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11 The Esplanade, St Kilda, VIC 3182
My score: 4/5
The most surprising thing about the Espy Kitchen isn’t how busy it is, though it is the ever-thrumming engine room of a revivified landmark licensed for an epic 1700 souls. The astonishing thing is how good the food is.
Given the volume of orders and the unrelenting pace they roll in, you wouldn’t be surprised to see a bit of slapdash here, a little “whatever” there. You could also imagine that the produce would be anonymous tick-a-box stuff. But none of it is like that.
This is proper food, seasonal and produce-centric, prepared with impressive care under the watchful leadership of Ash Hicks, possibly Melbourne’s most unflappable chef.
Before this assignment, Hicks dealt with huge numbers at Flinders Lane’s Garden State Hotel, owned by the same Sand Hill Road consortium that developed the Espy. Garden State is a complex and heaving beast; it says everything about the Espy that the city venue now looks like training wheels.
You can eat the full Espy menu in the restaurant, a windowless but attractive room at the rear of the enormous pub. Sit at the counter to watch the chefs and their toys: adjustable grills that whoosh up and down, a twirling rotisserie turning chickens from pale to golden, and two wood-fired pizza ovens cranking out 1500 pies a week (the confit garlic and three-cheese pizza is a doozy).
A truncated menu is available throughout the ground floor: if you want a burger and a faceful of bay, they’ve got you covered. Actually, the best snacks, whether in bar or dining room, are the crab tostada, bright with green chilli, the skewered lamb kofta on soft flatbread, and the tempura-fried Moreton Bay bug on buttered brioche, cut with a thousand island dressing that, like all the condiments, is made from scratch.
Impressive T-bones gleam in the meat-aging cabinet, and wagyu neck is braised to a rich and chunky ragu, but it seems only right to eat seafood here. A daily whole fish is caramelised on the grill, finished in the wood oven, loved up with butter and dressed with coastal herbs in a fresh, light, Aussie spin on a classic meuniere.
Do people eat dessert in pubs? They should when it’s the coconut mousse, incidentally vegan, scattered with granola, and juiced up with barbecued peaches. It’s easygoing and approachable while being ethical and coherent, and thus a tasty summary of the Espy Kitchen itself.
See their website.
First published in Good Food, 1st December 2018.