Featuring housemade small goods, a wood-fired oven aglow and a compressive wine list, the evolution of Cremorne as a foodie destination continues with Lilac Wine Bar. Add in a spacious, very hip, warehouse conversion and you’ve got a slice of New York cool just east of central Melbourne.
Location: 31 Stephenson St, Cremorne, VIC 3121 Ph: (03) 9973 2061
Once a rabbit warren old workers cottages and faded warehouses, Cremorne is seeing a resurgence, due to an influx of tech-savy businesses and a wave of food-centric ventures.
From the baked delights of Tarts Anon and Cremorne Street Bakers, to the European flare of Frederic, and now the more trans-Atlantic feel of Lilac Wine Bar.
That Lilac Wine feels like a polished gem in a rough diamond neighbourhood is due in part to the pedigree of the team behind the establishment. The driving force behind the venture is Nathan Toleman, numero uno at the Mulberry Group, Melbourne hospo heavy-weights who include Liminal, Dessous and Eatability favourite Hazel, amongst their successes.
Like Hazel, Lilac Wine creates some of its finest produce in-house. Unlike Hazel, with it light, open dining space and Paris bistro ambience, Lilac Wine is moody and urban with a New York loft vibe.
On a dark night, as you walk past the semi-industrial fascades on Stephenson Street you could almost miss Lilac Wine. Almost, but for the distinguishing graffiti and a discreet neon sign.
To the side, there’s a fenced off outside seating area which, whilst not the prettiest beer garden in Melbourne, will no doubt be chockers with happy punters on a sunny arvo.
Head through main door and the first thing that’s likely to hit you is how large Lilac Wine Bar is inside. The room goes back quite a way, with a bar running to the left and an open kitchen vaguely visible to the rear. The industrial heritage of the space is clear with brickwork intact and a metal strutted angled ceiling.
It feels high up – loft-like – rather than at street level. What’s more the vibe is more NY Meat Packing District than inner city Aussie.
And the place is throbbing with life.
Whilst the outside may not promise much, once inside it’s clear that Lilac Wine is well and truly on the map for the food-forward residents of Melbourne.
As soon as you enter, 2 not unrelated things come into view. Firstly, there’s a vinyl collection and turntable. Secondly, there’s a properly illuminated mirror ball. I say ‘properly illuminated’ because I’m fed up of spying mirror balls that simply hang from a ceiling without the light they need to sparkle. After all, what’s the point of a disco accessory that doesn’t make you want to dance?
Thankfully, the spangled sphere at Lilac Wine is resplendent, picking up aspects of the lighting scheme and skimming them back across the ceiling, walls, floor and punters.
Even better, the vinyl isn’t just for show either. DJ sets are part of the appeal of this groovy venue.
For a fabulous breakfast or lunch option, try Mile End Bagels up the road
Although the vibe is Big Apple, the menu harks back to the French Bistro fare of Hazel. That said, at the centre of the busy kitchen is a ferocious wood-fired oven. And what could be more Melbourne dining scene 2023 than cooking over or with flame? Lilac Wine Bar is ticking all the boxes and then some.
As ever, those wishing to eat can either select from the every evolving weekly menu, or submit control to the Chef’s Menu ($75 pp). We decide to do the latter.
It goes without saying that a restaurant with a fire-breathing oven should stand or die by the quality of its Woodfired Sourdough Bread ($12). Happily, the bubble-laced, char-flecked offering that we are served paired with Garlic Oil is more than up to scratch.
On the side, Fermented & Pickled Vegetables ($8) have crunch and a good balance between acid pep and natural sugars.
We’d heard about the Chicken Mousse Eclair with Black Garlic and Honey ($10 ea). When they land on our table we are disappointed by their (lack of) size. Then we eat them. And revise our opinions. Yes, we’d definitely like them to be bigger. But either way, they are one of the most fabulous morsels we’ve eaten so far this year. And that’s from someone who actively tracks down variations on Chicken Liver Mousse/Pate.
If wood-fired fare works for you, see our review of Serai Kitchen
The Soft Curds and Weeds, Fermented Honey ($21) is a whole different ball game. It’s a soothing dish of delicate, creaminess and wilted greens, lifted by honey.
Alongside comes a plate of Red Wine Egg, Celeriac Remoulade & Eucalyptus ($22), presented on a molded glass plate that could come from your Gran’s sideboard. Although the flavours are beautifully clean, we all feels it’s a dish that looks better than it eats. Even so, when the cut egg oozes its viscous, yellow heart onto the plate, it begs to be mopped up with some of that wonderfully spongy Sourdough.
When your lovely waiter waxes lyrical about the house-made Charcuterie Selection with Whiskey Mustard ($26), you’d be silly to ignore him. As it turns out, he is absolutely right to recommend it. The gamey cuts all revel in their individual identity and work fabulously against the remaining Soft Curds and Red Wine Egg. Yum!
We close the savoury portion of our meal with 2 blissfully charred Trevally ($38) awash with a herbaceous green sauce. In this happy-eaters opinion, there are few things more enjoyable than dragging a forkful of buttery-soft fish through a lake of fragrant mint-hued dressing. In this case, the blistered skin on the fish adds another dimension to the cooling qualities of that verdant sauce.
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How do you improve on near perfection? With Duck Fat Potatoes & Kefir Cream ($14) and Leaves with a Champagne Dressing ($14), of course. And in all honesty, I reckon that there is virtually nothing in life that isn’t enhanced by a crunchy, glassy roast spud. Perhaps maybe a chocolate souffle. Maybe.
For pudding we delighted in an old-fashioned classic – Rum Baba, Gum Custard & Pineapple ($15). There is a reason why some desserts have withstood the test of time, and this beauty is a case in point.
A substantial, cakey construction in a pond of luscious goodness, I hadn’t felt I had room for something sweet until it arrived. I was wrong. But finished my meal at Lilac Wine Bar very, very content.
This is a wine bar and it shows in the stunningly diverse range of bottles on the Wine List.
If you love a biodynamic tipple or an organic drink, book a spot at Lilac Wine. This is also a place to pull up a chair if you want to try something from a small local producer.
Unusually, even a number of the Cocktails are built around wines, aperitifs, sherries, brandies and the like. As I said before, come summer, I can see the hip of Richmond and beyond fighting for an umbrella-covered table in the outdoor area next to Lilac Wine Bar. It’s a spot made for sipping chilled beverages and soaking up the filtered rays.
In a town where the what’s hot and what’s not switches from week to week, Lilac Wine Bar has a unique appeal.
The artisanal, wood-fuelled menu demonstrates both respect for ingredients and exemplary technique. The drinks list is a dream if you’re looking for something a little bit different. And the service is simply superb. If you’re not sure what to drink, no worries. Someone will pop up and take you through your preferences and foibles and bring you a glass of something delicious.
And best of all, as we leave, the mirror ball bounces fragments of joy off the walls as the music kicks in.
We’re delighted to report that the accommodating crew at Lilac Wine Bar are now serving Sunday Lunch.
Whilst the dishes change according to availability, a sample menu looks worth a trip to Cremorne. Currents options include Sydney Rock Oyster with Beach Herb Tincture ($6), Savoury Mince on Toast with Horseradish ($14), and Cheese, Preserves & Crackers ($22).
Alternatively, there’s a curated selection where you can enjoy 2 courses for $50 or 3 for $65.