind). The food may have been the main reason why I was looking forward to the nigh, but that’s not to say that I wasn’t looking forward to learning a thing or two about the drink that makes Brick Tamland go crazy.

During June, head chef Brook Petrie teamed up with Australian Gourmet Pages editor and whisky guru Franz Scheurer to bring diners a five-course menu with four different whiskies to match – and all for $125. Those who attended the launch night for this event would have had the pleasure of having Franz himself go through each course, but for those who missed out need not fear for the other waiters do know their stuff.

Heeeh, bong candle!

We started off with a glass of Compass Box’s Asyla. Although the dinner focuses on single malt whiskies, this particular one was a blend. The sweet grain and malt whisky blend had an alcohol content of 40%, the universally accepted minimum. Our waiter, who was cuter than Tom Cruise’s Joel Goodsen called it an ‘entry-level whisky.’ This meant that newbies like myself found it easy enough to drink, however the whisky’s spicy notes were complex enough to appease seasoned drinkers such as Matt.

It was served with a scampi tomato broth with crumbed boccerones (Sicilian white anchovy) and potato roux on the side. The broth looked deceptively simple but it was full of tomato-y flavour. Although you can taste the sea in the broth, a sip of Asyla actually accentuated the scampi flavours a bit more. A great start.

We then had an assortment of little dishes for the second course. The ‘surprise peppers’ (as the waiter called it) were essentially padron peppers delivered to the restaurant each week by some dude called ‘Richard’ from the Yarra Valley. The peppers, which are then roasted and seasoned with salt, are designed to be eaten like a snack. And while the peppers are largely mild with varying degrees of sweetness and bitterness, there were one or two that were hot. Which ones? We weren’t told – that was the ‘surprise.’ Matt is not at all a fan of hot food so he obviously didn’t find his game fun at all but luckily (well, for him), I ended up eating the only pepper that was hot.

To diffuse some of the heat, I was lucky to have some warm bread and butter on the side. But if the bread did not take away all the heat, then the oxtail and potato pastie with Piccadilly mayonnaise finished the job. Looking more like mini curry puffs than pasties, each crunchy shell revealed a beautifully rich filling of shredded oxtail meat and chopped potatoes. We loved it.

Our second course was a fried soft shell crab with celeriac remoulade and lemon. I’m not particularly fond of soft shell crabs (mud crabs, FTW) but I certainly didn’t mind this one. Each crab was battered and then gently fried to golden and crispy perfection, and the creamy celeriac remoulade provided a lovely accompaniment.

The waiter produced a shot of Talisker 10 to match the crab. The 10 year-old single malt Scotch was harvested from the shoreline and the layers of seaweed used in its production gave it a flavour that was distinctively medicinal and ‘sea-like’ to match the crab’s flavour, or so the waiter told us. To be honest, I didn’t think this particular whisky matched the soft shell crab well. Rather, it just seemed like they were trying to find a vague correlation between the dish and the whisky (‘okay, seaweed and sea, there you go!’). Furthermore, every time I sniffed the whisky, I started thinking of a pre-2007 smoking ban Lavish nightclub dance floor which made me shudder. Due to its overpowering smell, I found the Talisker 10 a bit hard to get into but because there is supposedly a ‘special rung in Hell for people who waste good scotch,’ I quickly soldiered on. Focusing on nicer things associated with smoke – like tea-smoked duck – I eventually grew appreciated this full-bodied and peaty, taking small sips in between bites of food and sips of water. I would have preferred it on its own rather than with the crab, though.

We then had a black pudding with white onion and cider puree. Matt’s never had a black pudding before so he was initially apprehensive but eventually ate it only because my ‘JUST EAT ITTTTTTTTTTTT!’ cries became increasingly louder (and more embarrassing). Now I’m not a huge fan of eating blood – I throw away the pig’s blood jelly cube when I eat bun bo hue – but I do enjoy my black puddings and this one was pretty amazing – and Matt thought so too. The whole thing had the right amount of crunch on the outside, which gave way to a silky smooth inside. When mixed with the sweet onion and cider puree, each forkful was a pleasure to eat.

Our main course was a lovely braised pork shoulder with homemade polenta and Yorkshire mustard. The meat was beautifully melt-in-your-mouth tender and had a slightly smoky flavour. The pork may have been a star on its own but I was also blown away by the homemade polenta which was richer and coarser than store-bought polenta and a lot tastier and heartier. Overall, the dish was very rustic and homely yet still had that bit of steez, very much like the restaurant itself.

Oooh yeah…

The dish was accompanied by a side dish, broccolini with tahini dressing and smoked almonds. It was beautiful in its simplicity and tasted very Moorish.

The pork was also accompanied by a glass of Ardbeg, a 10 year-old single malt whisky from Islay, a region in Scotland that produces very peaty scotches. According to the waiter, it contained 54.5% alcohol but Dan Murphy’s website cites claims it only has 46%. Matt said it was the strongest whisky he’s ever had so he was more inclined to believe the waiter than a seemingly poorly edited website owned by a liquor retail franchise.

Like the Talisker 10, there was no significant correlation between the Ardbeg and its corresponding course – or so Matt and I thought. Nevertheless, we both thought it was super-fantastic. It was slightly less peaty than the Talisker 10 which meant that I did not automatically think of Asian nights at Lavish upon first sniff and you could taste all manners of toffees, cinnamon and chocolate with a hint of sherry. We were both like ‘WAAAAAH!’ every time we took a sip for it was so strong, so delicious and so warming. If this was the pub scene in Inglourious Basterds and I was Lt. Archie Hicox, I would say that this was a ‘damn good stuff, Sir.’ Given the chance, we could have finished a whole bottle together if we wanted to. The waiter looked at us with much amusement before declaring that he had a ‘stronger one coming up next.’ A stronger one? Oh dear me…

He was right, for the final whisky was the Glenmorangie Astar, with a 57.1% alcohol content. We thought our Ardbeg was pretty mind-blowing but this was pretty damn good too. The single malt Scotch came in the form of a lovely bright gold liquid, packaged in something that looked more like a Dior perfume bottle than a Scotch bottle. Just like the Miss Dior Cherie, the whisky was more ‘playful’ than the previous two we tried. Although it was full-bodied, there were traces of fruit notes, toffee and cinnamon which meant that it paired well with a variety of desserts.

And it certainly matched beautifully with the hot chocolate pudding and peanut brittle ice cream. Prior to this dessert, Matt and I were saying how we were still hungry and how another savoury would have been nice. Halfway through our puddings, however, we kind of had to eat our words (literally and figuratively). The hot pudding, oozing with a lovely dark chocolate ganache, was rich enough to warm our souls and fill our tummies. I’m not a fan of rich chocolate desserts but this one was the perfect dessert to end our meal with – plus the slightly salty peanut brittle ice cream was there to diffuse some of the richness. If the four glasses of whiskies have not warmed your body up at this point, this pudding certainly will.

I may still think that wines are preferable to whisky when it comes to pairing food to alcohol, but I certainly had fun that night. As a newbie, I learnt quite a lot as did Matt, who knows quite a bit about whiskies. While you won’t see me ordering a Johnny Walker with a juicy piece of steak any time soon, you will certainly see me ordering it for a post-meal night cap at a nice inner-city bar before heading home to plan my next meal at The Commoner.

EDIT (11/07/2012): I’ve been told that The Commoner no longer do brunches, which is a shame because they were awesome *sob*

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  1. Out of the ones offered to you I have only tried the Glenmorangie Astar. It’s lovely indeed but unfortunately they are halting the production of this. Wonder why.

    The chocolate molten cake does look super sinful!

    1. Oh yes! Matt was telling me about it over dinner. I looked it up on the internets and apparently they’re closed for renovations for a few weeks but will reopen with a brand new name and everything in mid-July so I will suss it out then 🙂

  2. I need to expand my whisky knowledge as I love what I know, and I know what I love.

    I couldn’t think of a better way learn than to pair drinks with food 🙂

  3. That pork shoulder looks SO tender and delicious! And OMG that hot chocolate pudding OMG OMG OMG i really want one of those now ~ I’m gonna show Mr Bao a picture of that pork shoulder and I bet he’ll want to go immediately 😛

  4. Sounds like a blast.

    Most distilleries produce numerous “expressions”, at varying strengths, although while Ardbeg currently produces a few cask strength expressions, none of them are exactly 54.5% ABV. According to Google there haven’t been many Ardbegs bottled at exactly 54.5% at all. All of them have been limited runs and are quite expensive.

    Dan Murphy’s only sells Ardbeg 10 year old, which really is 46% ABV. I’d say neither Dan Murphy’s or The Commoner have made a mistake here; you probably weren’t given the 10 year old.

    1. That’s what I thought (not getting the 10 year old) but Matt reckons we would have, so I assumed he was right haha. Thank you, Lindsay, for clearing it up and for that little bit of information 🙂

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