128 Exhibition St
Melbourne, VIC 3000
I’ve not been this excited about a chef since Andrew McConnell (who incidentally, I love so much that I had my wedding reception at Cumulus Inc). But dinner at Aru blew my mind so much that I immediately fell for Khanh Nguyen. Unfortunately his other restaurant Sunda has been closed for renos the best part of the year, so I spent 6 months cooling my heels and revisiting Aru. But now not only is Sunda back, we’ve also been blessed with Antara 128 – an ambitious venture that is café and bakery in the morning, standing bar at night, and an all-day diner in between. And although the man himself may have left the restaurants, there is absolutely no sign of a drop in quality. Antara is seasonal Modern Australian dining as its peak, the finest produce moulded and reshaped into refreshing new experiences, and all wrapped up in a stunningly moody interior that’s filled with top-notch staff. I am absolutely in love.
Rating: 16/20 – flawless my dear.
Dish of the day: oh my god the croissant pudding please make this a year-round thing.
To-order: anything with bread/pastry – they know their stuff.
Cumulus Inc (there it is again) popularised the tuna tartare, and Antara has taken it and snackified it with their Tuna En Croute ($22). Piled jewel-bright on a brittle crouton that has no right to hold together, the fresh seafood is accompanied by an irresistible duo of creamy buffalo ricotta, and minted mushy peas. Big enough to share between 2, but worth getting one of each for seafood lovers.
The Anchovy Twist ($12ea) pays glorious tribute to the oft-maligned fish. The plump fillet is the best I’ve ever had, full yet mild in flavour, its saltiness balanced out by the sweet, buttery pastry.
Even picky eaters will enjoy the Blooming Shallot ($8ea), a cheeky ++ take on the ironically non-Australian Australian classic. The contrast between the crisp batter and caramelised shreds of shallot are incredibly moreish, especially with the generous side of smooth bechamel for dipping.
I love Asparagus ($26) dishes, as they are always such vibrant celebrations of the warmer seasons. Pulled from the soil in Koo Wee Rup (that’s about 60km from Melbourne), the 3 spears are ripe and plump, the greenness settled with a mild char in the flames. On the side is a ball of buffalo mozzarella, marinated in crème fraiche (I know, double cheese!!), and sprinkled with salty pistachios and freeze-dried mandarin for just a touch of bite. Incidentally, this makes for mozzarella in all 3 of my meals today – life has surely peaked.
Noix De Jambon Salad ($28), aka ham salad, sounds retro for all the wrong reasons, even if its fancy French ham. But no, these are actually exquisite little vessels of endive, filled with a beautifully earthy combination of roast hazelnuts, artichoke, and braised chicory to contrast with the bitterness of the leaves, and draped with a luscious blanket of ham that tastes more like a buttery jamon.
There are heartier mains on offer, but I opt for the Grilled Southern Calamari ($34) in order to leave room for dessert. Surprisingly, the calamari wasn’t even the highlight of this dish; it’s perfectly good, though given the big fiery stove in the kitchen, I would’ve liked a bit more smokiness. Instead, it was the toothsome braise of beans in the rich, briny sauce that stole the show, and the dollops of potato aioli that added a subtle creaminess. And the side of milk bread – oh my. Fluffy with a golden crust, it was sweet and buttery, with just a sprinkling of salt to bring out the lovely yeasty flavour of the dough.
The Croissant Pudding ($28) sounds delicious, but the reality is even better. This is not just bread and butter pudding on steroids; it’s bread and butter pudding on crack. We’re talking all the ooey gooey warmness, upgraded with buttery, golden edges of caramelised croissant pastry. And on top of that, a heavy scattering of sugary praline, festive cardamom, and a cooling scoop of nutty pistachio ice cream. It is so decadent, so joyous, and an absolutely wonderful seasonal treat to share with a friend (no really, share this – it’s way too much for one, no matter how much you want to).
Drinks-wise, there was a lovely little mocktail of Winter in Evian ($16), which really is more of a summer in Evian, with its bright, juicy flavours of fresh strawberry and basil, on an effervescent background of ginger ale.