90 Smith St
|Opening hours||Dinner Wed-Sun (opens at 2pm on Sun)|
|Functions||Bar, Licensed, Accepts reservations|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, Visa, Mastercard|
The world’s smartest restaurants face a dilemma spurred by a number of factors, not all of them bad. With the middle ground — restaurants that are neither fine-dining nor fast-casual — improving so much in the past decade, the case for the top end has become harder to make. The shift is cultural, for sure, and COVID-19 didn’t help matters. But for the consumer, there is no downside to more affordable dining becoming better.
Many of our best and brightest young chefs are firmly committed to the bistro, trattoria, wine bar, and places where they cook food you can eat on a Tuesday in your yoga pants for under $50.
Where does that leave the argument for spending hundreds of dollars on food that is sometimes just a little more considered? For many chefs who have dedicated their lives to the exacting excellence of fine dining, the answer has been to diversify.
In Copenhagen, Rene Redzepi turned Noma into a burger bar for a while. (He continues to sell these burgers at a stand-alone location after reopening Noma in its seasonal tasting menu format.)
Ben Shewry took the country by storm with his pop-up Attica Summer Camp, which was far more relaxed (and affordable) than the original Attica. Having eaten at Attica recently, I can say that traces of summer camp have found their way into the current experience.
And Navi, the outstanding Yarraville fine diner, has expanded its offerings to include bar snacks, allowing guests to experience Julian Hills’ cooking without the commitment of time and money – not to mention the difficulty of securing a reservation – required for the tasting.
In March, Peter Gunn did something similar, but with a completely new venue. It’s the sibling of Ides, Gunn’s six-year-old Collingwood restaurant, which is firmly in the fancy category (the classic tasting is $210 a head).
March borrows a huge amount of its DNA from Ides’ muted, exacting standards, but is far more accessible. It’s a cocktail and wine bar at heart, offering snacks and a few dishes that can make up a meal.
Marts has been in the works since 2020 and opened earlier this year for a few weeks as a pop-up, albeit wearing an outfit very different from the sleek look it has today. The low, wide marble bar, slate gray walls and subdued lighting make the tiny Smith Street storefront one of the sexiest spaces around, a perfect place to start your evening with a well-crafted martini ($26).
The drinks selection, overseen by sommelier Hayley McCarthy, is both concise and ambitious. (Indeed, this could be said about almost anything about March.) Cocktails are classics that remind you how nice it is to drink a perfectly stirred Manhattan ($26).
The wines are mostly French, Italian and Australian, with a few German whites thrown in, and many bottles are well under $100. There is also a small selection of sherry and sake. It’s a list for drinks geeks who don’t need to show off.
I’ll probably be back in March most often for one of these cocktails, a glass of some white and French, and a bowl of chili roasted peanuts ($9).
But should I be a little hungrier, I wouldn’t hesitate to re-order the pickled clams with green chilies ($15), served on the shell with a sliver of crispy garlic. It’s in the lovely coating, the carefully considered interplay between vinegar and garlic sweetness, that you begin to appreciate the ambition and detail in Gunn’s cooking.
Vegetable dishes are slightly less successful. A miso-roasted eggplant ($15), crusted with black and white sesame seeds, wasn’t quite smooshy enough with the dreaded Styrofoam consistency in the middle. Mashed potato with garlic ($15) is like a fussy potato salad, and good in the way that a potato salad often is.
I was more enamored with the sweet and sour quail ($28), all lacquered and tangy and perhaps a clever nod to the ubiquity of chicken wings on bar menus; it’s a classic done fancy, and a winner.
If you want a full dinner, you can have a pepper steak ($28), and I suggest you do that with a side of mixed leaves ($10), which are rewardingly bitter and wonderful.
But I’m more likely to be back for snacks and drinks, and would rather spend my meat quota on the beef fillet tartare ($22), which is almost too sesame and kimchi-laden to taste the quality of the fillet, but delicious nonetheless.
Gunn has done something fascinating with March in that this venue, purpose-built for casual use, has been imbued with a sense of specialness; really, the last quality fine dining can still claim.
It could be a gateway drug for diners who want to experience Ides in its full glory. Or it could just be a new way forward, where everything on all levels just gets better.
Vibe: Slim and sexy
Go to court: Green Chili Pickled Mussels ($15)
Beverages: Smart, concise list of cocktails, wine and sake
Cost: About $100 for two, not including drinks
This review was originally published in Good Weekend magazine