MELBOURNE | The Independent Gembrook is one of those places you aren’t going to stumble across by chance. Drive east out of Melbourne’s centre, past Belgrave and the end of Melbourne’s metro rail system and keep driving. The hallmarks of the big city slowly fade into the distance and you find yourself in amongst the beauty of nature, dotted by small towns with quaint little high streets. Technically this is still Melbourne, but it feels a world away. One of these small towns is Gembrook, and it is in a restored former hardware store that you’ll find The Independent.
The space makes use of the bones of the building to create something that’s spacious and casual – timber support beams, polished concrete floors and a lot of brick and wood. The Independent is part bar, part restaurant and from the moment you walk inside you’re made to feel welcome by both the friendly staff and the space itself, which manages to be modern and, I guess authentic, by virtue of the way the renovations have respected the original structure. The roller door out the back leads to a beer garden for kicking back on summer’s day and enjoying a drink – a Victorian or Argentinean wine, a cocktail, or a beer, including a specially brewed drop by Coopers Brewery.
Little touches, such as the plates which contain hand painted artwork by Argentinean head chef Mauro Callegari’s father, further add to the authenticity of the venue. As for the food, it’s all about modern Argentinean dishes that can be shared, and Callegari uses his deep knowledge of Argentinean food to create quite a diverse and unexpected menu. I remember speaking to him earlier in the year and he told me that he wanted to challenge the stereotypes of Argentinean food. Yes there’s barbecued meat but some of the most rewarding dishes on the menu are the vegetarian ones. Indeed, there are a lot of dishes on the menu that make vegetables the star. It’s not purely Argentinean food either – many of the dishes contain elements of Creole, Spanish, Italian and North African cooking.
Bread rolls with whipped butter comes out complimentary to begin with, just the way it should.
Lengua (Ox Tongue) ($11.00)
Regular readers of The City Lane will know that Lauren and I have become a bit obsessed with ox tongue this year so when we saw pickled ox tongue served with salsa criolla on the menu there was no question that we’d be ordering it. It was brilliant, with the pickled tang balancing well with the sweet and sour elements of the salsa. The tongue was tender, rich and buttery, and texturally offset by the salsa. One of the highlights of the night and a must order item.
Morcilla (Black Pudding) ($11.00)
In a twist to the usual way that black pudding is served, the Independent’s version was crumbed and served with chickpeas and tomato. This was a very rich dish, but not as heavy as expected. The proportions were spot on and, with a little bit of chickpea and tomato in each bite the flavours were something quite special.
Remolacha (Beetroot) ($14.00)
The beetroot was served with smoked yoghurt and pine nuts, and reminded me of the sort of food you find in an Ottolenghi cookbook. So simple, and utterly divine. A nice way to break up the 2 heavier dishes of the night.
Asado (Grass Fed Beef Ribs) ($41.00)
The beef ribs were slow roasted and served with potato, onion, garlic and chimmichurri. The meat was delicious – full of flavour and fall off the bone tender. We were so full by this stage of the meal but couldn’t send any of it back as it was that good.
The potatoes that came with the beef ribs were amazingly crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. Kind of like a cross between roast potatoes and chips.
Despite being super full, we couldn’t leave without ordering a dessert – after all this review wouldn’t be complete without it. There were some really interesting looking desserts but the only think we could physically fit in was the ice-cream. On this occasion it was a house made apple ice-cream which was exactly the right thing to order. It was light, airy and creamy, with actual bits of apple in it. A perfect end to an outstanding meal.
I’ll admit that Gembrook wasn’t exactly on my list of places to visit until I heard about The Independent and I can safely say that I’d come back again for another meal. The space is great, the staff are really nice and the food is brilliant. Everything is very keenly priced compared to what you’d pay in Melbourne’s trendier area and the servings are bigger than expected too (thanks to our waiter for stopping us from over-ordering when we were telling him what we wanted). As an aside there’s a lot to do out here besides eat around here too – it’s a beautiful part of Victoria and highly recommended for a weekend break.
79 Main Street
Wed – Sun: 12:00pm to late