Vex, Northcote

Where: Vex, 66-68 High Street Northcote 

What: The safest way to sample the manifold fare of Europe in these times

Who: Resident Photographer, Conflicted Pescatarian, Indo Food Bud

Bloat score: 0 – Living the dream 

Indo Food Bud celebrated her birthday a few weeks ago, and couldn’t decide between Northcote newcomers Vex or Oh Loretta! for dinner, so we went to both. The initial plan was to have dinner at Vex and dessert and drinks at Oh Loretta! but it turned out to be dinner at both – I love a good dual dinner arrangement, so there were no complaints from me. This week’s review is of dinner 1 at Vex. 

Vex has some pedigree behind it, with its co-owners a combination of chefs from Neighbourhood Wine, Little Andorra, Bar Romantica and Marion. The European-inspired menu reflects this, with simplistic menu descriptions belying sophisticated, multi-layered dishes. Vex opened on 13 November 2020 in the aftermath of a particularly tough year for the Australian hospitality sector, not that you could tell from the healthy smattering of people spread across its light-draped interiors and fairy light-decked courtyard. 

We started off with a cocktail each after I’d decided to forego my dry January for a dry fortnight. I ordered the Smoky Paloma ($14) with mezcal, grapefruit and soda but was equally tempted by the Hendricks Gin with house coriander ($12) and the Americano ($14). It was a triumphant return to the world of drinking. 

Vex’s menu required a bit of googling to decipher words like chioggia, panisse and stockbrot but once we’d deciphered that panisse and stockbrot were stand-ins for carbs, we decided we absolutely had to get them.

But first, we each started with a Sydney Rock Oyster with pickled cucumber ($5 each), which was incredibly fresh with a pleasant tang from the soused accompaniment. 

Indo Food Bud and I both ordered a chilled mussel, green olive and sumac ($4 each).

The interplay of textures between the tender, slightly chewy mussel and the firm green olive, and the combination of the mussel’s saltiness and the sumac’s piquancy, made for a delicious entrée. I would eat anything with sumac on it.

Chioggia turned out to be a red and white striped beet named after the pretty Venetian coastal village, and Resident Photographer was enamoured enough by this description to order the chioggia and walnut cracker ($4). He loved the smoky hummus-like dip nestled between the chioggia and cracker. 

Panisse (pronounced pah-neess) is a creamy, crisp chickpea chip from Marseilles. Made from chickpea flour, water and a healthy lump of butter, it’s fried to order and traditionally eaten as a street food snack. It’s typically dusted with coarse salt and cracked black pepper, and enjoyed alongside a cool wine – preferably a rosé, which we inadvertently adhered to by ordering a bottle earlier. This interesting explainer I read on panisse elaborated further on its origins:

“Long cultivated and cooked in the Mediterranean region, chickpeas are easy to grow and store, and inexpensive to boot. According to Gérald Passédat, the three-Michelin-star chef and owner of Le Petit Nice in Marseille, chickpea flour – and the recipes made with it – came to the south of France via Italy’s Liguria region. While you can find panisse all over the south, its home is in the port city of Marseille. Socca – another chickpea flour-based snack – reigns in Nice, two hours by car east of Marseille.”

I was expecting something akin to a sturdy yet fluffy polenta chip, but Vex’s panisses ($12) were a revelation. They were surprisingly paper thin and the exteriors tasted like pastry, so buttery they were. The insides were creamy and decadent, punctuated by grated pecorino and generous cracks of black pepper, reminiscent of what Gemima Cody described as a “cacio e pepe situation”. Unlike panisses in Marseille which are typically long rectangular sticks, these were small squares with ribbed edges. I could’ve eaten a whole plate of these. 

Stockbrot is a type of German bread in which the dough has been rolled into a long sausage shape, twisted over the end of a stick, and baked over an open fire. Vex’s stockbrot ($5) was threaded onto a skewer, dusted with sesame seeds and grilled; one portion was only suitable for two people, so we ordered two serves. Still warm from the oven and accompanied by a rich dollop of creme fraiche with onion oil, the stockbrot was a hearty and moreish dish. 

Next up was the cauliflower, buckwheat and burnt onions ($19) where thin shavings of cauliflower blanketed a savoury bed of large chargrilled crescents of onion and a sprinkling of buckwheat. I rarely eat onions because I’m perennially unsure if they’re high in histamines, but very much enjoyed the sweetness they brought to this dish. 

Resident Photographer particularly enjoyed the next dish – zucchini, sunflower seed and black lime ($15). I have a strong spider sense for anything with a whiff of aniseed – meaning anything with large amounts of star anise, fennel and liquorice are not my cup of tea – and this had sprigs of anise-reminiscent tarragon, which unfortunately dulled my enjoyment of it. This is purely a personal preference, however, and everyone else enjoyed the faint whiff of aniseed. The dried black lime added a welcome bitterness, and the spiced red pepper oil drizzled over this dish was enough to make Conflicted Pescatarian sweat. 

Last but not least was my favourite dish of the night – the kingfish, chickpea and brown butter ($28). The overwhelming favourite profile of this was smokiness; the rich sweetness of the kingfish morsels was accentuated by the buttery emulsion they sat in, the spiced chickpeas peppered throughout, and the crisp sorrel garnish. It was a simple yet flavour-packed dish. 

Because we knew by then that we’d be adjourning to Oh Loretta! for our second dinner, we refrained from having dessert, though we were sorely tempted by the millefeuille, coconut, lemon and rhubarb in particular. 

Perhaps because we did skip dessert on this one occasion, I ended the first portion of our night with zero bloats. It should’ve been a sign to stop, but when have I ever been a fan of moderation? 

With only one meat dish on the menu (a glazed pork cheek), Vex’s menu is perfect for pescatarians (conflicted or otherwise) and vegetarians. Simple, clean flavours are elevated, showcasing the quality of the fresh produce and seafood on offer. Resident Photographer especially enjoyed how unassuming the dishes looked when they were wheeled out, only to upend our taste buds in new and surprising ways, and I couldn’t have agreed more. 

Vex is open from Wednesday to Friday from 5pm to 11pm, on Saturday from 12pm to 11pm and on Sunday from 12pm to 5pm. 

Author: Sonia Nair

Sonia Nair is a Melbourne-based food writer who persists with her love of everything deep fried and spicy, despite being diagnosed with a histamine intolerance and lactose intolerance after incorrectly thinking she was fructose-intolerant for several years.

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