Review: Harlequin Public House
That sign you see on the way out of Harlequin Public House is a bit of a laugh.
"Out of respect for our neighbours, please exit quietly and keep conversations to a minimum," it reads, obviously some compromise flotsam left after the clash between Harlequin and neighbours. We daringly kept our lips unzipped anyway because we wanted to talk about how much we had enjoyed Harlequin on this second visit.
The menu was exciting, the room warm, buzzy and uplifting and the service was excellent.
Our first visit was in the early days. The food that busy night only hinted at living up to the Schwass-comeback hype.
Now it appears the menu has lengthened and blossomed into a lineup of intriguing dishes. The kitchen has matured, gone up a gear and the creative juices are flowing.
It's great to spot items such as duck ham cassoulet, smoked groper, braised pig's head, duck crackling, smoked buffalo curd and ox tongue among the dishes.
And a cocksure confident playfulness continues - things from the garden means salad and one of the dessert options is (a timed) 10 minutes with a big cookie jar.
The no-booking-at-night deal still applies and though unease at whether a table will be waiting after a drive across the city in the dark still rankles, it was easy enough to get a seat immediately on a Thursday night.
Harlequin's service is excellent. The waitress was clipped and efficient but knew her dishes and her wines and successfully pulled off the stunt of memorising all the orders and getting them right.
The very first bite was a "wow" moment. Braised pigshead came as a croquette filled with moist, pulled pork and it was beautifully rich and intense. The Heart Foundation wouldn't tick it but you wouldn't want it any other way. A pile of shaved cucumber and thinly sliced radish in a properly tangy dressing was a perfect complement. It was my highlight.
The Schwass team know their way around a barbecue and the full-on charred flavour on the slices of tender ox tongue took it to a completely different level.
It's been a while since we've had snapper (gurnard being so cheap and fabulous), and a large fillet with the well- seasoned skin on was a reminder of how special it can be - especially when cooked this well. It arrived on perfectly cooked savoury lentils revved up with bacon.
Less impressive was a venison loin dish with pieces of beetroot and white buffalo curd to break up the sea of red sauce. The flavours were fine (though the curd brought little more than colour) but the mix of lukewarm meat and cold supporting acts on a cold plate didn't thrill. The menu hadn't suggested a salad. A puzzle.
Lemon posset needs to be super tangy and super creamy and Harlequin nailed it. This was my wife's highlight. A scattering of Eton mess - meringue, berries, cream - formed a garnish of sorts on top. On the other hand, a "warm apple pie" that featured brandy and a caramel icecream was too spicy to enjoy.
Harlequin impressed with its focus on local produce, its whole animal philosophy and the inventiveness and boldness of its dishes. It's a place that you know something, somewhere, during the evening will make you go wow.
Harlequin Public House
Ph: 03 377 8669, hphchch.com
When: 7 days, lunch from 11am, dinner from 5pm. Can only book lunch.
Cost: Starters up to $17; mains up to $34; desserts $14.
Upside: Pig's head never tasted so good
Downside: Puzzling venison dish
Go again: Definitely