You know that Charcoal Lane is a different sort of restaurant as soon as you walk through the handsome heavy black doors. At the entrance these words mark the wall:
You are part of a unique and exciting program of Mission Australia, in partnership with the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service, William Angliss Institute and employers. Charcoal Lane provides the opportunity for Aboriginal and disadvantaged young people to transform their lives through training and working in this iconic building.
All the profits and any donations from the Charcoal Lane restaurant go to supporting this important program that provides many traineeship and apprenticeship opportunities each year.
Together, we can transform lives.
YES, WE CAN. I feel good about this place already.
The historical bluestone building houses a pleasant dining room with contemporary Aboriginal art on the walls, and most notably, the ceiling. The space is clean and bright and our table (organised by food blogger Jeroxie) settled down on the cushioned banquette facing most of the action.
Under the guidance of head chef Damien Styles, a kitchen team of six plus a selected group of Aboriginal and disadvantaged youths serve modern Australian cuisine with Aboriginal and native food influences. Generally this comes in the form of the seasoning and spices, with the occasional unusual ingredient to pique our curiosity.
To start, an amuse bouche of tomato gazpacho with a drop of floating olive oil. This was full of clean flavours and very refreshing.
To share, a selection of appetisers ($23): zucchini and corn fritters with aoili, spicy fried school prawns with chilli sauce, warm salute dried olives marinated in bush herbs; spiced yam fritters with bush tomato chutney and native spiced popcorn. Most notable were the crunchy and fragrant whole prawns which I could have eaten by the bucketload and the almost preserved plum-like taste and texture of the olives. I was also a bit bemused being served popcorn as part of a meal (although it was very moreish).
Wanting to save our appetites for dessert, we skipped down to the mains, which for me were the outstanding dishes of the night. My native peppered kangaroo fillet, shallot and bush tomato tart, rosella flower jus ($31) was a perfectly cooked fillet of kangaroo, prettily presented in a zigzag pattern and with the rich meat tempered with the tartness by the whole rosella flowers. My only complaint was that it had been a little too rested, as it was only lukewarm when it arrived at the table – not enough for me to take it back to the kitchen, but enough to be noticeable.
My second option would have been the perfectly round pork loin ($32) which was juicy and tender declared generally delicious by H as he crunched on the crackling, happily sated.
The pumpkin gnocchi with macadamia nuts, fried sage, pepitas and saltbush leaves ($26) presented a lovely mix of textures – knobs of al dente gnocchi coupled with crunchy nuts and leaves (urgh sorry for the fuzzy photo). RM really enjoyed this dish but was a little disappointed with the size of it compared to the other main courses.
We all shared the four side dishes on offer: beetroot salad, fries, sauteed spinach and my favourite, a crisp fennel, radish and pear salad sprinkled with macadamia nuts (all $8). In fact, I’ve now been inspired to include macadamia nuts in more of my cooking!
For dessert, Jeroxie and I couldn’t resist the dessert selection for two ($34). This huge platter drew gasps of admiration from our table, and you can see why. The plate consisted of a coconut macaroon with pina colada sorbet and a pineapple crisp, apple and olive olive oil cake with apple sorbet and apple crisp, a round of dark chocolate parfait with marshmallows; lemon aspen tart with yoghurt sorbet, hoop of mango crisp; and the raspberry, rosella jam and vanilla custard melange in the centre. The platter covered the spectrum from very sweet or sour/tart, from crunchy to smooth to chewy to icy.