Monday, May 18, 2009

Residential - North Carlton

Residential opened on the quietest stretch of Lygon Street a few months ago. I was going to call it the dead centre, being a scant block from the cemetery but that is not exactly true as Enoteca carves a niche for itself on the opposite side of the road. I’ve lived near the spot for 22 years and businesses on the Princes Hill side of Lygon often seem to struggle. The last scalped claimed being Kin that threw in the towel after only 18 months.

Residential has a good provenance in its co-owner Dur-é Dara, a stalwart of the Melbourne restaurant industry. The layout is crisp and the décor bold. The decoration gets a lot of mention, with Mondrian-esque slabs of colour painted directly on the walls, while off-white blank canvas are displayed mockingly, gallery style. There is a variety of seating, including a large 12-seater table, welcoming those who wish to eat or drink solo.

I don’t believe a review can be written on a single visit. So take my words as a preliminary testing of the waters. Though I have been meaning to get to this latest kid on the block for months, it is usually on a Monday I think of going and as the place is only open Wednesday to Sunday, I often forget later in the week.

The words that came to mind when I ate a late Sunday breakfast at Residential are “under whelmed”. I arrived at a quiet time and the large café was barely at a quarter capacity, Dur-é was hovering, a barista did his thing in an unhurried manner and two young female waitstaff manned the floor. It was a low-pressure hour, yet the service was haphazard and slow. Not only my own meal, but many other patrons within view suffered from mixed up orders and drinks took a minimum of 10 minutes to be delivered. Apple juice that was supposedly freshly pressed came homogenized from a large plastic bottle, though on delivery the mistake was acknowledged without prompting. My serve of poached eggs and mushrooms was modest, served on a single piece of toast ($13.50). Even the plural “mushrooms” was stretching the definition; though there were two, one was half a medium sized portabello and the second was complete but the size of a 20 cent piece. My dinning companion received only the solo half in his order but with a decent serve of bacon and spinach on the side it didn’t look so measly.

Though I was almost tempted by the sweet option and considered springing a tenner for homemade crumpets, the breakfast menu was adequate but unexceptional. In short, nothing particularly blogworthy.

But what did look interesting was the weekend lunch. We were politely asked to vacate the large table around noon by co-owner and chef David Stimson, as he prepared to set up the Sunday lunch. As we finished our late breakfast we watched an enticing array of dishes bought out including an interesting rolled fish dish, roulade style with a prawn mousse and garlic chives in it’s centre. There was a fragrant pile of chicken pieces in a Indian marinade, lots of vegetable dishes including a tempting bowl of steaming potatoes. But no punters. All dressed up and nowhere to go, those spuds would soon be cold. I almost wished I was hungry enough to eat a second meal. The $30 deal of soup, a glass of wine and the smorgasbord on offer seemed very reasonable and the dishes tempting.

We talked to David as he assembled the meal and it was that conversation that redeemed Residential for me and made us want to give it a second go, with a group of friends for a weekend lunch. We were told that if we called a couple of days in advance he’d make sure there were enough options included on the table for a someone such as myself with some special dietary requirements.

But that’s the problem. Before Residential opened last year Dur-é Dara described it in Epicure as “a café”. Part of Residential's problem is that it is a food business that has got an identity crisis. Despite the blank canvases and acres of laminated timber, it could be a friendly neighbourhood cafe. There is space for prams and a collection of toys at toddler height in an area to one side of the entrance. The regular menu is modest and they seem happy for you to just drop in for coffee or a slice of something sweet. But after breakfast on the weekend all bets are off, no late brunching, no access to the regular lunch menu - it's the set meal or out you go. That doesn't fit with the cafe concept or the cozy area for parents and bubs. In fact we saw one family roll up at midday looking for cafe fare, who sadly left as they wanted a late breakfast, a cafe lunch or something less than $30 a head.

Stay tuned. When this eatery finds it feet it could be a stunner. In the meantime you can see the chef has a great heart, the restaurateur knows her stuff but it has a little identity crisis to overcome first.

Update 22 October
It’s taken awhile for us to go back to Residential, this time for dinner. The mid-week service was even quieter than the weekend brunch had been but there had been changes. It appears that the owners have taken onboard the identity issue. Gone are the Weekend buffet lunches and the menu now offers a few pizzas to meet the need for in between sized meals. They are interesting too – the carnivore had pig cheeks, potato and lemon zest and it was a winner. The rest of the menu has stuck to a daily offering of two soups, a handful of entrees, mains and desserts stay.

Residential has clearly got over the “identity crisis” I mentioned earlier. Dur-é is at pains to welcome newcomers, be at pains to reiterate it’s a place for locals to pop in and call their own – whether they want an afternoon coffee, a quick pizza or work their way through three courses but something still doesn’t work. Is it the cavernous architecture? Not necessarily. The open warehouse style should work well. The problem is when the place is quiet like it was on our last visit, despite softening the lighting you feel exposed. Fill it with people, jazz up the music and the architecture would clearly not be an issue. So what about the food? The food on offer is good. It is well thought out using seasonal produce and the chef clearly knows how to execute it. The problem for me (and I own this entirely with my unusual diet) is I have so little choice.

So, once again I am left under whelmed, yet wanting more. I want it to work. I hope Residential get the formula right. I’m glad it doesn’t bow down to popular food choices – though no matter how excellent the corn bread is, a potato dish on the menu would never go astray. If you are a local, or passing through North Carlton, give it a go and tell me what you make of it.

499 Lygon St,
Carlton North
Ph: 9381 2388
Breakfast/lunch/dinner Wednesday - Sunday

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Blogger FoodieFi said...

You make lots of valid points in this post, not least about the processing of reviewing itself. As you say, a single visit can rarely encapsulate a given restaurant's full potential, particularly when it serves a range of meal styles. And I empathise with the 'not particularly blogworthy' comment!

Residential's got a good spot, so hopefully they find their focus. I can't help thinking when I ride past that they've been a bit too literal with their signage - without looking inside it does look like an estate agent's.

9:52 am  
Blogger steve said...

Hi AOF, been reading & enjoying your blog for a while but have never commented to date but your latest post compelled me to do so.
I think you were very even handed in your appraisal by stating that in one visit one cant review completely.
I want to focus on the point you make about their fixed cost for a Sunday lunch. It is a very brave business especially in these times that dosn't have a degree of flexibility with their offer. I guess if people start turning away because of this then they'd have to give that idea a re-think.
In todays Epicure I read about one of the Commoner people going it alone in a wine bar with a very limited food offer. What got me was that the person scoffed at the idea of having soft drinks available in this new place.
Brave indeed.

2:38 pm  
Blogger Another Outspoken Female said...

Fi - yes I thought that too about the undistinguishable signage!

Steve - thanks for taking the plunge to comment. Wines bars with limited food can work. Gerald's Bar in Nth Carlton is a good example. Some cold platters (meat, cheese or vego usually) and nibbles like olives. But just a couple of homely dishes of the day. Some people go there to eat (especially some of the local shop owners) but often people go to drink then see one of the dishes come out and say....why don't we eat here?

But no soft drinks - unless they make their own...hmmm? I don't drink them but they need to consciously offer something for the non-drinkers, lets hope it is delicious!

4:57 pm  
Blogger Johanna said...

sounds like a place worth having a look at if in the area - I wonder if the explosion of eateries in Lgyon St in East Brunswick might leak into this area (if explosions can leak???)

5:57 pm  
Blogger Ann oDyne said...

... the family turned-away, will badmouth Dara to at least 50 others.

10:33 pm  
Blogger ml edwards said...

After having eaten at Residential twice now - 0nce for dinner, once for earlyish breakfast I can only give it a good rap.

The produce is frrresh and well sourced, the meals simple and beautifully balanced, the service excellent on both accounts.

If you want to try one of the tastiest cuts of bacon available have the bacon and eggs for breaky. I had mushrooms too and was more than pleased. The freshly made crumpets are truly delicious. My friends had the granola and gave the thumbs up.

Dinner on a previous occasion elicited a similar response. Between my friend and I, the calamari, duck and fish, followed by desserts did not dissapoint.

If you want more of the same cramped surroundings, sniffy service and over inflated prices for snacks at the bar, try Gerald's Bar.

If you're looking for an open and I guess unusual setting (for Melbourne tastes) excellent produce and simple but beautifully considered and balanced meals, Residential is a goer!!!

12:30 pm  
Blogger jinny said...

yes, i am going to agree with ml edwards,

i have been several times and it keeps getting better and better, the food is very well considered, creativity, price wise and flavor, i suppose with the likes of dara and her new partner, stimson ,they both ooze passion, grace and elegance in there execution, both pretty rare to see in this industry now days.

i cant wait to watch this gastro machine rise to the top over time . . . and for the record the breakfast is the best ... especially the mushrooms!!

10:15 pm  
Blogger Another Outspoken Female said...

I wondered when the PR people would start blogging :)

10:49 pm  
Anonymous local carltonite said...

thanks for the update of this restaaurant,

i think it has some time up its sleeve to really do well.. like you said, i think the owners( dure and the chef ) will do well.. they seem to work in there cafe every hour of its opening times.. so they are defiantly busting there guts... i think this is a time taker and when finished will be great.. i suppose good thing take time.. i have eaten there 4 times and the chef changes the lunch and dinner menu everyday.. which.. seems to be enough choice for me... i dont understand ... it seems that everyone one wants pages of bad food to b e put in front of them to choose something that really is not worth eating or spending money on.. i find ,at least everything you get here, is worth putting in your mouth.

3:08 pm  
Blogger Another Outspoken Female said...

jinny/carltonite - I get the odd feeling that you two are err related. Sorry if I've got it wrong.

If this is a PR exercise you need to get to know your platform better and understand the blogging community. Misuse of the medium does more harm than good to the reputation of a business.

9:34 pm  
Anonymous local carltonite said...

hi aof,

no pr or restaurant experience here, just a 5 bedroom house full of students, foodies and a cheap pc .. oh and sure we are locals going to a local eatery , and we are remembered ... whats wrong with supporting local business??? slightly confused?

1:12 am  
Blogger Another Outspoken Female said...

Carltonite - sorry to offend. I retract my suggestion :)

I do live in the area and eat local, hence I *want* Residential to work. I'm just trying to figure out why its so obviously not.

My previous comment about choice, as I said in the post, I own. If you are a regular reader of CFN you'll know I have a diet more limited than most so while I think that using what is seasonal and fresh is the best way to go - to have an entire menu laden in meat and/or dairy makes life very difficult for me.

And as Johanna commented in the most recent post on the subject (October 2009) vegetarians feel very short changed if the token vego dish is just vegetables.

The more I muse about it the more I feel there is something fundamentally out of step about Residential.

8:32 am  
Anonymous Jordan from Canada said...

I for one love Residential! I haven't been there for quite some time, but when I was there I worked there as a can be sure that I wasn't the one that took 10 minutes per drink :) But Dure Dara is a FANTASTIC person, she's an excellent boss and wonderful mentor. She's always so full of insight and such an eloquent way of expressing it. And as for the chef David, he great too. The menu that he makes are always delicious and he always manages to outdo himself every week. The meals I had there were always great! All around GREAT people, both of them! I really miss it and would love to go back sometime. Highly recommend Residential, not just for the food, or for the atmosphere, but even just to support two great people.

5:37 pm  
Blogger Another Outspoken Female said...

Hi Jordan, thank for your comment and especially for declaring your relationship with the place.

Residential I've unofficially declared my restaurant conundrum of 2009. While it seems to have a small band of ardent supporters, if the comments on these two posts are anything to go by - they seem heavily out numbered by others who live in the neighbourhood who are the owner's target market.

Over the last few months I've got to know another pocket of locals. They own homes in the area, or are professionals renting at a premium. They eat out regularly and are fierce supporters of their favourite neighbourhood eateries. Every single one of them seems to reflect the point I'm getting at - the owners have a great lineage, are professionals but something is missing. I keep coming back to this because everyone WANTS this place to work, have gone back a few times but have progressively dropped off Residential's radar as for some elusive reason it just doesn't seem to work.

I'm glad it hits the mark for some, I want Dure and David to do well, we all do but the place is obviously failing, and the odour of desperation is getting stronger, despite the protestations to the contrary. If each one of you go eat there for breakfast, lunch and dinner and it may stay open for a few more months. Sit by the window so the passing trade gets a sense of a populated eatery, not the eerie emptiness. But I do have another suggestion, perhaps the owners need to canvas the locals who go irregularly and ask for feedback, maybe then they'll work out the magic formula that so far seems to be missing.

10:00 am  

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