Open in mid-2015, The Roving Marrow Carlton is the latest incarnation of the Hotel Astor dining area at the site that was the home to Carlton establishment Percy’s Bar and Bistro until mid-2014. The loss of yet another of the traditional pubs in the inner-north was lamented by many and continues the trend of long-established venues such as The Empress, The Marquis of Lorne and The Tramway re-inventing themselves to keep up with modern trends and the dining and drinking preferences of the rapidly changing demographic in the area. We were invited to take a look at the refurbished space and menu and were keen to check it out.
From the outside, the only sign of development is a fresh coat of paint and Hotel Astor still remains its original historical look and feel. However, in the 12 months during which the venue was closed the interior of the venue has undergone a complete transformation and would be completely unrecognisable to anyone who frequented Percy’s Bar in the past. Gone are the old carpets, pub-style decor, padded chairs at the bar and football memorabilia – replacing these is a space that is more reflective of the hipster vibe of Fitzroy or Collingwood than ‘old-school’ Carlton.
There has clearly been a lot of thought and effort put into the design of the fresh and modern dining space, which is relatively small but very spacious – which is essential given the method of food service. The extensive use of wood contrasts nicely against the more industrial feel of the bar area to create a warm and intimate atmosphere. The angular floorboards complemented the black X-shaped lighting arrangement that dominated the ceiling which in turn was in keeping with the colour scheme and feel of the simple but classy table arrangements.
Where The Roving Marrow looks to differentiate itself from other up and coming restaurants is through the mode of food service which combines a modern Australian echoes the approach taken in Cantonese yum cha restaurants – in addition to the ala carte menu that can be used to order your dish(es) of choice, the wait staff are also constantly roaming the dining area with either serving trays or trolleys with smaller plates of food designed for sharing. This unique take on modern dining is also not just a novelty as the plates on offer consisting of both regularly changing off-menu items and also smaller versions of main menu items. We thought the latter was a great innovation as it allows one to try virtually the entire menu in a single sitting (which we did!) without eating to excess.
The yum cha-feel of the dining experience is completed by the sheet on each table that is used to record food orders based on the category of each dish eaten and which is then tallied up at the end of the meal – the small plates range from $4.50 up to $17 with most plates being in the $6 to $9 range. As is the case with yum cha it is easy to get overly enthusiastic and lose track of one’s running total so whilst the dishes are reasonably priced it is easy for your bill to gradually add up – a cautionary word for prospective diners.
Dehydrated Kale, Taro & Nori Chips With Goat’s Cheese Dip / Braised Ox-tail Soup
We started our journey through the dishes on offer with the first two plates that were brought out which were a bowl of dehydrated kale, taro and nori chips with goat’s cheese dip and a cup of braised ox-tail soup.
The vegetable chips were a light, pleasant way to start what would end up being quite an extensive meal – the chips were thin but with good structure and crispness and the quite different flavours of the kale, taro and nori all combined well with each other and the goat’s cheese dip.
The braised ox-tail soup was quite a small serving but what it lacked in quantity it certainly made up for in quality of both the ox-tail which fell apart beautifully in the mouth, and also the broth which was warming on a cold Melbourne night and had great flavour without being too salty.
Chicken Liver Parfait / Smoked Duck Breast & Confit Duck Leg
Next up on the roaming serving tray was a chicken liver parfait served with celery sticks and a smoked duck breast and confit duck leg.
We are told that the chicken liver parfait is The Roving Marrow’s most popular dish and after tasting it we could see why – the parfait had a lovely creamy texture, an interesting taste that was a bit sweet and not too ‘livery’ which we quite enjoyed and the slightly sweet crumble on top combined well with the rest of the flavours. More celery sticks are available should you find yourself with excess parfait after finishing your initial allocation (a good problem to have!).
While all of the dishes up to this point had been great we found that, despite the excellent presentation, the duck was a bit of a disappointment. Smoking the breast meant that the ‘gamey’ flavour (which in our view is one of the main attractions of duck meat) of that part of the duck was lost, and the confit leg was overly salty and a bit dry also.
Mussel & Kimchi Pancake / Hen’s Egg With Smoked Potato & Mushrooms / Beef Shortrib Dumpling
The next round of dishes brought around by the ever-attentive staff were probably the most unusual dishes we ate on the night, the mussel and kimchi pancake and the hen’s egg with smoked potato and mushrooms. We also got a serving of the beef shortrib dumplings.
The kimchi pancake is a staple of Korean cuisine and is typically crispy, spicy and served with a variety of meat and seafood fillings – the Roving Marrow’s take on this dish used mussels and was served with finger lime cream on top. Unfortunately we found that this dish didn’t hit the mark for us either, the flavour was good but the texture was soft/’mushy’ rather than crispy and there was no spicy kick. To some extent our view on this dish was probably skewed by our expectations for a kimchi pancake and if this dish was positioned differently then our experience may have been different.
The hen’s egg was cooked at a low temperature for 45 minutes ensuring that the white was cooked but the yolk was still runny and was combined with a smoked potato puree and four types of mushrooms. Despite the seemingly odd selection of ingredients this dish really worked for us – after breaking the yolk and allowing everything to mix through we were pleasantly surprised by how well the flavours combined to deliver a great end result.
The dumplings were done in an Asian style but using beef rib as the filling rather than pork which is more usual. These too were excellent, the beef rib was tender and the masterstock in which the dumplings were served enhanced the flavour of the dumplings without overpowering the dish.
Pumpkin, Freekeh & Yoghurt / Broccoli, Garlic & Macadamia Nuts
For our vegetable fix we tried the pumpkin with freekeh and yoghurt and also the broccoli which was done with a garlic puree and macadamia nuts.
We were going to pass on the pumpkin but were advised that we shouldn’t miss out – this was a good piece of advice as the pumpkin was soft and tender without being either overly mushy or too firm (which is easy to do) with a slightly sweet flavour which contrasted well with the savoury characteristics of the freekeh and the creaminess of the yoghurt.
The broccoli was actually one of our favourite dishes for the night, it was chopped finely rather than being served in chunks which meant it was very easy to share and eat, the garlic puree gave the dish a nice level of richness and the macadamia nuts added extra flavour to a vegetable that can sometimes be a bit bland.
Flinders Island Lamp Rump / Cape Grim Porterhouse
For our final course, we had the Flinders Island lamp rump and the Cape Grim porterhouse. We were actually debating which of these to order from the main menu to share as we were reaching our eating limit when we were informed that both would be coming around on the roaming tray – a great example of how the style of food service at The Roving Marrow really helps diners to have a diverse eating experience.
As you would expect, both the lamb and beef were cooked perfectly, medium rare and pink in the middle and the choice of quality produce meant that the taste was spot on and the condiments were well chosen also. The lamb came with a charcoal eggplant that really enhanced the char on the outside of the meat and the beef was served with a simple mix of swede and miso which is all the dish required – too often an excellent piece of meat can be spoiled by the excessive use of sauces that overwhelm what should be the main focus.
We would be remiss if we didn’t mention at least briefly both the drinks list and the drinks service. Recognising the fact that in the current Melbourne dining scene it is essential to have an array of drinks that matches the quality and diversity of the food on offer, The Roving Marrow offers a reasonably standard selection of beers both on tap and in bottles, but where it really stands out is in its wine and cocktail lists both of which are extensive and of high quality. The staff are also very knowledgeable about the drinks on offer and were readily able to provide suggestions based on our preferences – we were also provided with extensive information about the Harkham Aziza’s Shiraz which we were drinking, including the fact that the winemaker plays soothing music to his grapes as he believes that this enhances the quality of the wine. We were also impressed by the array of spirits on offer which went well beyond the standard offerings in each category – a Four Pillars gin and kombucha was the perfect way to end the meal.
In the end, despite a few misses with specific dishes, we left The Roving Marrow impressed with the quality and range of the food on offer, and also the yum cha-style food service which is done in a way that enhances the experience without feeling ‘gimmicky’. We would recommend The Roving Marrow both as a place for an intimate dinner or a group gathering for people looking for a fresh, somewhat different dining experience – just keep the occasional eye on where your food tally is up to.
The Roving Marrow
418 Lygon Street
Wed – Thu: 5:00pm to late
Fri – Sun: Noon to 3:00pm; 5pm to late