1/301 Swanston St
Melbourne, VIC 3000
My dinner at Cheek was a very, very special one. Not only was it easily the most enjoyable meal I’ve had all year, it was also followed up by one of the most wonderful and exciting things that has ever happened in my entire life. But hold up, let’s start from the beginning (or y’know, just scroll to the bottom of this post if you really want to know right this instant – I’m not the boss of you).
I’ve been wanting to visit Cheek since the day it opened, just a little over a year ago. That may sound a little extreme, but given that Cheek is brought to us by the brains behind Dexter and Takeaway Pizza, I had every reason to be excited.
If you’ve been to Dexter – and if you haven’t, you’re seriously missing out – Cheek will instantly seem familiar. But instead of taking its influence from American BBQ, Cheek bills itself as a Non-Traditional Meatery, and frankly that sums it up quite nicely. What it really comes down to is a meat-heavy menu, cooked up in whatever way the team thinks is good, though you can usually count on there being fire involved. On any given night, you might see anything from 5-day smoked duck to mapo tofu empanadas. The only consistency? The wacky, no-rules approach to the food.
Like its older sibling, the menu at Cheek is succinct, and focusses on the best ingredients they have at the time. But unlike its older sibling, the menu leans much more heavily on the Asian influences rather than American, which results in some very interesting sounding dishes that made choosing very difficult. Luckily our waiter was a complete and utter gem; not only was he happy to discuss each of the dishes in depth to help us build the perfect meal, he also readily offered up the option of half-serves for some of the dishes, so as to allow us to try a few more things. Topped off with a dose of casual yet warm hospitality, and I was feeling at home within minutes of sitting down.
I really appreciate a menu that has a selection of good non-alcoholic drinks. Case in point: the Strawberry Lemonade ($10) made me understand why people would shell out the best part of twenty dollars for a well-made cocktail. The energetic brightness of the citrus was balanced out by the delicate floral sweetness of the strawberries, making for a drink that tasted every bit as good as it looked.
I usually consider edamame to be a waste of stomach space, but a half serve of the Charcoal Edamame ($5, half serve) sounded way too good to pass up. Unlike your usual boiled edamame, these were a total flavour bomb. The pods were charred and blistered over a charcoal fire, before being tossed in chimichurri butter and seasoned liberally with sea salt flakes. They’re smoky, savoury, and as the menu described it, moreish as hell. Make sure you put the whole pod in your mouth to get ever last morsel of flavour.
Although everything on the menu sounded tempting, there was no way I was missing out on the Hot Meat Donuts ($7ea). I first had these at Dexter, and there were a total revelation. Sweet and fluffy with a savoury centre of saucy pulled pork, it as tasty of a snack as you’ll find anywhere.
Just like its predecessor, these donuts were indecently buttery, the crispy shell covered in a fine layer of sugar. But unfortunately, the centre of wagyu Bolognese in Sichuan sauce just didn’t hit quite as hard as its pulled pork counterpart. The pineapple chutney however was a surprise winner, its ripe sweetness bringing out the complexity of spices in the Sichuan sauce. Don’t get me wrong – these are not only not bad, they’re actually pretty great. But if you’re expecting the life-changing experience that is the Dexter Meat Donut, then you may be a wee bit disappointed.
Although I was desperate to have the 650g short rib, I ended up sacrificing it for a smaller alternative, so as to be able to order a few extra items. Thankfully there was a Smoked Wagyu Brisket ($35, 250g) on the menu that night, which satisfied all my slow-cooked beef cravings.
Cooked for a whopping 16 hours over low heat, the resultant beef was so tender it fell apart with a prod of the fork. Covered in a thick BBQ sauce, each bite was smoky, rich, and so delicious it really has to be tasted to be understood. On the side was a pile of house-made bread and butter pickles for cutting through the fattiness – that is, if you can stop yourself eating the brisket for long enough.
Even though I’ve had the Mash and Gravy ($9) several times before, I could not physically stop myself from ordering it again. So smooth and rich you’ll swear it’s butter, the golden mash is drowned in their signature bone marrow gravy, and topped with almost more garlic than you can handle. Chris had one spoonful and declared that he can now see through time – that is how good this is.
Almost as famous as the mash is the Wood Roast Cabbage ($16). It may look like a charred mess when it comes to the table, but don’t worry – that’s just the shredded kombu. Take a knife to it, and you’ll be rewarded with silky layers reminiscent of fine pasta sheets, oozing with savoury butter sauce infused with umami from the kombu. I don’t care if you hate cabbage or even vegetables in general – one bite of this will change your mind.
We were lucky the kitchen so generously sent out a complimentary bowl of Coleslaw ($9), because things were definitely getting hot and heavy by this point. The cool crunch of the cabbage provided a welcome reprieve, and the sneaky addition of edamame and shichimi powder gave it a little Asian twist.
Wanting something to cleanse the palate after that rich meal, I opted for the Yuzu Ice Cream ($12) over the sundae with duck fat caramel. The delicate yet unmistakable notes of fresh citrus and warm ginger were exactly what I needed, and the contrast of the smooth ice cream against the icy crunch of the granita was a delight. The shards of caramelised ginger snaps were an extra sweet treat, adding just a spot of indulgence to the light and refreshing dessert.
As I had said at the beginning of this review, Cheek is easily the best meal I’ve had all year. Not only were there no misses, but pretty much every dish was a hit. Combined with flawless service and an effortlessly cool venue, I’m hard pressed to find anything I didn’t like. There’s really not a whole lot more to say, other than to get yourself there ASAP!
Rating: 16.5/20 – rosy cheeks.
This rating reflects my personal experience at the time of visit.
So, about that wonderfully exciting thing that I had teased at the beginning. After dinner, Chris convinced me to take a walk along Southbank with him. He sat me down on the bench that we sat at when we had first started dating, said a few things to butter me up, before getting down on one knee and pulling out a diamond ring! It was of course a resounding yes from me, and so here we are – engaged after almost 10 years together!