Full Moon Rising
John Lethlean, The Weekend Australian Magazine
December 08, 2012
GEORGE Orwell’s 1946 story The Moon Under Water, published in London’s Evening Standard, shapes the myth of a perfect pub.
It’s a review, of sorts, of a place that never actually existed. A wistful wish list. I won’t pretend to have read it before the guys behind The Builders Arms christened their dining room. But once you have, and experienced the restaurant, it makes sense. The Builders may just be the perfect pub. And Moon Under Water may be the perfect pub dining room.
You come in from Gertrude Street to a friendly, spruced-up old inner-city Deco-ish pub bar. It’s a bar you want to have a drink in. And you can eat, splendidly, in the rollicking adjoining bistro. But take a white door at the back of the public bar and drift into another state: a soft, white, pillowy cloud of a room that is neither pretentious nor designer-obvious. With its original white-painted tongue and groove floorboards, pale banquettes, white Victorian cabinetry and linen with contrasting black bentwoods, it is a friendly, serene, ethereal space where the values of dining are polished but the starchier traditions are discarded.
It’s a place to meet, talk, relax, be looked after effortlessly and warmly, drink interesting wine and eat glorious, intelligent but simple food at fair prices. How could you not love the concept?
Moon Under Water celebrates a stripped-back, seemingly uncontrived style. Partner/mentor Andrew McConnell has a great eye for detail that makes his four restaurants special. And this dining room provides just the right context for partner Josh Murphy’s food which, at $75 per head for a no-choice prix fixe menu before you take a sip, ticks so many boxes: innovative, honest, deeply felt, technically accomplished, unpretentious, superb value for money.
I adored this restaurant the first time around; we made it our Hottest New Restaurant for 2012’s Hot 50 awards. So I’d set myself up for a fall, right? Actually, no. Second time around, MUW is even closer to my idea of perfection.
Beer and Comte gruyere biscuit is followed by gnarled rice crackers topped with cured salmon and dried fish skin. MUW serves them on wooden-lidded porcelain boxes with slices of dark rye bread and butter inside. It’s just one of many little touches to keep you interested. And what follows is difficult to fault.
Asparagus spears laid across a lightly whipped lemon sauce avgolemono - with dill: gorgeous, complementary flavours, the freshest ingredients, timing everything. Strozzapreti - glossy, hand-rolled pasta tubes - are tossed in a celery cream with the best sweet spanner crab meat, a little diced tomato, celery leaves and tarragon: exceptional flavour and textural harmony with, again, perfect ingredients. Murphy’s dishes have the balance of a high-wire artist.
Meat: how to do it in a way that satisfies but doesn’t bore? The solution here is a thick, pink/red, juicy slice of veal loin, sealed but presumably slowcooked in a water bath. It comes with smoked potato, baked spring onions, a roasted onion puree and slivers of Ortiz anchovy. A discrete pool of dehydrated black olive sauce adds a touch of bitterness. It works, superbly.
You’ll get a pre-dessert: perhaps mandarin granita with sheep’s milk yoghurt and soused fruit. Chocolate tart is the last thing I would choose from a menu; here, there is no choice, although it is called “pie”. It transcends prejudice: the finest thin shortcrust, an achingly delicious ganache, a layer of meringue and a dollop of creme legere - lightened cream fortified with calvados - with crumbled macadamia praline.
The wine advice is humble but informed. We drink well. It completes a brilliant circle.
McConnell is a talented restaurateur as well as an intuitive chef. His “brand” attracts staff that most in his game would dream of hiring. Here, his influence is obvious, but his real strength is that he allows the team autonomy.
Moon Under Water is relaxing, unpredictable, healthy, fun, welcoming, affordable enough to visit regularly and just a little bit magical.
Moon Under Water
211 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy, Melbourne,
(03) 9417 7700
Hours: dinner Wed-Sun & Sunday lunch
Typical prices: set menu $75
Summary: Over the moon
Like this? Try: The Bridge Room, Sydney; Loam,
Bellarine Peninsula, Victoria
Moon Under Water, George Orwell, Evening Standard, 9 February 1946
My favourite public-house, the Moon Under Water, is only two minutes from a bus stop, but it is on a side-street, and drunks and rowdies never seem to find their way there, even on Saturday nights.
Its clientele, though fairly large, consists mostly of “regulars” who occupy the same chair every evening and go there for conversation as much as for the beer.
If you are asked why you favour a particular public-house, it would seem natural to put the beer first, but the thing that most appeals to me about the Moon Under Water is what people call its “atmosphere.”
To begin with, its whole architecture and fittings are uncompromisingly Victorian. It has no glass-topped tables or other modern miseries, and, on the other hand, no sham roof-beams, ingle-nooks or plastic panels masquerading as oak. The grained woodwork, the ornamental mirrors behind the bar, the cast-iron fireplaces, the florid ceiling stained dark yellow by tobacco-smoke, the stuffed bull’s head over the mantelpiece —everything has the solid, comfortable ugliness of the nineteenth century.
In winter there is generally a good fire burning in at least two of the bars, and the Victorian lay-out of the place gives one plenty of elbow-room. There are a public bar, a saloon bar, a ladies’ bar, a bottle-and-jug for those who are too bashful to buy their supper beer publicly, and, upstairs, a dining-room.
Games are only played in the public, so that in the other bars you can walk about without constantly ducking to avoid flying darts.
In the Moon Under Water it is always quiet enough to talk. The house possesses neither a radio nor a piano, and even on Christmas Eve and such occasions the singing that happens is of a decorous kind.
The barmaids know most of their customers by name, and take a personal interest in everyone. They are all middle-aged women —two of them have their hair dyed in quite surprising shades—and they call everyone “dear,” irrespective of age or sex. (“Dear,” not “Ducky”: pubs where the barmaid calls you “ducky” always have a disagreeable raffish atmosphere.)
Unlike most pubs, the Moon Under Water sells tobacco as well as cigarettes, and it also sells aspirins and stamps, and is obliging about letting you use the telephone.
You cannot get dinner at the Moon Under Water, but there is always the snack counter where you can get liver-sausage sandwiches, mussels (a speciality of the house), cheese, pickles and those large biscuits with caraway seeds in them which only seem to exist in public-houses.
Upstairs, six days a week, you can get a good, solid lunch —for example, a cut off the joint, two vegetables and boiled jam roll—for about three shillings.
The special pleasure of this lunch is that you can have draught stout with it. I doubt whether as many as 10 per cent of London pubs serve draught stout, but the Moon Under Water is one of them. It is a soft, creamy sort of stout, and it goes better in a pewter pot.
They are particular about their drinking vessels at the Moon Under Water, and never, for example, make the mistake of serving a pint of beer in a handleless glass. Apart from glass and pewter mugs, they have some of those pleasant strawberry-pink china ones which are now seldom seen in London. China mugs went out about 30 years ago, because most people like their drink to be transparent, but in my opinion beer tastes better out of china.
The great surprise of the Moon Under Water is its garden. You go through a narrow passage leading out of the saloon, and find yourself in a fairly large garden with plane trees, under which there are little green tables with iron chairs round them. Up at one end of the garden there are swings and a chute for the children.
On summer evenings there are family parties, and you sit under the plane trees having beer or draught cider to the tune of delighted squeals from children going down the chute. The prams with the younger children are parked near the gate.
Many as are the virtues of the Moon Under Water, I think that the garden is its best feature, because it allows whole families to go there instead of Mum having to stay at home and mind the baby while Dad goes out alone.
And though, strictly speaking, they are only allowed in the garden, the children tend to seep into the pub and even to fetch drinks for their parents. This, I believe, is against the law, but it is a law that deserves to be broken, for it is the puritanical nonsense of excluding children —and therefore, to some extent, women—from pubs that has turned these places into mere boozing-shops instead of the family gathering-places that they ought to be.
The Moon Under Water is my ideal of what a pub should be —at any rate, in the London area. (The qualities one expects of a country pub are slightly different.)
But now is the time to reveal something which the discerning and disillusioned reader will probably have guessed already. There is no such place as the Moon Under Water.
That is to say, there may well be a pub of that name, but I don’t know of it, nor do I know any pub with just that combination of qualities.
I know pubs where the beer is good but you can’t get meals, others where you can get meals but which are noisy and crowded, and others which are quiet but where the beer is generally sour. As for gardens, offhand I can only think of three London pubs that possess them.
But, to be fair, I do know of a few pubs that almost come up to the Moon Under Water. I have mentioned above ten qualities that the perfect pub should have and I know one pub that has eight of them. Even there, however, there is no draught stout, and no china mugs.
And if anyone knows of a pub that has draught stout, open fires, cheap meals, a garden, motherly barmaids and no radio, I should be glad to hear of it, even though its name were something as prosaic as the Red Lion or the Railway Arms.
John Lethlean, The Australian, June 9, 2012
A MAN walks into a bar and … the old boozer ain’t what it used to be. Familiar story? And sometimes, you know, the baby really does go out with the bathwater; you can see why regulars get upset.
The latest incarnation of inner Melbourne’s Builders Arms is not the pub’s first morph from working man’s bar to something for the local 20-somethings with beards and woolly hats, but it is almost certainly the event that rings the bell on the place as a food destination.
And, like Pavlov’s dogs, the cognoscenti have been salivating on the footpath of Fitzroy’s Gertrude Street ever since Josh Murphy and his old boss at Cumulus Inc (and now business partner) Andrew McConnell reopened the pub - henceforth to be known in the argot of Melbourne Town as “The New Andrew McConnell” - in April.
McConnell already had the superb Cutler & Co on Gertrude before brother Matt (Bar Lourinha) took premises nearby to open Casa Ciuccio. And before you could say “trump”, Andrew and his mates had taken the lease on the Builders, just down the road. Too much of a good thing? Apparently not.
It’s Wednesday night and only because we fronted at 6.30pm do we have a seat. In an hour the place will be heaving, some on a bar menu, some waiting, others like us with a table already enjoying the bistro. For now, the smart dining room, named Moon Under Water (after a George Orwell essay about the perfect pub), remains a work in progress.
But the bistro is perfectly pitched - except, perhaps, to the lady nearby who doesn’t have crackling with her pork and is not happy. She says exactly this to a succession of waiters, and declares audibly she will not pay for it. In a place like this, the last bit was probably unnecessary. She won’t be back. More tables for the rest of us, I reckon.
An almost ascetic, white-on-white makeover leaves the old pub bones bare. It’s functional, lean - stark even - which reflects the mood: the prices are low-ish, the menu feels decidedly British in places (suet, cheddar, fish pie) and the cooking is sharp.
And little signatures have already emerged. Light-as-a-feather whipped cod roe - a kind of tarama - scattered with salty little pearls of salmon roe, served with Turkish toast soldiers. And a spicy, viscous pot of blood pudding - more an oozing sludge of intense, rich flavour - that comes with sourdough toast and a minerally parsley/caper salad. The flavours are clear and proud.
Or thick slices of smoked swordfish dressed with a salsa of pickled apple, dill and baby capers, the plate splashed with dill and olive oil and baby Mr Whippy splodges of house-made horseradish creme fraiche.
There’s also a golden-lidded fish pie with smoked trout, prawns, sorrel and another white fish that seems to vary with availability. And it would be a shame to ignore half a free-range chicken cooked on a backyard rotisserie spit, served with an exemplary dark, glossy chicken jus and a few seasonal veg (leek and carrot).
A piece of roasted rock flathead comes with a harissa broth, roasted baby fennel and a scattering of green mizuna; simple, fuss-free. And the slow-cooked rib eye of pork on a pearl barley braise with fried sage and a glossy little jus? Amazing pear-like texture, terrific flavour and, yes … it came with crackling.
Anglophiles will get a kick out of the “steamed suet pudding”, a lemony-brown sugary pastry bomb in the tradition of the Sussex Pond, complete with runny cream. But for me, the dessert highlight is the poached meringue, with a jelly of quince and crab-apple, tangy goats curd sorbet and a bewitching nest of sugar-frosted dill - like a green-snow-covered spider - strewn across the lot.
I like this pub. Like half of Melbourne, it seems, I’ve visited the place several times already and found integrity, flavour and sense in everything on the table. The staff are nice, too. And they still pour a decent beer in the bar.
Builders Arms Hotel, 211 Gertrude St, Fitzroy, Melbourne, (03) 9417 7700
Hours: Lunch, dinner, daily
Typical Prices: E $15, M $30, D $14
Summary: Old bones, new face
Like This? Try: Montpellier Public House, Sydney; Ethos, Hobart