Moon Under Water: Orwell that ends well

Name: Moon Under Water

Address: 211 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy, Victoria, 3065

Ph: 03 9417 7700

Website: buildersarmshotel.com.au/moon-under-water/

Chef: Andrew McConnell & Josh Murphy

Hours: Dinner, Wednesday through Sunday from 6pm. Lunch, Sunday from 12 noon.

 

In February 1946 one of the most celebrated writers in the English language wrote an essay about his ideal city pub. George Orwell was the writer, and he named this fictional pub the Moon Under Water.

Roughly 66 years later one of the most celebrated chefs in Australia bought city pub The Builder’s Arms in Fitzroy, and included a dining room. Andrew McConnell is the chef, and he named this very real dining room Moon Under Water.

Which begs the question, would George Orwell like it?

So let’s start from the beginning, with the reason that George most likes his pub – atmosphere. Both the pub and the dining room do not have and uncompromising Victorian-style fit out that Orwell demands. There is certainly no stuffed boars head over the mantle, and smoking laws have made yellow, tobacco stained roofs a thing of the past. But while it’s much cleaner than the “solid comfortable ugliness” of the 19th century, there remains a real elegance to it. It eschews the classless “modern miseries” of glass top tables and fake wood panelling, going instead for timeless. White walls, dark wood furniture, with tiles in the bar and simple cupboards in the dining room. Perhaps it’s not exactly what George was after, but there it is still comfortable.

On the question of noise, however, I think our friendly writer may have been disappointed. While there was not, to my memory, a radio or piano, thanks to the stark walls and wooden floors the dining room reverberated with noise, making conversation surprisingly difficult. I am not usually one to complain about this, but here it just didn’t quite fit with the feel of the place. It wasn’t a wild, high energy room, but it sounded like it was.

Unsurprisingly, when it came to service, the floor staff did not quite fit the middle aged ladies with dyed hair image that Orwell puts forward, and I didn’t hear anyone being called “dear”. But I would be surprised if that could be found anywhere not being run by the CWA. Instead, the service was exactly what you expect at a top restaurant. Everyone was polite, efficient and knowledgable, delivering friendly banter along with detailed descriptions of the dishes. While they may not have known everybody’s name, they did seem to take real interest in each customer.

So far, Andrew McConnell and his team aren’t quite living up to George’s admittedly outdated expectations. But they are not down and out just yet, as we are coming up to their strong point – the food. This is where McConnell and his head chef, Josh Murphy, step up.

I can’t comment on the food in the bar as I didn’t try it, although seeing the amazing pies, bowls of mussels and platters of crackling being passed around certainly made me longing to come back.

Moon Under Water, however, work on a set menu that changes every week. It is four courses, generally a salad entree, a seafood dish, a roast, and a dessert. On this particular Sunday lunch we began with a salad of winter vegetables. Earthy from cauliflower and winter greens, it is crowned with two Jerusalem artichoke crisps, a garnish that I could eat by the handful.

Some slow cooked octopus was less exciting than I hoped, its flavour there but slightly overpowered by a fennel cream. While some batons of fried chickpea added a crunch to the slight give of the octopus slices, it was only a good dish, not a great one.

George longed for a cut off the joint with two vegetables, and the main course is simply an updated version of that, a new style of roast. Of course, while all roasts may be equal, some roasts are more equal than others. Suitably, the most equal is always going to be pork. Billed as roast pork rack with curds and whey, this was an unbelievably soft piece of subtly fatty meat, served with a rich, thick sauce and some broccoli sliced longways. The curds and whey was the sauce. They had taken the milk that the pork had been roasted in, split it, reduced the liquid, then whipped it back together. An interesting technique, and it worked like a charm.

To go with this, a potato and swede gratin for the table to share. There are so many great ways to cook these vegetables that I would never be brave enough to say one way is the best, but baked in cream is hard to beat.

Dessert was again deceptively simple. The slight sharpness of whipped ricotta was paired with chocolate, and some shards of pastry to give it texture. This was all cut through with a quince syrup underneath it. An easy end to a very pleasant Sunday lunch.

All this is for $75 a head, and while that is a touch above the touted three shillings, but it’s decent value in this day and age.

George would be delighted to find the excellent Coopers Best Extra Stout on tap, even if he would have to drink it from a glass and not a pewter or pink porcelain mug, but the drink list goes much further. Alongside the beers and ciders there is an extensive wine list, both from Australia and the old world. A full, oaked French Chardonnay certainly went down a treat.

I didn’t get to see the garden out the back, and will have to revisit to see if Mr Orwell would approve. Though I would assume it is like the rest of the place. This is not exactly pub that George wrote about, and he may not love it as much as Melbourne seems to. But let’s face it, the fictional Moon Under Water would be unlikely to succeed in 21st century Australia. McConnell and his team knows the ground better than an author from the 1940s, and he has hit the mark.

McConnell controls the present of pub dining, and in his hands it is double-plus good.

 

 

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About freehugstommy

Food, films and politics are my triumvirate of passions.
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