The Town Mouse

June 22, 2014

312 Drummond Street, Carlton
‘Come in for good times’ beckons the threshold of Carlton’s latest gastronomic darling, the Town Mouse. As Mr N and I discovered while there for dinner to celebrate my birthday some time ago, not only is this an enticement, it’s a guarantee. Looks like this small restaurant come wine bar on Drummond Street really is the mouse that roared.

In the space that used to be Embrasse (which is sorely missed – I had a wonderful meal there to celebrate Dad’s birthday some years ago), the Town Mouse has moved in and is really making waves in the restaurant scene. Inside, the walls are covered in sexy, shiny black tiles with a large bar acting as the anchor in the room. The floors, in keeping with the casual atmosphere, are polished concrete, and the wait staff are incredibly down to earth, knowledgeable and friendly.

The neat operation of a wine bar works particularly well, I think, especially when coupled with damn good food that threatens to steal the show. In order to enjoy your night here, it’s key to approach it with a laid-back mindset and take your time to savour things. Escape from the routine three courses, bottle of pinot, in-and-out business. Be clever with what you pick here – both wine and food – the rewards are well worth it.

True to form, the wine list is very, very extensive, and they also have an impressive range of wines by the glass. We thought it might be nice to sample a couple of wines rather than get a bottle, and began with a Christophe Chablis Vieilles Vignes from 2012. It was a good wine to start with, quite crisp and lemony, without being too grassy. I particularly liked the mouse marker on each wine glass.

Captivated for a minute by the long wine list, I’m suddenly brought to attention by one word: Hungry? Yes, yes I am.

Fitting with the wine bar style, the menu is comprised of share dishes, with the idea that you take your time grazing over a few dishes with one glass, perhaps breaking for a bit before moving on to another dish or two with a different glass. The one criticism I do have is that for a wine bar where most other tables had two, maybe three people eating as a group, two of the ‘Meat & Fish’ dishes were far too big to share between two people. It might make more sense at a restaurant where it’s typical for bigger groups of 4 or more to eat, but here, where the average diner is part of a couple, it’s a little constricting.

I’m not saying I didn’t like the options – heck, I was gunning for the slow roasted saltbush lamb shoulder with chargrilled cos, lemon and tahini like you would not believe. But 900g is just not doable, even with my appetite. Same goes for 600g of wagyu rump cap with walnut butter: too much of a good thing.

Not interested in the other two options, we instead spent our time grazing on the smaller dishes from the menu, starting with a pair of oysters from Moulton Bay in Tasmania. Served with chardonnay vinegar sorbet and lemon, these were sublime. Plump, salty and icy cold with the sorbet, they were so good we threw them back and ordered a second round.

The second round didn’t last long either.

Having done my research on the Town Mouse, it seemed we couldn’t go past the goat’s cheese profiteroles with caraway, thyme and house honey. True to form, these were wonderful, a ethereally light and moreish mouthful, the profiterole pastry giving way to a creamy and slightly salty goats cheese filling. The honey, thyme and caraway were the perfect little touches.

Also brilliant were a pair of potato crisps with smoked duck liver parfait and pickled cucumber. Cool and gamey, the crisp provided a textural contrast to the smooth parfait. Even Mr N, who doesn’t typically like liver parfait, enjoyed these!

From the raw section of the menu, I was very keen to try the shaved calamari. Bundled into beautiful little mounds, the calamari came with dots of oyster cream, and sat in a dill and fermented apple juice.

Like everything we ate at the Town Mouse, it was a ridiculously beautiful dish, you almost didn’t want to disturb the calming puddles of green and white. The calamari doesn’t have a very strong taste, but the texture was something else – like firm, al dente rice noodles, elevated by the tangy and herbaceous juice.

Mr N was very keen on the smoked rainbow trout with pickled clams, radish, verbena and wild onions. Now, for the trout-skeptics among you, just know that there’s a large discrepancy in quality of smoked trout on offer in the market generally. These lightly blushing fillets of soft, smokey flesh were a far cry from the dry orange, vacuum-sealed version you get at the supermarket. It’s like a completely different fish when done this well.

The trout came with a milk skin, which reminded me of the skin of the fish, all pale, shiny and speckled. A riot of hot pickled radish, curly wild onions and vinegary pickled clams highlighted the sweet fish perfectly. A very pretty plate, it was almost a work of art.

Those wild onions! So squiggly and so delicious!

Our second warm dish was a neutral palate of poached chicken with king oyster mushrooms, ricotta, avruga and salad burnet. Banishing all thoughts of dry and crumbly chicken, this was wonderfully succulent and juicy, a soothing foundation for the brilliant flavours of mushroom and salad burnet. The clean and pure flavours were a hit with both of us.

From memory it was about this time that we moved on to our second wine, a 2011 Ravensworth Marsanne from Murrumbateman in NSW. One word: beautiful. I’m really coming around to the Marsanne variety, it’s quite creamy and peachy compared to other whites, and I find that it goes extremely well with a large range of foods. Mr N and I also enjoyed the fantastic Bird on a Wire Marsanne while at The Commoner last year, another fabulous meal. The Ravensworth was a perfect accompaniment to the chicken, and improved when it had warmed up a little.

Our final savoury dish was a summery bowl of heirloom tomatoes with whipped tofu and fermented gazpacho. Visually very beautiful, this was quite good but as soon as Mr N commented that the dish ‘needs salt’, I just couldn’t stop thinking about it! There was no salt or pepper on the table and I’m sorry to say that this dish was sadly under-seasoned. Tomatoes especially, I find, need a little salt to really bring out their flavour, and where perhaps a goats cheese or feta may have otherwise provided a salty tang, the whipped tofu was bland in comparison.

I was very keen on ordered the slow cooked red cabbage, but felt that given it was a warm night, we were drinking white wine and had been eating fish and chicken, it was probably a tad too hard core for this visit. Any excuse to come back, I suppose…

Before ordering sweets, we searched the menu for another wine. What stood out immediately, between the white and red lists, was a sub-heading that read, ‘Orange Wine’. Orange wine? We were intrigued, and asked about the Pyramid Valley Vineyards Kerner Estate from Malborough. ‘It’s… unusual’, said a waiter with a small smile. Unusual is one way you could describe it. Medicinal and bitter is another way. Downright unaccessible is a third.

We were completely taken aback by how strange and, frankly, unpleasant this wine was. We commented as much to the lovely waitress who’d been looking after us all evening and she immediately took the orange wine away and came back with two delicious glasses of white. The orange wine didn’t appear on our bill either, which was very good of them. I hate to appear like some naive idiot who deserves every bad wine she orders, but we did ask the waiter what it tasted like and for such a strong and affronting taste, he should have said a bit more than ‘it’s unusual’.

Anyway, we had our replacement wine and dessert was on the way so that small issue was quickly forgotten. For dessert we went a bit nuts and ordered two to share. First was an autumnal plate of buttermilk poached pear, walnut, caramel, roast chocolate and pear sorbet.

Very delicious, and it reminded me so much of something I’d eaten before, but I just couldn’t put my finger on it! Spoonful after spoonful, eventually I got there: a muesli bar! Now I don’t mean this in a disapproving way: this was nutty and honeyed and very sophisticated. For some reason I was reminded of this god-awful scene from City of Angels, only because of the mention of the taste of pears. But I digress. Town Mouse desserts: good. Nicholas Cage movies: bad.

For our second dessert, we simply couldn’t go past the now highly acclaimed dish of lemon and yuzu curd, white chocolate, burnt coconut sorbet, and spiced rum. So here’s thing: I’m a bit nuts about citrus curd. When a friend gave me a jar of homemade lemon curd for my birthday, I nearly lost my mind. So it wasn’t much of a surprise that I loved this dessert. Not only is this a delicious dessert, it’s a work of gastronomic architecture, an arresting plate of black and white which looks a touch like the most handsome ash tray you’ve ever seen.

Now I know some people talk about really, really lovely dishes being ‘too beautiful to eat’. Quite frankly, that’s never been an issue for me. Sure, this was one stunning plate of sugar, but once you crack that meringue cylinder, trust me, there’s no going back.

Apart from a small hiccup with that orange wine, Mr N and I had a wonderful time celebrating at the Town Mouse! I advise you to get yourself a chatty friend or partner, settle in with a couple of quality wines and graze, slowly, lingeringly, over the menu. The Town Mouse is one of those rare breeds of restaurant where the savouries are as good as the desserts are as good as the wines. Good times indeed!

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Filed under: Carlton, Modern