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, with Embla, which is now a fully-fledged Melbourne institution.
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 lo-fi 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.
“There’s no dogma and never has been in terms of intervention,” says McCabe. “We do believe that wine should taste like where it came from, rather than what someone did to it. So, this often leads us to have wines from biodynamic farms. But we don’t pretend to know better than the vigneron how best to express a vineyard; there are plenty of boring wines coming from people who check all the boxes. Our personal palates lean towards purity and probably we have more French wines than any other region represented”
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. “There are always things that haven’t made it onto any list yet, which we may have if you ask us and know what you’re looking for,” says McCabe.
McCabe describes the food as simple, seasonal and produce driven – “stuff you want to eat every day” – 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.
COVID-19 conditions: Embla is closed during Melbourne’s current lockdown, but a finish-at-home three-course menu is available, with optional extras, for delivery or pick up. McCabe: “The support from all over our community has been amazing; we feel really lucky to be in the middle of such a great group of people who know how to enjoy the every day. We’re always on the lookout for more people like us, so hopefully when we are allowed to reopen, we can be even better than before.”