13th October 2016
135 Greeves St
Fitzroy, VIC 3065
A few weeks ago, I quietly darted off to China for a couple weeks to see my beloved grandparents and extended family. I lived with my grandpa and grandma (on dad’s side) for a good 2 years in my early childhood, and despite that not being very long in the grand scheme of things, they feature in some of my fondest memories.
Eating is serious business in China, with every street corner and side alley packed with restaurants and street food, all jostling for attention at rock-bottom prices. However I did predict that I would be aching for something Western after 10 days, so I booked a long lunch at Hell of the North for when I came back. And lo and behold, the Brazilian BBQ near my hotel was at least 90% Korean, and the Italian restaurant featured durian pizza and spicy beef stir-fried spaghetti. It makes me shudder just thinking about it.
As I’ve occasionally mentioned, I come from Kunming, which is near Sichuan. That means every meal (and snack) I had whilst in China was spicy, oily, and bold as brass. And that makes the modern French cuisine at Hell of the North the perfect panacea, with its entirely different palate of delicate European flavours.
Named after a gruelling cycling event (of course) in France, Hell of the North is all about quality French cooking. It’s very much a traditional bistro, but done up for the backstreets of Fitzroy with its sassy yellow door and Edison bulbs hanging from the bar. During the day it has a provincial comfort to it that’s ideal for long lunches, but the late night supper menu likely draws a rowdier and boozier crowd.
Oh and, meet Max, the official restaurant hog! He’s a big pig (yup yup), you can be a big pig too, HOY!
The starter of Pork Belly, Sweet and Sour Onions ($6ea) was a good one. Although I found the cube of roast pork to be a little dry, the generous layer of fat and salt-rubbed crackling overshadowed that easily. But the best bit was the aromatic jam of caramelised onions, its luscious sweetness an ideal companion to the fatty meat.
The Chicken Liver Parfait, Madeira Jelly ($16) was of course ordered, accompanied by 3 slices of buttery, crumbly house-made brioche toast. The parfait itself was perfect; cool, light, and creamy, it light saltiness brought out by the citrus-sweetness of the jelly.
Even more traditional was the humble bowl of French Onion Soup à la Normandie ($14). Despite technically being a soup, I found this thick brew to be more reminiscent of a stew. The onions were reduced into a fragrant, caramelised pulp in a base of cider and chicken stock, the heady aroma augmented with plenty of butter and a crust of melted gruyere. Definitely ask for an extra serve of crusty bread to soak up this goodness!
I can never say no to a good pot of shellfish, and the Mussels, Peppers, Olorosso, Sobrasada ($23) is probably one of the best I’ve ever had. Steamed in a big pot with plenty of sherry and a stew of smoky peppers and onions, these mussels were fresh, plump, and perfectly cooked. What really made this dish stand out however was the sobrasada – a crumbly Spanish sausage that infused the shellfish with its spicy, porky flavours. And of course, there was more bread to soak up that sweet, briny broth at the bottom.
To finish up, we shared a simple but hearty main of Scotch Fillet, Pickled Mustard Seeds, Parsley and Garlic Butter ($36), cooked to a juicy medium-rare with a charred exterior. Despite being quite a succulent, fatty cut, the flavour was surprisingly clean, making the rich herbed butter a well-considered condiment.
I cajoled Chris into ordering dessert, and he relented on the proviso that we ordered something lighter. The Blood Orange Sorbet, Pistachio Cream and Aperol Jelly ($15) not only fitted that bill, but was also delicious to boot. The combination of nutty pistachio cream with the bright, icy sorbet was a light but indulgent combo, but there’s always the addition of Aperol Jelly and shards of sugar twill for the more hedonistic.
My long Sunday lunch at Hell of the North is probably one of the nicest afternoons I’ve had for a long time. The food is simple, straightforward, and flawlessly executed, and manages to feel simultaneously fresh and comforting. I did however think the service was quite hit and miss, with one waitress being quite curt, whilst another was free with the laughs and banter. Overall though, the service was seamless and knowledgeable. It may not be the most thrilling dining option in the area (because after all, we are in Fitzroy), but despite only having been around for a couple of years, it already feels like a classic.
Rating: 15/20 – hell yes.
This rating reflects my personal experience at the time of visit.