Eastern Europe is sort of like the hairier, less polished sister of Western Europe. We Aussies are so drawn to the pretty, proper, ribbon-in-her-hair-and-tucked-in-shirt that is Western Europe… but why? I understand the attraction, after all, I chose to live in Italy for two years but it is only now that I’m starting to question both myself and Aussies as a whole, as to why the appeal doesn’t extend to the east (OK current situation aside).
The Crimean, as it turns out, was such a great exhibition of Eastern European brilliance that it did not help me answer this question in the slightest but, it certainly reaffirmed why it is that I live in (and love) Melbourne.
I will get the one downfall of our experience at The Crimean out of the way early, as it happened early and was promptly fixed by dumplings. Is there anything dumplings can’t fix? Married couples take note.
We made a booking for 7:30pm, our whole party probably didn’t arrive until 7:40pm. We alerted the staff that we’d arrived for our booking and they didn’t quite seem to click but we sat down for a drink at the bar and enjoyed the scenery. The Crimean is eccentrically and beautifully decorated; you really feel like you might be somewhere in Eastern Europe and that there’s a good chance it’s snowing outside. Bottles of known and lesser known spirits line the back wall of the bar, the lights are dim and solo drinkers sip at their nips of vodka or nurse their once crisp pints, occasionally engaging with the friendly bartender.
40 minutes passed and we were still at the bar so we thought we better speak up. We were finally seated at 8:20pm and I guess my only problem with that was the lack of information we’d received about our booking in the meantime. It really didn’t matter though, after all, it was a Saturday night and it was snowing outside (somewhere in Eastern Europe).
Needless to say, we were hungry by this time, so we ordered two plates of dumplings straight up. These were, of course, not the kind of dumplings you might find on Little Bourke St. Since The Crimean, I’ve been enlightened to the world that is non-Asian dumplings. These little edible presents are not just a feature of one continent; as it turns out, South Africa has Souskluitjies, Italy has ravioli (why of course), Hungary has nokedli, Brazil has coxinhas, Japan has gyoza and Ukraine as we now know, has vareniki. We also ordered a plate of pelmeni, a dumpling I believe that is more typical of Russia.
The beef and pork pelmeni were accompanied perfectly by a paprika butter and came in a generous serve of 8. The vareniki were potato and quark filled with a roast onion puree and orange zest. Although my favourite would usually be the one that contained meat, this was different. The vareniki were so delicate but so complex (where does that delightful sweetness come from?!) that they were a crowd favourite.
As a side note, if you don’t know what quark is, find out and get some in your life.
“Our dishes are designed to share” – boy am I sick of hearing that on the Melbourne dining scene. If your dishes are just a normal main dish that your fellow diners could probably have a taste of, I’m sorry but your dishes are not ‘designed’ to share. Restaurants of Melbourne: it is OK to shy away from this trend if it doesn’t suit your style of food. Having said that, The Crimean’s dishes really are designed to share. They are small dishes which aren’t presented in an overworked way, meaning you can order quite a few different things, get to try a great variety and have a scoop of this or a spoonful of that without a hassle. So that’s exactly what we did. Starting with the board of smoked meats and fennel dusted calamari.
The board of smoked meats was perhaps the only underwhelming dish of them all (1 in 9 ain’t bad). Perhaps this is where Western Europe does reign supreme – in a battle between cured meats vs smoked meats, I’d take cured every time. That’s just a personal preference though, the board itself was not at all bad. Meanwhile, the calamari: WOW. This dish had every little element to make it POP! A well thought out, perfectly executed combo of sour, salty, herby flavours and tender calamari, topped off with sweet little currants – one of the standout dishes of the night.
Next up were The Crimean potatoes, the slow roast lamb shoulder and the ‘melan-cauli’ as it was presented to us – I definitely appreciated the pun, keep up the great work. Pun aside, that cauliflower was ANYTHING BUT sad! I’m going to go out on a limb and say that it is the best cauliflower I’ve ever had. So good in fact, that when I asked what the secret to the cauliflower was, our kind waiter replied that he could tell me but he’d have to kill me. Fair enough. I’d just about take that deal if it meant I knew how to make that cauliflower in heaven. Perhaps I’ve talked it up too much but seriously, order the cauliflower.
The potatoes were creamy, rich and lightly salted thanks to the anchovies. The lamb shoulder was delicious – crispy on some of the edges and soft, tender and juicy in the middle – all accompanied by a lovely, fresh grain salad.
Finally, because we just weren’t quite done, we ordered the pickled herring and beetroot salad which the waitress had previously told us was her favourite. This dish was sweet, vinegary and a kind foray into pickled fish for those who aren’t familiar with it.
Throughout the night, we’d seen and heard the clinking of the vodka trolley being wheeled around. Yes, the vodka trolley. I think when I’m a grandma I’d like to have a vodka trolley instead of a tea and biscuits trolley. 3 of the people on our table each sampled a different vodka, some frozen, some not, some with 20 herbs and spices in the mix, some pure as they come. Words cannot do the vodka trolley justice, go there and experience the joy of the clinking for yourself.
Given the food had been so wonderful up until this point, we figured it would be a shame not to try the dessert – even just one to share for the table. We ordered the baklava filo but baklava is never usually my first choice. My experience with baklava tells me that it is simply filo pastry drowned in a hefty insulin spike. But, you guessed it, this was different.
This dessert was so light, so beautifully constructed and so mildly sweet that it was barely recognisable as a relative of baklava. Minimal amounts of light, crispy pastry, firm not overripe stone fruits, a subtly sweet chantilly cream, all laced with a hint of bergamot and honey. Wowee.
This post wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the service. For me, the service at The Crimean was spot on. Friendly and helpful but not intrusive. If we needed something, they got it for us, if we didn’t they left us alone. I understand some diners want more attention than that (“how is your meal sir/ma’am?”, “can I get you any side dishes?”) but as far as I’m concerned, a good waiter should be just like a good umpire – make sure the game is under control but ultimately not influence the outcome. The Crimean had this down pat.
Finally, after paying our bill which came to about $60 a head (wines and novelty vodka trolley included) we had a bit of a yarn with the very kind and passionate owner of The Crimean, one final drink at the bar and made our way outside to brave the fictional snow. I would highly recommend The Crimean and, before the dreams of cauliflower subside, I will be going back to get my fix.
Food: Brilliantly executed
Service: Hands off = spot on
Atmosphere: Possibly in Eastern Europe?
Highlight: The cauliflower
Cost: $60 per person including drinks