Mid last year it was reported that CERES in East Brunswick was building a new restaurant, and the Merri Table and Bar opened late last year. It serves an eastern Mediterranean inspired menu that is mostly vegetarian, with a couple of meat dishes. I visited last Friday night with a group of friends and we enjoyed a fabulous meal beginning with roasted nuts with rosemary and sweet paprika (below).
While the prices are quite modest the serves are small so, like Gigibaba and other fashionable contemporary restaurants, you’ll need to order generously. My group of six ordered everything on the dinner menu, including two serves of some dishes. Some of the produce is sourced from the CERES garden itself, and the rest is as local as possible.
Cauliflower kisir (similar to tabbouleh, below).
Smashed carrots with cumin, mint and a vinegar dressing (below). There’s a similarly flavoured carrot salad recipe in the Movida book that uses fennel seeds, mint and sherry vinegar.
Chargrilled zucchini with chermoula (below).
Orange salad (below).
Broccoli fritters with almond mayonnaise (below). These are outstanding! We had two serves.
M’jaddarah – spiced rice with lentils and chickpea vermicelli (below). This dish is fine but a bit bland and could do with more flavour. The tomato sauce was homemade but I was expecting something more spicy like harissa. Two serves again.
Red cabbage, currant and pecan salad (below).
The star dish – tah chin-e esfenaj – baked yoghurt rice with lamb and fruit jam (below). Tah chin is apparently Persian / Iranian and it was divine. The fruit jam was a sweet chutney that was perfect with the savoury rice and rich meat inside. It’s exciting to break open the shell of rice (firm but not hard) to reveal the insides.
We were fortunate to be told by the staff as we were ordering drinks that there was only one serve of the tah chin-e esfenaj left for the evening, so we reserved it and also ordered two serves of the meat special, which was oxtail stew with mash. This was rich and flavoursome but not outstanding as nothing could compare to the lamb.
There are several desserts, including cakes, rice pudding and chocolate brownies. The orange parfait (below) sits on a bed of savoury, rosemary flavoured biscuit crumbs. I loved the contrast between the sweet candied orange peel on top of the parfait and the crumbs below. Three of us had this and we all loved it. I had a conceptually similar dessert with bay leaf flavoured crumbs at Watermarc in Wangaratta late last year.
Firin sutlac – a Turkish rice pudding (below), which is flavoured with orange and cinnamon. It was enjoyed by the two who ordered it.
The interior is light and airy, with a concrete floor, white walls and ceiling and blond wood furniture. The appearance is dictated by the sustainable design, and looks casual and informal, more like a daytime cafe than a smart restaurant, but I think that over time it will feel more cosy. There are a few colourful eclectic decorative items placed around the room.
In terms of accessibility, Merri Bar appears to be well designed. There is a ramp to the building from the carpark and there are no steps inside. The entrance door is wide and there is plenty of space between tables. The main problem is that the landscaping surrounding the restaurant is unfinished, and the path and carpark around it are a construction site made from muddy uneven gravel. Getting to the building could be difficult but this should be a temporary problem.
The wine list needs improvement. Based on what we drank, there’s nothing wrong with the wines on the list, but 3 whites and 3 reds are not enough, and they’re not the best wines available to suit the food. The wine list is not on the website and I can’t remember the wine brands. I don’t think I’d heard of any of them before.
The semillon I started with was a reasonable match with the salads, which came to the table first, but was unremarkable. The light shiraz I had with the larger dishes that followed was a bit better. While it is limited by the theme of the restaurant, which prioritises food miles and organic / biodynamic produce, there are lots of great wines from the Yarra Valley and Mornington Peninsula that could be listed. The beer list was better than the wine list.
The service was very attentive at first but suffered a lapse in the middle, between when we finished the salads and the larger dishes arrived, where we briefly ran out of water. Overall it was good. The cost of the meal (we ordered adequately and were satisfied with the quantity, but there was not a grain of rice left), including two drinks each, was approximately $50 per person, which is very reasonable given the high quality of the food.
Merri Table has lots of potential, and like the enormously popular CERES cafe, which is impossible to get a seat at on weekends, I expect the Merri Table to be booking out in advance very soon. So far it has only been reviewed by the Age. Veggie food bloggers, where have you been? You’ll love this!