270 Lonsdale St.
|Opening hours||Her Bar: breakfast, lunch, dinner daily; BKK: lunch, dinner daily|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $ 20- $ 40)|
|Payments||eftpos, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9997 0437|
Don’t these people know Melbourne is dead? That laugh-a-minute guy sitting with his glossy duck, golden frites and glass of gamay – doesn’t he know you can hear a pin drop on Bourke Street? Those hen’s party revellers optimistically sending their gal into matrimony – didn’t anyone tell them the trams rattle past empty? And that four-top in the corner calling for another round of gimlets to go with their garlicky snails – aren’t they aware the city has lost it, she’s just a shell, a ghostly rumor of good times past?
Apparently not. Spend some time working your way through four levels of food and fun at Her and you’ll get the impression that Melbourne is very much alive – and kicking back on cocktails, wok-fried noodles, sweet tunes and the glow of getting out.
So, who is Her? This ambitious venture from the team that owns democratic all-day drinkery Arbory (alongside Flinders Street Station) and frosé-friendly Arbory Afloat (on the river below it) purchased this 1903 Romanesque Revival building six years ago.
They gutted it, dug out an eight-meter-deep basement for grease traps and a kitchen, reinforced the roof to add a bar for fresh-air frolics and painstakingly transformed the old Sniders & Abrahams cigarette makers’ edifice into a vivacious hospitality playground.
Her Bar on the ground floor is a Frenchy restaurant that works a little like a lobby. Curved and leathered, the venue feel is silky and buttery, the flavor is gougeres ($ 7) and gratin ($ 14), and the idea is that you might tap on your laptop by day, then shout-whisper into your date’s ear by night.
Behind this upbeat salon, stairs hug a central lift leading to the first floor Music Room, a retro LP-lined den that makes anyone who enters it instantly 20 per cent cooler.
Keep climbing and you get to BKK, a charcoal-fired Thai eatery with bar stools facing the fragrant kitchen and small tables hugging the brick perimeter interspersed by city-view windows. Up again and you spill into Her Rooftop, the boisterous roost overlooking marvellous Melbourne.
Executive chef Nick Bennett oversees Her chef Josh Rudd (ex-Blakes Feast) and BKK chef Sungeun Mo (ex-Red Spice Road), who run completely different menus in their respective kitchens.
Rudd’s fancy, easy-please bistro menu stretches from oysters (from $ 15 for three) and dainty cured kingfish ($ 21) to duck frites ($ 38) and cheeseburgers with raclette and fries ($ 26).
Upstairs, Mo’s menu is a night-market romp from snacks to skewers, then salads to curries, finishing with a shaved ice and Thai tea version of tiramisu ($ 14). BKK is an homage to Bangkok street food, aiming at key markers of spice and balance without any buttoned-up obsession with authenticity, whatever that is.
Apart from a rice cooker and a deep-fryer, everything is cooked over charcoal, its smoky lick becoming a key ingredient in most dishes. Rock oysters ($ 6) are dressed with a reduction of sweet-sour tom kha gai (coconut soup), bringing a layer of bright creaminess to the mollusc’s briny spark.
For the pork skewers ($ 8), neck meat – marinated in coconut, condensed milk, soy and white pepper – is interspersed with slivers of fat. The char of the grill, the melty glisten of the fat, the sweetness of the meat amplified by caramelised dairy, makes this dish deeply flavored and very, very good.
Thai food can be layered and complex; it can also be straightforward. Rice noodles ($ 19) are wok-fried, again over charcoal, with prawns, pork and a beguilingly simple dressing of fish sauce, oyster sauce and sugar. Like most dishes, they’re served on colorful, clattery melamine. Fine dining this ain’t; try the roast pineapple margarita to see how casual can still be classy.
Speaking of cocktails, the drinks are pre-batched in the basement and piped to each level. If that sounds a little trashy, it’s not: ingredients are high quality, ratios are consistent, flavors are melded.
A multi-dimensional project like Her runs the risk of feeling scattered: that’s not the case here. There are tweaks needed for sure, mostly in nailing the mood so that each room can express itself without the whole building feeling like a floor-hopping frat party, but overall the vision feels pretty honed.
Whether you jaunt from room to room on one visit or leave yourself reasons to return, Her will be waiting. It’s Melbourne to the nines.
Vibe: Celebratory and fun
Go-to dish: Charcoal wok-fried pork and prawn rice noodles
Drinks: High-quality, quick-to-serve cocktails on tap and sharp wine lists that dovetail with each level’s offering
Cost: Her Bar mains: $ 26- $ 38; BKK large dishes: $ 19- $ 52
This review was originally published in Good Weekend magazine