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“There’s a couple of specials on this evening as well,” explained Pelican’s Kiwi waiter, before launching into lengthy and detailed descriptions.

One was a salad containing quince, roquefort cheese, walnuts and leaves, the second a rather fancy fish platter featuring lightly battered oysters with a rich aioli, scallops and a couple of slices of sashimi topped with roe. Both sounded the equal or better of the dishes on the menu – and would compliment Fran’s favourite Pelican dish: the Moreton Bay bugs with hot chilli and garlic oil dressing.

Soon afterwards, the Kiwi returned to take our order.

“We’ll have the Fisherman’s Basket,” said our companion.

Everyone stopped. The waiter looked at him in mock horror.

“Did you just ask for ‘the Fisherman’s Basket’?,” he asked incredulous, as the table conjured images of rubbery, deep-fried, heavily battered and breadcrumbed, unidentifiable fish pieces on a mound of chips.

“Er…” replied the companion, chuckling with embarrassment. “I ust heard ‘cheese’ and ‘fish’ liked the sound of both.”

As he cleared away the last of our plates (by this stage emptied of meatballs, saganaki, bugs, quince, oysters, baba ganoush and the rest, all of which went down a treat), the waiter was still shaking his head.

“Fisherman’s Basket indeed.”

Still, by this time three bottles of wine had been polished off (the Sauvignon Blanc proving superior to the Reisling, much to Bruce’s surprise) so Mr Pub Grub enjoyed the ribbing. What’s more, he and his partner were extremely grateful to have been introduced to the Pelican, in Fitzroy Street, something of a St Kilda institution with its scattergun approach to tapas, wide selection of wines and great location close to the promenade – one of the few places Bruce and Fran miss since moving north (Banff pizzas, Mart 130 and the Taphouse pub in Carlisle Street the other major notables). And, come 2.45am, he wasn’t the one dropping his trousers on the Big Mouth dancefloor like a grinning 16-year-old leaving Fran to explain to the very friendly, but thoroughly bemused bouncer that, yes, unfortunately this man was indeed her husband.

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There’s very little not to like about Eastern European food if you like meat and cabbage. It was with great delight that a far younger Bruce toured the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and more recently Slovenia and Croatia to discover that whatever their particular take on national cuisine it usually involves large amounts of meat.

Highlights included the wonderful goulash and bread dumplings washed down with a pint of Pilsner for a mere ₤1.50 enjoyed in various back alley restaurants in Prague surrounded by hearty, bearded men and heftier women. Then there was Fatal’s in Budapest. Admittedly, there was nary a restaurant in Hungary that didn’t overload your plate with meat – one platter Bruce ordered consisted of three different meats in slab form topped off with a thick garnish of roasted fat (the chest tightens just thinking of it a decade on) – but Fatal’s wasn’t for the faint-hearted. Even the French Onion soup, supposedly a starter, was an assault course of a dish, while pig’s lung made the menu too.

Budapest breakfast

Preparing a Budapest breakfast (the vegies are plastic and only for show)

On slightly shakier ground when it comes to fond memories was a farmer’s feast in Ljubljana on honeymoon. The restaurant leapt off the Lonely Planet Guide to Eastern Europe’s pages with its promise of traditional Slovenian country fare. Fran was reluctant but, as the city treated them to a downpour of biblical proportions while they walked past its front door, agreed to venture within. To this day she maintains there was horsemeat on the large silver platter, one of many barely recognisable meat-based products floating in a sea of vinegary, cabbage-strewn fat. Whatever the origins, her fright meant more food for Bruce.

So, nearly three years on from those blissful early days of marriage (in time terms only, of course, every day with Fran is bliss from start to finish) it was with great excitement and foaming at the mouth that they spotted Koliba, a Czech and Slovak restaurant opening in Johnston Street, on the Collingwood side of the Smith Street junction.

7pm on a Wednesday night and every seat was taken; folks were turned away. Criminy* – word (or curiousity) must have got around. It was simple enough inside: brick walls; wooden furniture; dolls on the wine rack – and the bottles of Pilsner Urquell (the world’s first pilsner) were a reminder to Bruce that he really should hunt it down more often.

As for describing themselves as a Czech and Slovak restaurant, they pass the Ronseal test. The food was nothing if not traditional; you could as well be in a barn in Bohemia as in Melbourne’s bohemian heartland. The marinated sausages UTOPENCI consisted of a cold, pickled sausage whose insides would have been bursting to get out had it not been sliced from one end to t’other and filled with a strip of red capsicum. The pickle had a hint of chili and a side of onions and garlic. The second starter, potato pancake BRAMBORAK with sweet and sour cabbage (had to get a cabbage fix somehow), was a thin rosti smothered in a tangy layer of gooey cabbage.

But really, it was all about the goulash. Two dishes of tender beef in a thick gravy and four doorstep slabs of bread dumplings presented quite a challenge, the sauce incredibly rich and the dumplings as bouncy, stodgy and filling as they had been down those Prague back alleys. Bruce soldiered on, ignoring the cries for mercy from his stomach, Fran had to leave two-thirds of the dumplings.

Fine dining it ain’t, but then it doesn’t claim to be. In Bruce’s albeit limited experience of Eastern European cuisine, this was as authentic as it gets. Next time, however, they’ll fast for 48 hours beforehand to leave room for more dumplings.

* A nod to Paul Wilson, of the Observer newspaper’s sports team, the worst of a particularly bad stable of sports writers who unfortunately work for the British paper with the best website. Well done, Paul, I did indeed have to Google the word to make sure it wasn’t a printing error.

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“Don’t drink too much. I’ve got you tickets for tomorrow” said the text.

Too late. It was already 10.30pm and The Drones were mere yards away, several pints of Goat Hightail had been quaffed (at $10 a pop – Jesus, Corner, what are you trying to be? Riverland?) and a week long booze drought was being broken.

(With hindsight, it would have been sensible not to crack into Jaegermeister chasers once a Kev Carmody cover had closed their set in style, at which point Bruce concluded that his initial impressions of Gareth Liddiard’s mob at Falls, namely “What the fuck is that noise?”, was a little hasty, although in his defence it was early afternoon and the poor lad had fully extended himself the previous night…)

Still, cruising through the Anzac Day game the following afternoon while still drunk from the night before with assistance from the odd glass of wine is one thing (no more shall Carlton Draught be purchased unless under pain of death – and then only maybe). Heading for an evening of fine dining while the last remnants of said booze are threatening to wear off is another.

Who'd have thought these guys would taste so good?

They made it – and were given pride of place at the front of Provenance for the new(ish) restaurant’s second tasting evening, this time based around quince and quail. Thankfully, the quince cocktail (a fruity little martini number) was first up… and several of their fellow guests were equally under the weather in a bout of unwitting, yet welcome, empathy.

So: Provenance. Run by a young whippersnapper of a boy. Aiming to bring exquisite but simple food to Smith Street for little money. Even offering champagne breakfasts in a spot wedged between 7 Eleven and the Australian Cleanskin Group and in easy shouting distance of the Collingwood soup kitchen. Ambitious, no?

Anyway, without wishing to come over all Jabba the Hutt and pretending to genuinely know something about food, here’s what ensued:

  • a minestrone-type soup with a quail and chicken stock and added kidney beans that acted as much as a welcome cleanser as anything for Bruce (i.e. it wasn’t wine, meat pie or chips with chicken salt a la MCG);
  • a nicoise salad featuring seared quail legs and a couple of delicious quail eggs (delicious, apparently, cos they’re fatty as hell. Shame they’re not bigger – like a savoury Cadbury’s Creme Egg but tiny);
  • two seared quail breasts on a bed consisting of such wonders as celeriac, roast beetroot, pumpkin, some form of quince – and stuff (the waitress’ description not mine – and this is not a complaint: charming honesty works every time in Bruce and Fran’s neck of the woods. Also, please refer to the opening line of this paragraph);
  • an Eton Mess (the gift from God that is panna cotta topped with a layer of quince jelly and a mountain of the sweetest cream and meringue laced with roast rhubarb);
  • and a cheese platter featuring Gorgonzola – no wonder Wallace used to get all steamed up about it – and a millefeuille of quince paste and young Spanish manchego that deserves to feature on every cheese platter from now until Pompeii Am Gotterdammerung plays out at the Restaurant At The End Of The Universe.

It was marvellous (and only $75 a head including a glass of wine with each course). Bruce might have added a little something to the quail in either the salad or main course stages to differentiate between the two but then again the philosophy at Provenance is all about simple pleasures so what does he know. The matched wines also proved a good way of staving off the hovering hangover clouds, ensuring that they only kicked in once the crew had decamped to Dirty Little Secrets and fallen asleep.

Sadly, when he checked the papers the following day, Collingwood had still lost the Anzac Day game in the final few seconds and his guernsey (courtesy of a birthday gift from Fran who must have some hidden agenda to turn her husband into a full-on bogan) remained winless for another week. But, thankfully, the memory of the millefeuille kept the hangman’s noose at bay.

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While Fran’s appendix was rupturing in Sydney to an accompaniment of oysters, scallops, mussels, wine, beer and vodka, Bruce was enjoying a first taste of St Kilda institution Claypots.

That he was throwing down $5 glasses of cabernet sauvignon and wittering away to a cast of misfits rather than rushing to be by his stricken wife’s side was a situation entirely of Fran’s own making. After all, if you’re in terrible pain, don’t attempt to convey the message by quoting lines from popular music. Send texts saying: “I’m in excruciating agony and think I may die” rather than:

“I’ve got a bowling ball in my stomach”

because as anyone who is familiar with Tori Amos’ debut album and career highpoint Little Earthquakes will know, that’s a line from Crucify and therefore could never expect a response other than:

“I’ve got a desert in my mouth”

which, funnily enough, Bruce awoke to when learning the following morning of Fran’s panicked dash to hospital…

Still, back in Claypots and aided by the wine (and a glass of the lovely German pilsner on offer), Bruce was delighted to have found somewhere in the Acland Street area with genuine charm.

The rough hewn wooden bar with animatronic cat and dangling rubber man, French music, greasy spiced nuts, promise of $5 seafood paella and Sunday swap shops (with oysters) transported him somewhere far away – a nebulous place somewhere near the Mediterranean, perhaps.

Something very fishy

Fran would love the outdoor area with its stone fountain bath and fairy lights; Bruce enjoyed it for its inhabitants: in particular an elderly chap called Tony in feathered hat and scarf who would later be seen losing at chess to a young dandy in a three-piece tweed suit who turned out to be a playwright with a dark comedy starting at the Trades Hall in the coming weeks. Geoffrey would even pop up there on a later visit to continue an earlier conversation from Cacao.

Certainly, there was more than enough of interest for Bruce to resist his companion’s increasingly pained pleas to head to the dour horrors of the Doulton Bar across the road. And that was before the pianist-in-suit turned up to croon (admittedly somewhat atonally) on the piano for an hour or so.

Subsequent visits to the adjoining fish restaurant (the bar is a fairly recent addition) have produced some of the finest meals Bruce and Fran have enjoyed since moving to Australia. The Cajun flathead is the tastiest bit of fish the former can recall in recent memory, while the latter’s friends fell wholeheartedly for the whopping $120 Red Emperor they destroyed some weeks later, their happy memory of the night enriched by the female Eastern European accordion and fiddle duo who chased them from the bar and down Barkly Street afterwards.

There appears to be a sister venture – Gilgamesh, in Gertrude Street – that will hopefully atone for the fact they can no longer walk to Claypots in ten minutes since relocating to the north. And, fingers crossed, this venue will attract rather less of the peroxide blonde, Botox-ed to the hilt old-enough-to-know-betters and their smarmy other halves than the St Kilda establishment.

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