Big Esso by Mabu Mabu at Federation Square celebrates the exciting flavours of Indigenous food – and brings a fabulous pops of colour – in a bright and cheery all-day bar and restaurant next to the Birrarung (Yarra).
Location: Fed Square, Cnr Swanston St and Flinders St, Melbourne VIC 3000 Ph: (03) 9121 0510
Is it Mabu Mabu? Is it Big Esso? Maybe it’s Mabu Mabu Big Esso? Or is it Big Esso by Mabu Mabu? Whatever name you plump for, but important thing is that you give Nornie Bero’s latest eatery a try.
Bero has a passion for the food of her home – Mer Island in the Torres Strait – and an overall love for indigenous ingredients, cooking techniques and wider culture. And thankfully, it’s a passion that she’s more than happy to share.
What began as a stall on the South Melbourne Market has morphed into an exciting mini food empire. First there was a highly-rated cafe in Yarraville, and now there’s Big Esso on the river side of Fed Square, as well as a Mabu Mabu Catering.
This spot by Birrarung (Yarra) is clearly very dear to Nornie Bero and her team. Sitting as it does on the land of the Wurundjeri and Boonwurrung peoples, the Mabu Mabu website informs patrons that the Birrarung was once central to the lives of these peoples – both as a food source and a place where ceremonies took place.
It seems wholly fitting that there is finally a restaurant dedicated to indigenous fare on this site. In addition, it’s also the ideal spot in terms of its tourist-centric location to educate visitors from home and abroad about the food and culture of Australia’s first peoples.
For polished Spanish plates and a cool European vibe, see our review of MoVida Next Door.
And the name ‘Big Esso’? The translation is ‘the biggest thank you’. And when you put it together with Mabu Mabu, you get the phrase used when starting a major celebration. It’s an apt name, as this is a place conceived as a somewhere for old friends to meet and new friendships to be made.
If you find yourself around Federation Square, another restaurant to check out is Victoria by Farmer’s Daughters. Click here for our review.
Like many Fed Square restaurants, Big Esso by Mabu Mabu has tables and benches set out in front of it. And umbrellas which will provide some much-needed shade in summer, but which currently house even more essential gas heaters. Yep. Spring 2022 is all about the rain and wind so far, so those heaters are a very welcome sight.
When you head through the doors you find yourself in a bright, cheery oasis. It’s the anti-thesis of the dark and moody bars that Melbourne does so well.
And if you fancy a drink up-high with views of the city, see what we thought of The Rooftop at QT
Aqua blues and greens dominate with bursts of neon pink and red. There’s a striking indigenous mural on one wall and a tiger shark sculpture dangles from the ceiling next to the vibrant, well-stocked bar. The mood is relaxed and sociable.
Many of the tables are communal – in keeping with the eatery’s aim of fostering conviviality. What’s more, our table (and a number of our neighbours’) had art works printed onto them. Apart from being highly attractive and adding to the cultural richness of the dining space, it means that even a photo of a bowl of fries looks like an Instagrammers dream against such a vibrant background.
Despite the hideous Melbourne weather on the evening we ate at Mabu Mabu, the vibe was upbeat. There’s a sunny, summery feel to the restaurant which is hard to replicate.
With community and celebration at the centre of venue’s philosophy, it’s no surprise that the Mabu Mabu menu encourages sharing.
Moreoever, if you want to get stuck into the some authentic Australian ingredients and flavour combinations, this is definitely the place to go.
The Small Share offerings range from Saltbush & Pepperberry Fried Crocodile & Smoked Oyster Aioli ($25) to Kangaroo Tail & Pepperberry Bourguignon & Island fried Scone ($24).
We began with the Warrigal Greens Damper ($9). It had that lovely crumbly, scone-like texture so unique to this classic campfire take on bread. Slightly salty, slightly sweet, my only quibble was that it was a tad under-cooked near the base.
Next we moved onto a play on an old favourite – Emu Liver Pate, with Hibiscus & Bell Fruit. The dense, smooth slab of pate was darkly gamey whilst the Bell Fruit tasted like Christmas – mulled wine and spices. The combination was delicious, but rich.
One of the must-try dishes is the Cassava and Warrigal Greens Croquettes ($16). These crispy-coated ovals come smartly matched with a Saltbush Chimichurri Aioli. The smack of herby freshness in the Aioli lifts the Croquettes and makes them a great accompaniment to a beer or sneaky cocktail.
If Australian native ingredients interest you, perhaps this fascinating cookbook is for you: First Nations Food Companion: How to buy, cook, eat and grow Indigenous Australian Ingredients
Although we considered ordering the Bush Tomato Slow Cooked Teter (Lamb Leg), Charred Sweet Pepper, Pearl Onions & Pepperberry Bordelaise Sauce ($45), we couldn’t resist the Prawns. The Bucket of Charred King Prawns, Spiced Sea Succulents & House Made Native Cocktail Sauce (Market Price) was actually an open bowl of sweet, smokey, meaty, prawny goodness. This is the kind of dish where you dive in with your hands and suck every last drop of yumminess out of the prawn heads.
In addition to the prawns, we completed our meal with the Lemon Aspen Fries ($9). Light and crunchy, they balanced-out the seafood and were divine dragged through the juices at the bottom of the plate.
Whilst the original Mabu Mabu cafe in Yarraville was dry, Big Esso has embraced alcohol. Having said that, non-boozers are still well-catered too, and again, the indigenous offerings continue. Amongst the beverages, there’s a House Seasonal Native Fruit Cordial with Soda ($9) and 3 choices from the Aboriginal run Sobah alcohol-free craft beers ($8).
As a gin lover, I was ecstatic to find a full Gin menu. Even better, many of those present are either owned by indigenous interests and/or champion native ingredients and bush tucker flavourings. There’s even a Seven Seasons, Green Ant Gin ($17) for the more adventurous. This unusual spirit from the Tropical North promises notes of Citrus, Native Juniper, Strawberry Gum, Lemon Myrtle & Pepperberry. And yes. It’s indigenous owned.
Aside from the gin, there’s also an Aussie heavy wine list and array of beers and ciders.
Whilst you’re in the area, why not grab a drink at the Transit Rooftop Bar?
In keeping with the Mabu Mabu ethos of celebration and not holding back, I went straight for the cocktail list. My poison this time was the light and breezy Myrtlechello Sproitz ($21). This proved to be a very drinkable 5Nines Gincello, Lemon Myrtle, Blanc de Blancs, Soda and Thyme. I reckon a couple of glasses of that in the sunshine out in Fed Square would go down very well. Are you listening, weather gods?
Radiant one minute, ambivalent the next.
To explain, we had 2 servers, one of whom was grace and charm personified. In all honesty, her smile and enthusiasm were contagious.
However, our other server was decidedly ‘blank’ in comparison. She wasn’t unhelpful or unfriendly – she just didn’t seem to be very interested. And of course, working in tandem with sunshine server only amplified her ambivalence. Perhaps she was at the end of a long, arduous shift?
Start experimenting with native Australian ingredients at home. A lot of bush tucker is easier to incorporate into your regular cooking that you might imagine.
Mabu Mabu Catering
Lastly, the industrious team at Mabu Mabu also have an increasingly popular catering arm.
If you are hosting an event and wish to offer your guests food beyond the usual smoked salmon and blini options, check out their website.
We all have that one good friend that we love, but hate buying presents for – as they seem to have everything. Take a look at our Gift Ideas to see if we can inspire you.
Where else can you find such delicacies as Crocodile Vol au Vent with Crispy Saltbush? Or maybe the meat-free Desert Spiced Jackfruit Cigar with Smokey Tamarind Chutney is more your thing?
From Morning and Afternoon Tea – Coconut Chia Pots with Native & Seasonal Fruits anyone? Yes please! – to Lunch Boxes ladened with Emu Kabana and Pickled Sea Succulents to Sharing Platters and Canapes. There really is something for everyone.
For more of the Best Caterers in Melbourne, click here.
If you have any curiosity at all about indigenous Australian cuisine and culture, Big Esso by Mabu Mabu is a must-try dining spot.
More than that, if you like trying new flavour combinations and sampling unfamiliar ingredients, this is the place for you.
But ultimately, if you like good food, and a warm, welcoming atmosphere that feels like a big hug, grab a seat at one of their communal tables and tuck in. Otherwise, pick a bench out in the sun on a warm Melbourne evening and treat yourself to a cocktail spiced with Australian native aromatics. Bliss!
Update: If you want something a little different on your Christmas table this year, give the clever cooks at Mabu Mabu a call. The Mabu Christmas Cake takes the traditional treat and gives it a smart indigenous twist. So instead of regular cinnamon and allspice, this beauty is fragrant with cinnamon myrtle and strawberry gum. Similarly, native fruits such as quandongs are in there to add that special citrusy tang.
In addition to the restaurant in Federation Square and their catering arm, Mabu Mabu sell a number of condiments, spices blends and more.
These are available both in their Fed Square venue, and on the website under Shop.
One of the most exciting items is the Wattleseed Pavlova Kit ($28), which sounds like a fabulous native food spin on a summer favourite.