Just as Con Christopoulos was almost single-handedly responsible for reclaiming the Paris end of Melbourne’s city from what looked like terminal decline some decades ago, he too is redrawing the borders west of Elizabeth Street. In territory mired in restaurant touts, with menus pitched mainly to a tourist audience, and otherwise populated by city workers…
Some years back, Christian McCabe left behind successful restaurant Matterhorn, in Wellington, to try his luck across the Tasman. That first venture was the celebrated, though now closed, Town Mouse in Drummond Street, Carlton. Along with Town Mouse chef and co-owner Dave Verheul (a Matterhorn alumnus), McCabe branched out further, and more boldly, in 2016.
Eric Narioo, founder of legendary natural wine purveyor Les Caves de Pyrene (as well as restaurants, Soif, Terroirs and Brawn), joined McCabe and Verheul as a business partner, and what was the Pizza Napoli site on Melbourne’s Russel Street for decades was turned into a temple of natural wine and fire-fuelled cooking. The Town Mouse more than dipped its toe into the waters of minimal-intervention wines, with orange-hued glassfuls a typical site in the retro-inspired bolthole, but Embla has gone for full-body immersion, though without the semi-religious fervour that can sometimes accompany it.
Indeed, McCabe and his team–there is now no dedicated sommelier, but rather a team of wine-focused individuals with differing views that they’re happy to share–aren’t interested in dogma, or notions of right or wrong, they just happen to like wines of character that speak to them of place. So, no fiddling in the winery, just unadulterated juice brought to bottle as simply as possible is the mantra. The list stretches to a couple of hundred, but you can more than double that when you include the list from Lesa–their restaurant a floor up–with 18–20 by the glass, which change frequently, some daily.
McCabe describes the food as simple, seasonal and produce driven, with strong relationships with local organic farmers that enable them to even get bespoke crops planted. From there, the produce, like the wine, is handled lightly, with it either served raw, or grilled over coals, or roasted in the wood-fired oven