164 Flinders Ln
|Opening hours||Dinner Tues-Sat|
|Functions||Bar, Licensed, Accepts Bookings, Events|
|Prices||Expensive (mains voltage over $40)|
|Payments||eftpos, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9070 4939|
This is the age of fun, of umami, of taking the most decadent ingredient you can find, throwing a bunch of fish sauce and fresh herbs on it, then crunch and wiggle and add a little more fun to the mix. It’s the age of creamy sauces, clear pickles, food made just to match the drink, debauchery on the plate.
Let’s take a donut and fill it with crab; let’s cook the crap out of our veggies so they melt and sizzle and then smother them with three kinds of dairy. Let’s not hold back.
This is the manifesto that came to mind while dining at Dessous – the Flinders Lane location owned by Mulberry Group – a place that perfectly captures the mood of the moment.
If there’s one thing the Mulberry Group manages to do, it’s a sense of place. It was Mulberry who took the idea of the Melbourne cafe and turned it into something closer to a nightclub, not in tone but in excitement and attention to aesthetics, with Top Paddock, Kettle Black and Higher Ground, and then, after the selling those locations, with Liminaal.
In 2019, when they opened Hazel, they created a space loved for its clean slate and rococo looks. At the same time, under Hazel Dessous, they launched a moody basement space that’s part lounge, part restaurant, part wine bar, and 100 percent out of place.
What does that mean? Flinders Lane’s basement bar is almost a design genre in its own right, and this place has it.
If there’s a better bar in this universe, it doesn’t cross your mind.
Of course you have to enter through several doors, interrupted by a staircase that leads down. The waving of a velvet curtain reveals a room you had seen from the footpath, but nevertheless it feels like you are revealing a hidden world.
Candlelight casts a glow over the tables, illuminating the shadowy botanical furnishings and gold-framed paintings. Entering is like a scene from a high budget movie.
Blame COVID-19, blame the excessive attention on sister restaurant Hazel, blame the lockdown, but for some reason Dessous didn’t make the commotion it could have upon opening. I can’t say whether that commotion was justified then, but I can say that as it stands, Dessous is well worth our attention.
Chef Dan Sawansak, who was the head chef at Higher Ground before taking on the role here, is a master of cooking the moment I describe above, the too much-is-not-enough marriage of fat and sour and umami and fun.
Most of his dishes, if not made with booze in mind, go perfectly with wine or cocktails. (Speaking of cocktails, these are some of the best I’ve had recently, courtesy of drink manager and artist Kris Leombruni.)
A pork chop croquette ($9) is all tender shredded meat and a crispy exterior, sitting on a smear of aioli laced with crunchy pickled mustard greens. It’s almost begging for a sip of rich white Burgundy or tangy pinot noir, both of which are easy to find on the mid-range, reasonably priced wine list.
And yes, there is a yeast-raised savory donut, the lavish filling of which mimics some sort of custard or cream, but is instead made from dollops of wrench crab, salmon roe that behaves like fishy hundreds and thousands. There is a lot of humor in this dish, made even more delectable by the fact that it is damn tasty.
Equally delicious are the pickled mussels with salted cod roe, served with homemade potato chips. If there’s a better bar in this universe, it doesn’t cross your mind.
Sawansak really shows off its cooking chops with a duck leg ($38), which was candied and grilled, then paired with morcilla and pickled figs. The balance of richness, cutting acid and musky sausage is revealing.
The only place I thought Sawansak would step back for a moment is in a bone marrow dish with glutinous rice. In some ways it’s a brilliant combination of fat and funk and a handful of mint and Thai basil, but in other ways it goes a bit too far. The fish sauce and lime juice border on overpowering, and the sticky rice is so crunchy that it loses its ability to absorb the wobbling and slithering of the pith or tart dressing. Bone marrow, for all its guts, is actually quite subtle, and the flavor gets lost in a dish it’s supposed to shine in.
And a very quick note on service, which is incredibly adept, to the point that it isn’t. My (young looking) table companion ordered a drink and was asked (reasonably) for ID – when he took a moment to find it, the bartender who served us left abruptly and said “I’ll be back.” He never did. By the end of the evening, the plates were no longer cleared, the bill was impossible to come by and I longed for those early meal times when we were considered important enough to adore.
But in general, Dessous fulfills his assignment with style and verve. It’s a place to pile on the fun, pull out the stops and bet on elegant excess.
Appearance Dark sexy basement chic
Go-to dish Duck Leg ($38)
Drinks Fantastic cocktails, good wine list
Cost $160 for two, plus drinks