The Town Mouse in Carlton has made a striking impact since it opened and is a stellar performer in a sea of fine dining options. Christian McCabe had conquered every summit on the New Zealand culinary scene (The Matterhorn is oft raved about) and has thankfully brought his culinary skills to Melbourne. Interestingly, he speaks highly of Melbourne weather. We enjoyed one of our best culinary experiences of the year thanks to Town Mouse and Andrew and Pam, who we dined with.
Town Mouse is located in Drummond Street where once Embrasse thrilled punters with its fine dining. Christian has captured the imagination with unpretentious food full of technique and flair, and at excellent value. There's larger cornerstone dishes that can be shared and some smaller dishes of great finesse that "wow". Here at Town Mouse its about a culinary journey to be savoured. Chef Dave Verheu also ex-Mattehorn, shines in the kitchen, with consistency and bold cooking. In my opinion this is a "crack" team here at Town Mouse, including the wait staff.
The evening began on a high with Coffin Bay Oysters that were plump and fresh - but the coup de gras was the chardonnay vinegar sorbet and lemon to match. A brilliant flavour combination with the piquant sorbet sitting perfectly against the fresh juicy oysters. Who thinks of chardonnay vinegar sorbet?
Another delicate and impressive dish was the Goat’s cheese profiterole, caraway, thyme, & Town Mouse own honey. The goat's cheese wasn't plainly presented but had a "kick", and was encased in crunchy choux pastry. This baby gets you up and going, as a starter should.
All the while Christian was engaging us, passionate and hospitable. This is not an aloof restaurant but a world of friends enjoying amazing food and wine together.
Town Mouse also served up some decent bread with high grade butter.
The Trout starter could have been entered in fashion week, it was so visually appealing. It could equally be at home on the runway as on the table. Smoked brook trout, pickled clams, radish, verbena, & wild onion. The flavour combination was expertly balanced. The trout itself perfectly cooked, with a plethora of textures coming from the clams, radish and wild onion.
We were disarmed by seemingly humble dishes that provided punch and resulted in enthusiastic approval by our dining posse. Heirloom kales, slow cooked egg, rye, comté, & mustard stole the show. The Town Mouse can creep up on you and take you by surprise. Through the seeming innocuous kales comes a slow cooked runny egg which connects with an indulgent sauce to accompany... Behind the simplicity are nuances that excite.
Lately I've chosen the pork jowl over pork belly as a general rule. I've been becoming a Melbourne pork belly addict and junkie - and I'm now looking for pork variations. This jowl is a standout, but its more about the experience of the whole dish - Pork jowl, charred octopus, ink, turnip, kohlrabi, & chickweed. Paring pork jowl with charred octopus is a masterstroke, with vegetables to cut through the indulgence.
Then arrived our "mains" centrepiece - Slow roasted saltgrass lamb shoulder (900g), chargrilled cos, lemon, & tahini. Firstly, this is one of the better presented lamb dishes in Melbourne. Rather than just a pile of lamb on a plate (which is fine) Town Mouse brings out this wonderfully shaped encased huge portion of golden lamb, then cut according to requirements. The tahini is compelling to accompany.
The saltgrass lamb is first class to boot, juicy and tender with the saltgrass nuance shing through. We enjoyed this dish with a range of accompaniments and some choice Sangiovese from the impressive wine menu.
I was compelled to take another photo of this alluring lamb dish...
Anyone for cabbage? We were gobsmacked by the Town Mouse cabbage dish - it was arguably the dish of the night - and who would have thought cabbage could be such an exciting proposition? Christian tells us that vegetarians flock to this dish. Slow roast red cabbage, prune, parmesan, & red apple. Red cabbage filled with these refreshing and slightly rich ingredients is again a masterstroke. You may be reading this and wondering if I'm high and waxing lyrical over the trivial - you need to try this dish.
And the cabbage dish looked a treat as a red/purple tower with parmesan flecks...
Again a seemingly humble dish is brought to heights with this New season asparagus, pecorino custard, sesame, green olive, & lemon number. If you were going to show off your new season asparagus why not pair it with a delectable pecorino custard? And add extra crunch and flavour with sesame.
A brilliant harmony and signature note runs through the culinary experience at Town Mouse - everything comes together. As surprising as some dishes are they never are at odds with each other. This is a dining experience with an unfolding story.
A bowl of Shaved courgette & cos, parmesan, lemon, tarragon, & mint also hit the mark as something you want more of.
Christian does wonders with humble vegetables. Is there any other restaurant that celebrates vegetables to the extent Town Mouse does?
The next dish was also worthy of a fashion show or art exhibition - Kipflers cooked in toasted hay, buttermilk, crisp sage, & almond brown butter. Most establishments would serve a bowl of kipflers as just a random pile with not much else.
Town Mouse does everything with flair and can make kipflers a work of art. Kipflers at Town Mouse is a dish to be enjoyed in itself, not just an accompaniment, having been prepared in decadent toasted hay, buttermilk, crisp sage and almond brown butter.
Town Mouse is a smallish restaurant with a classic convivial ambience. Check out the mood lighting, fine tiles on the walls and attractive use of timber. A courtyard was opened the night we visited as another dining space.
I personally enjoy the set up with modern bar in the centre of the room and high tables with stools. It lends itself to interaction and conversation. And its a trend right now to imbibe fine dining experiences with casual expressions.
It's also a trend to bring together bar and dining space... And feature the best of both worlds in the one experience. Bars are generally becoming more sophisticated and food at bars is becoming more accessible and of increased quality - I can think of several exciting venues right now that are going this way...
Staff at Town Mouse are professional and engaging. Our waitress ran 600m down Drummond St to catch us after we left a package at the restaurant. Out of breath we should have paid for her taxi back to the restaurant.
Town Mouse has a secret dessert - just don't tell anyone. We ordered this Cigar like dessert - Lemon and yuzu curd, white chocolate, burnt coconut, spiced rum and coconut sorbet. One of Melbourne's best desserts but no longer on the menu as such. A hidden treasure for those in the know. And it tastes every bit as good as it looks. Town Mouse adds another dimension to "a cigar at the end of the meal".
Apart from Sangiovese we enjoyed these dessert wines...
And we enjoyed this White chocolate & lavender curd, strawberry, shortbread, & violet ice cream. Another attractive delicate dessert with finesse, giving special kudos to the curd and strawberry.
The final dessert looked like a deep sea creature bedazzling and curious. Buttermilk poached pear, walnut, caramel, roast chocolate, & pear sorbet. The bevvy of textures was amazing, and the taste of the sorbet was sumptuous.
We were satiated beyond satisfaction by now. Fennel, chocolate, goat’s milk, & candied olive vienetta was playful and exciting. Reliving our childhood with this vienetta variation.
Town Mouse is a standout restaurant in Melbourne and the enthusiasm has been consistent and growing. Having personally visited over 500 restaurants in Melbourne I place Town Mouse at the top of the tree in rarefied air with a few others. Christian is affable, not showy, and a culinary genius whose food does the talking.
I respect the hat assessments from luminaries, however my personal view (and I'm not alone) is that Town Mouse should be awarded at least one hat if not more...
In the meantime I plan to return to this stellar establishment that is now open 7 nights a week.