In terms of trendy shops and eateries with equal measures of quirk and kitsch, the suburb of Fitzroy outside Melbourne CBD is a mecca of sorts. Home of the feverishly hip, it’s hard to step a foot wrong in this part of town.
But, for the discerning gourmand with a soft spot for tradition, community, and the comfort of home, it’s hard to get it more right than The Commoner.
Located just off the beating heart of Fitzroy – or Brunswick St – The Commoner serves up traditional English fare with a modern, often Moorish, twist. I am always drawn to restaurants that have a focus on local, seasonal produce. The Commoner not only ticks these boxes, they also make as much as they can onsite, from bread to charcuterie. The next thing that tickles my girlish heart is the invitation on the menu: “How about allowing us to simply feed you?”.
We request as much and sit back with a signature drink to soak up the scene. The flame-coloured Negroni with wood-roasted oranges is a distinguished drink – traditionally bittersweet, this take is also sour, smoky and as per usual packs a punch. Those who can handle it though will relish sucking the flesh from the charred and alcohol-stewed fruit.
Dining in the outside courtyard, we are surrounded by greenery, including a tomato plant that I am told is chef Brook Petrie’s pride and joy. We are even lucky enough to enjoy the heady aroma of chooks roasting in the wood-fire oven as we eat.
We start with Boccerones, or Sicilian white anchovies, sweet red peppers and aioli placed atop house-made crostini. Tangy and succulent anchovy fillets contrast perfectly with the feather-light crostini as the quintessential appetite-whetter. House-smoked trout is vibrant pink with a meaty texture and light smokiness complemented by mango, sorrel and a hibiscus dressing.
One of my favourite dishes has to be Richards Surprise Peppers, named as such because they are each day literally picked-and-posted from Beechworth, Victoria, with whatever is looking good. We get a mix of the sweet, mild Lombardo and the juicy, fat, hot Stavros peppers. Simply flash-fried and salted, they are absolutely bursting with flavour. Another local hero is the Grampians’ Green family, whose eggs come out soft boiled with juicy barbecued corn and topped with a dollop of mild but robustly flavoured harissa.
I am absolutely gob-smacked by the gorgeous charcuterie platter, particularly when I remember they do it all themselves. It boasts saucisson sec, beef rump bresaola and lomo pork loin for starters. The real stand-outs are a creamy chicken liver paté, the tip-to-tail pork terrine with pistachio and the enigmatically named ‘cherry jive’ relish laced elegantly with cardamom. The 2010 Sorrenberg Gamay (from Beechworth, like the peppers) proves a worthy partner, with a vibrant plum colour and nose, and a cherry-berry palate that just seems to intensify the flavours of the cured meat.
The piece-de-resistance is a piece of the specialty Black Pudding which, slathered over wedges of toast, is creamy, savoury and delicate enough to convert at least a few non-believers.
To finish the feast we let fluffy beignets dusted in shortbread sugar disintegrate in our mouths, with slivers of fresh strawberry and mint to keep things light and summery. But if you are eating at The Commoner this festive season, you would be foolish to pass up the Citrus Xmas Pudding whose richness is rounded out by a smooth cylinder of white chocolate parfait and zesty segments of finger lime. The balance is impeccable and it is probably what Santa eats on Christmas Day to reward himself for all the hard work.
There are many strengths to The Commoner – the successful revision of traditional dishes, the familiarity of the venue and menu. But putting aside culinary culture and history, its real strength is its flavours: in each dish there are several notes playing harmoniously. The food is both rustic and elegant, much like the restaurant itself, and it’s the perfect place for a long, leisurely lunch where you will be treated like family.
122 Johnston St