Thursday, 27 June 2013

Mercy Bar + Eatery - Virginia Plain Reborn

After meeting up with a mate who was down from Sydney for work at the Transport Bar in Federation Square, I was warned that he could not enjoy a "big" night as a meeting was scheduled for 7:00 AM the following day on St Kilda Road. I was told that any dining experience that I organised would not be able to be "over the top" but he knows me well enough, as do most, that is simply a prerequisite to going out in this fine city with me. Having been interstate myself when Mercy Bar + Eatery opened its doors to the public mid-June, I was very curious to see what exactly the old Virginia Plain transformed itself into to so it was without too much convincing we took on the cold and had a wander up Flinders Lane.

At the top of the stairs we were greeted by Mat Beyer and I noticed the familiar face of Andy Harmer in the kitchen. Sommelier Raúl Moreno Yagüe was noticeably absent after leaving the Virginia Plain venture which would become evident after examining the truncated wine list. Mercy is attempting to reign in their wine list after having some rather expensive and rare vintages on offer in its previous incarnation which is smart considering that they are trying to rebrand the restaurant to cater for both the casual beer drinker but also the smart and savvy diner that isn't necessarily looking for a Vue de Monde type of experience. Andy Harmer, being ex-Vue de Monde himself I learned in the Virginia Plain days knows how to walk the fine line of value for money and quality so I was excited to see that a small five course degustation menu ($65/pp) was being offered. I was certainly intrigued to see what the kitchen could and would produce for such a small amount of money. It was perhaps one of the best value of money degustation menus in Melbourne before when the kitchen was pumping out seven courses before for a mere $89 whilst music played from the legendary turntables.

After we finished our Aaoni IPA ($13.50) from the Yoho Brewing Company, we were convinced that the restaurant is taking its lateral slide to wanting to appeal to beer drinkers seriously. Yoho produces craft beers in a can in Japan and they are hard to find in Australia. The happy blue face on the can that would stare at us and ultimately the bottle of 1981 R. López de Heredia Rioja Gran Reserva Viña Bosconia (D.O.C.) from Spain soon took pride of place on our table. It didn't take much convincing for Mat to talk us into ordering this 32 year old bottle which would turn out to be wonderfully balanced, complex and earthy. We were earmarked to "help" the restaurant decrease their stash of wine bottles and we in turn were happy to oblige. As we allowed the wine to open up it developed even further and I would soon learn that it provided a very nice pairing with the first course, a modest serving of French onion soup. Topped with a very appealing Gruyère cheese that was purveyed by the Swiss affineur Rolf Beeler and a playful cheese foam made this first offering from the busy kitchen not only contemporary but modified to merge into what Mercy is trying to communicate: a relaxed environment where you should be taking conversation instead of the food seriously. You can see the Vue de Monde influence on this dish but it is in turn simple, full of flavour and certainly helped line the stomach in preparation for a further assault by the Rioja.

Quail and mushroom terrine with raisin puree and chestnuts would turn out to be my favourite course. Besides never having enjoyed a quail terrine, this was really amazing paired with the wine. Both creamy and a consistency that melts in your mouth, the flavours of the little bird were only complemented by the mushroom and the raisin flavour and provided a natural transition to match with the Rioja. I was really impressed with this dish and I was left wanting to take a loaf of terrine home with me to spread on anything and everything.

Having made quick work of the bottle of Rioja, we were offered a bottle of 2007 Rene Rostaing Cote Rotie Blonde. It is a blend of 95% Syrah and 5% Viognier with great characteristics however it was a bit presumptuous to order yet another bold wine knowing that a delicate cod fillet from Cheltham Chatham Island (an archipelago in the Pacific Ocean about 700 kilometres southeast of New Zealand) with French green lentils (lentilles du Puy), carmalised endive and saffron sauce was indeed the third course. Much like how I reflected that the green lentils made the dish when they accompanied the Flinders Island Wallaby recently at Ten Minutes by Tractor, the lentilles du Puy was the highlight of this dish for me. Not discounting the delicate and tasty fish, the lentils seemingly matched better with the earthy wine. Note, I was recently publicly corrected on Twitter for misspelling the name of Chatham Island, for which I apologise for.

However when the Syrah-Voignier blend was experienced with the next course, roasted bone marrow. I was impressed. Unlike my dining companion, I quite enjoy the texture of marrow and had fun scooping it out of the bone. Although some would argue it is not the most substantial amount of food, the colour and the taste are amazing and makes for a wonderful course when matched with a bold wine or even beer.

A simple pear and chocolate dessert provided for an amusing and tasty finale. Soft pear and rich chocolate is always a winner when matched together and did not require much thought or distraction from the other courses that ultimately provided both nourishment and left a positive impression.

Some wine racks have been removed in the restaurant and street art has been left in their place. Most of the 120-person long dining room remains the same however some high and long tables have been strategically placed near the bar which will encourage the after-work crowd to pull up a pew and have a few quiet ones whilst ultimately being tempted from the food menu. Mercy goes out of their way to make things convenient for the drinkers and diners which is smart as once you enter this long room and notice the grand bar, you will not want to leave after smelling what is being prepared in the kitchen. Tables are spaced well so even when you are in the proximity of a rambunctious crowd, it doesn't feel like you are being invaded by the hordes and I am confident, vice-versa.

Service always remained very cheerful, engaging and consultative and although I didn't get around to talking Mat into switching out the vinyl that was spinning for The Cure, the Virginia Plain tragics will be happy to learn that the turntables are still in operation. Oddly with the subtle transformation, I am more inclined to visit Mercy and leaves itself as a serious contender for your dining (and drinking) dollars as it sits regally next to stiff competition in the form of both Cumulus, Inc. and Cumulus Up.

Mercy Bar + Eatery, Flinders Lane, Melbourne
Mercy Bar + Eatery
31 Flinders Lane Melbourne VIC 3000
(03) 9290 0400
My Rating: 15.25/20
Service: 4/5
Ambiance: 3/5
Quality: 3.75/5
Value For Money: 4.5/5
Comment: Great value 5 course degustation

Twitter: @epicurean3006
e-mail: epicureanofsouthbank (at) gmail (dot) com

When I made this post originally, 85% of the reviewers on Urbanspoon also liked Mercy Bar + Eatery however there was only a small sample of 27 votes to date.

Mercy bar + eatery on Urbanspoon

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