Fresh from London – where his offal-themed restaurant Hoi Polloi boasts a celebrity waiting list longer than the Ivy’s – head chef Peter Savage has finally been persuaded to bring his vision to Melbourne. In a premises nestled amongst the hip barber shops and hot yoga studios of Johnson Street, Savage has worked with interior decorator Kath Day-Knight to bring suburban chic to the inner city.
With ancestral roots in Australia, Savage has fused traditional and modern, proving that cooking in bulk mustn’t necessarily sacrifice flavour and sophistication. At first glance, the menu reads like a Year Eight Home Economics cookbook – but don’t be fooled. The range of food is humbling and the cross-cultural flavours exquisite. Don’t just take my word for it – ask the hundreds of hipsters who queue each night hopeful of securing a last-minute cancellation. Tonight is no different.
With an abundance of doilies sorely lacking at other modern restaurants, the décor at Tall Poppies is edgy and stylish. The restaurant is decorated almost entirely in mission brown, with the bar and servery crafted from yellow laminex. The table coverings are an ingenious combination of elegance and efficiency: vinyl tablecloths with corkboard placemats. My coaster, depicting Australian parrots, is breathtaking. The delicate wall-hangings are a fine touch, comprising mainly tea-towels of Australian native emblems, former prime ministers, and the counties of Ireland. The overall effect brings to mind the impressionists room at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Maha and Flower Drum would do well to take note.
I am pleasantly surprised by the first appetiser. It is difficult to do fairy bread well, but Savage has excelled himself. The bread is white and floppy, the margarine is slathered in inconsistent wodges ranging from 2mm to 5mm, and Savage has made a brave choice of hundreds-and-thousands over sprinkles. The result is a flavour sensation, followed by a white-bread-and-sugar crash, but I am quickly revived with a second appetiser of cheese, kabana and pineapple on toothpicks.
The first main, apricot chicken, is instantly recognisable by its luminous orange hue. It is served on a bed of boiled white rice which is cooked to perfection: mushy and with a discernible white crust. The sauce, made from a complex reduction of French onion packet soup and tinned apricot juice, has the gelatinous consistency to which all good microwave chefs aspire.
Curry casserole follows, served directly at the table from a brown ceramic crockpot. A few delicate questions elicit that this is the traditional recipe, comprising budget lamb mince, onions, Keen’s curry powder, carrot rings, and sultanas. It is a taste sensation. I understand that Savage has travelled widely, and it certainly shows in his fusion cuisine.
I am truly spoiled when it comes to afters. The junket is delicately flavoured with the banana overtones of liquid amoxicillin reminiscent of childhood ear infections. I round off the experience with a Bubble O’Bill, pondering one of life’s greatest mysteries. Is he a clown or a cowboy?
Before I leave, I ask to see the kitchen, and am granted a very rare tour. The menu contains very little fresh food, relying mostly on packet mixes, resulting in a remarkable economy of kitchen space. Where one would normally expect to see industrial fridges and commercial ovens, the kitchen at Tall Poppies is dominated by a bank of microwaves. Tonight, these are operated by a spotty youth proudly consulting the 1986 Sharp Microwave User Manual. Genius.
If you are looking for class, sophistication and bloody good food, look no further than Tall Poppies.
Mains $22–$32. Open Mon-Thu 6pm–8pm. Menu.