19 December, 2008

Meet you by the stuffed giraffe; Carlton Hotel and Cookie

Carlton Hotel: 193 Bourke St, Melbourne; 03 9663 3216
Cookie: 1st Floor, Curtin House, 252 Swanston St, Melbourne; 03 9663 7660

If you're after eating venues in the city that deliver flare with a capital 'wow', the Carlton Hotel on Bourke St and Cookie on Swanston St are two of your best bets.

Back in the day, the Carlton was a seedy drinking hole (Sydneysiders, think Century Tavern, but scarier; Novocastrians, think anywhere in Newcastle West!). As a backpacker years ago, I once booked a room there and when we arrived at about 8am, mid-week, straight off the overnight train from Sydney, there was already an old bloke at the bar downing pots. The Century Tavern's fate was to become hip and the antithesis of a sticky-carpet bar; the Carlton got a completely different makeover, turning it into a bordello (in a classy way) of sprayed-on velvet, gaudy pillars and taxidermy. That's right, taxidermy. An ostrich greets you at the door, a giraffe minds the step to the balcony and a rhino points the way to the facilities.

If money's tight, the Carlton is a good place to head on a Monday or Tuesday night. On Monday the whole dining room menu is half price; Tuesday is schnitzel night (three variations, each $12). Just as the decor is not your average style for the Bourke St precinct, these are not standard pub schnitzels. There are three options: chicken with sweet potato and a cos and dill salad; veal with chips (crinkle cut, no less) and beetroot salad; and eggplant and haloumi with tomato jam and asparagus (below). Who needs meat?
The everyday menu is divided into Bar Snacks and Dining Room. Some of the same main ingredients feature on both in different sizes and/or interpretations.

An ideal accompaniment to a citrusy beer is a plate of four chickpea and capsicum patties with lemon bean salad and harissa yoghurt. The small patties are moist and satisfyingly dense. The yoghurt carries only a whiff of harissa, while unfortunately the beans got more than their necessary share of oil, which left quite a residue on the plate.

A cool salad of braised calamari comes with a dizzy combination of artichoke hearts, fennel and watercress. Perfect while you sup a glass of crisp white (and just $7 on a Monday).

Similarly refreshing - and visually stunning - is Cookie's salmon, prawn and pomelo salad with ginger and lemongrass. (What's a pomelo? Glad you asked - it's a large citrus fruit, also known as Chinese grapefruit, though it is sweeter than a generic grapefruit. Pomelos also make up the second half of the cross-breed tangelos, with tangerines contributing the 'tang'.)

Cookie spruiks itself as no less than disco, eating house and beer hall. There's certainly plenty of German/Austrian decoration around the bar, always a bit of a mindtrip when you sit down to their mainly Thai menu in the restaurant (as are the odd Mediterranean touches therein, such as bruschetta and penne). There are juliet balconies for those lucky enough to get there early on a warm night, and in the bar, gorgeous fabric squares adorn the tables (ditto the crockery - see below). To call the drinks list 'long' is as redundant as mentioning that Curtin House is kinda cool - wines by the glass, wines by the bottle, cocktails and beers all run to several pages each.

Their green curry is a fine example of chef Karen Batson's self-taught flair for Asian food. It's listed on the menu as coming with taro and mushroom dumplings, which seemed a bit back to front. Enoki mushrooms swam through the smooth, warm coconut broth, while felafel-like taro dumplings bobbed to the surface.

On our visit, the service was a little back to front as well. The dishes arrived quicker than one would like when not ordering from a buffet, whereas the second part of 'rice for two' arrived after we'd both finished our curries (and was left, or rather dumped, on the table regardless). Our wines, however, arrived care of a waiter enthusiastic about our choices. The two approaches sum up both venues: cool, but always exciting.


  1. Good on you for this frank review and with such humorous historical perspective on the pubs:P I walk past this place about three times a week... maybe I should step inside.

  2. Though the Carlton and Cookie are in two very different leagues don't you reckon? I mean Cookie's drinks menu(s) come in three, phone directory sized tomes - one each for wine, beer and cocktails. The food is an absolute standout.

    Though the Carlton has a couple of things going for it by comparison - you can almost always get a table (none the Cookie game playing we-can-only-squeeze-you-in-for-an-hour-at-5.30-or-9.30), there is a very interesting art gallery upstairs and they have hot chips. And of course there is always the taxidermy :)

  3. Duncan: go for the taxidermy, stay for the beer! You don't get to say that about many places :)

    AOF: Very pertinent points about the differences between the two places. I'd nominate Cookie as the more high-brow of the two (with the crowd squeeze to go with it!) but I'd take the same kind of crowd to either. Though, with those telephone books behind the counter, you would want to go to Cookie with people who are looking for more than just lager and sauv blanc!

  4. I have noticed that Cookie's food has been going a bit downhill lately, a little off balance or overcooked the last few times I have been.

    Perhaps they are picking their game back up?

  5. I ate at Cookie on Sat 27th Dec and The Carlton on the 19th Dec. There's a coincidence for you.

    The Carlton is definitely 'pub grub' with a flair, and the wine is a bargain. Cookie was pretty good for a city basically bereft of decent Thai food. The Mussels were large but with a lovely flavour and cooked to perfection. We drank the coconut/chilli/lemongrass and ginger flavoured liquor, not wanting to waste any of it. Chicken and Banana flower was pretty good as well, though the Banana flower was disconcertingly brown.

    I did drop my jaw at $16.50 for a Pimms Number One Cup. Bit rich if you ask me.

    It's been a while since I ate at Cookie, but it hit the spot the other day, the wine service was grand, the beer and Pimms took forever.

  6. Hey SJ - that is a coincidence! You're so right about the dearth of good Thai food in Melbourne, and Cookie does go some way to addressing that (when you can get in - I bet it was rammed the night you were there!)

    Good to hear their food hit the spot for you - and I hope the Pimms was refreshing enough to make up for the price :)