356 Brunswick St
Fitzroy, VIC 3065
What comes to mind when you think of Eastern European food? If you asked me, the first thing I would think of would be dumplings dense enough to use as a weapon, pan-fried and served in a cream sauce. Or maybe a leg of smoked pork, with a whole field of potatoes and half a dozen types of pickles on the side. But as much as I love meat and carbs, sometimes it would just be nice to have some Eastern European flavours, without having it double as hibernation fuel.
Needless to say, I had never heard of the concept of Eastern European styled tapas. But there’s a first time for everything, especially if you’re in the hippest part of Melbourne. Palinka Bar, a relative newcomer to the Fitzroy scene, takes the traditionally stodgy dishes of Eastern Europe and lightens them up for the Melbourne summer.
The tapas-styled dishes are divided up into two sections – Yummy ($8.5ea), which are simple and fresh, and Fancy ($12.5ea), which includes the slow-cooked, more intricate dishes. For the really brave of heart, there is the whole pork hock weighing in at 1.3-1.6kg, accompanied by sauerkraut and mustards. And of course, there is a 20 page tome of all things alcoholic, with a special spotlight on palinka – fruit brandies with alcohol contents that go up to an eye-watering 60%.
Palinka is dark and mysterious, with a decidedly European feel to it. On the day we visited however, the windows and doors were thrown wide open, letting in the afternoon sunlight and Fitzroy vibes. The weather was beautiful that day, and most diners took advantage of the spacious al fresco area, though there is something to be said about the way the restaurant was lit up with sultry, multicoloured lights once the sun had set.
With lots of help of our ever so friendly waiter, we managed to whittle our choices down to 5 dishes, even though we wanted one of everything. The Cevapcici ($8.5) smelt divine; these coarse, meaty sausages of lamb and beef carried the aroma of sizzling fat and herbs, their richness amplified by the smoky tomato paste and sweet Spanish onion. It was simple, but it set the meal up to be something special.
The Cevapcici may be a hard act to follow, but the Mushrooms with Goat Cheese ($8.5) was a star in its own right. These may sound like your standard fried mushrooms on paper, but nestled between the two mushroom halves is a jewel of melted goat’s cheese, flecked with dill – a nod to this restaurant’s Eastern European roots. But what really makes this dish so special is the delicate sauce of beetroot and apple, its sweet fruitiness making for a voluptuous combination with the earthy mushrooms.
A much simpler affair was Verenyky ($12.5), a hearty plate of smooth potato and onion dumplings smothered in lesco sauce.
The thick tomato-based braise was laden with sweet strips of capsicum and caramelised onions, and a faint smokiness from the paprika. This is the kind of healthy, hearty dish that I can see myself eating for dinner 3 nights a week.
The Stroganoff ($12.5) however is something I definitely can’t get away with eating 3 times a week, as much as I would like to. Strips of hearty eye fillet steak were cooked in a complex, creamy stew flavoured with dill and mustard seeds, bacon and mushroom added for depth, and julienned pickles give it a bit of a lift. We soaked up the sauce with a thick slice of toasted rye, and I was left wanting a bowl all to myself.
Finishing up the savouries was a truly decadent Sticky Pork Belly ($12.5). Whilst these tiles of pork look tough, they’ve actually be sous vide-ed, marinated, then grilled into wobbly perfection. The sticky BBQ glazed exterior pulled gelatinously into the most wicked layers of fatty pork that just melted in the mouth.
One of the hardest things about going out to eat is choosing which dessert to have. Luckily we had the decision made for us when we saw our waiter swerving our way with both options balanced in his hand. The Somloi Galuska ($9.5) is a towering confection of airy home-made sponge, rum-infused crème anglaise, chopped walnuts, and lashings of cream and chocolate sauce. It’s like a trifle and a chocolate sundae got together and made sweet, sweet, sweet love.
Whilst I dug into the Somloi Galuska, I could literally hear Chris’ spoon cutting into the filo of the Apple Strudle ($8.5). This traditional dessert was done to perfection, the flaky pastry crumbling around a centre of ripe apples and crushed walnuts. And to top it all off was a cool, sweet vanilla custard the colour of egg yolk.
I am being entirely honest when I say that my dinner at Palinka Bar is one of the best I’ve had for quite some time; the last time I recall being this impressed was when I ate at Tahina. The concept of stodgy Eastern European food re-imagined as dainty, tapas-styled dishes works just so unexpectedly well, though I’m sure a lot of clever work on the chef’s part is also involved. My only tip (aside from making sure that this place is right at the top of the to-visit list) is to go early if you want a slow dinner – it tends to get quite rowdy after 9pm or so with the sheer amount of booze on offer. If you don’t want to join them, then beat them.
Rating: 16/20 – say no to hibernation!
This rating reflects my personal experience at the time of visit,
Sweet and Sour Fork dined as a guest of Palinka Bar.