Where: Gray and Gray Bread and Wine, 188 High Street Northcote
What: A masterclass in Eastern European food
Who: Resident Photographer, Conflicted Pescatarian, Dunk’im in Donuts, Mister Fantastic, Mid-Gnarly
Bloat score: 1 – Had to loosen my belt a notch
My favourite thing in the world is someone other than me suggesting where we should eat, and better yet, cutting through the bullshit of finding a date that works for everyone and just throwing one out there – which is how Mister Fantastic (who last featured in this 2018 review of Magic Mountain Saloon eep) found the way to my heart. We visited in a group that included Resident Photographer, Conflicted Pescatarian, Dunk’im in Donuts (rebranded from Oxford Brose to account for his perennial love of deep-fried rings of dough) and Mid-Gnarly (more on this moniker below).
Gray and Gray – a restaurant established in 2021 by three-Michelin-star pastry chef Boris Portnoy (of the adjacent All Are Welcome Bakery fame) and winemaker Mitch Sokolin in a space that was formerly a solicitor’s office – made a name for itself throughout Melbourne’s successive lockdowns with their takeaway khachapuri (a boat-shaped Georgian yeast bread stuffed with cheese). Portnoy has drawn on his and Sokolin’s joint Russian-Jewish heritage to craft a menu that borrows influences from Ukraine, Georgia, Russia and Romania, among others.
None of us was familiar with the Eastern European fare that Gray and Gray serves up, so thought it easiest to go for the $75 ‘feed me’ menu, which was customised into a pescatarian menu for Mister Fantastic (Conflicted Pescatarian was conflicted on the night in question and opted for the omnivorous menu). Bear in mind the current menu isn’t the same as it was in November 2021 – it’s a seasonally changing menu at Gray and Gray – but I still hope you find our dining experience instructive and indicative of the high quality of food on offer at Gray and Gray.
For our choice of drop, we asked for a recommendation for a skin contact wine – because we’re insufferable – and were presented with three choices best encapsulated by the sommelier as least gnarly, mid-gnarly and most gnarly. We went for the mid-gnarly and one of us was so tickled by the moniker that we decided to crown him as such.
For our first dish, the omnivores were served whipped salo, mixed pickle, brînză and dried persimmon ($18). Salo is a Ukrainian delicacy of cured slabs of pork fatback with a cult-like status, known by different names in different parts of Eastern Europe. The Slavic word ‘salo’ is often translated into English as ‘bacon’ or ‘lard’ but unlike lard, salo is not rendered and unlike bacon, salo has little or no lean meat. It is more similar to Italian ‘lardo’, the main differences being the thickness of the cut and seasoning. As with many food trends of late, it was a type of peasant food that sustained Ukrainians through famine and colder months, but which has now gained currency in highfalutin establishments. Salo is made when the rind of a pig is cured with salt, fermented in brine or smoked but in Gray and Gray’s case, they went one step further and whipped the salo – a common treatment given to the pork fat delicacy. I found the whipped salo smooth, creamy and velvety – particularly when paired with Gray and Gray’s doorstopper-thick wedges of rye bread and focaccia – but others in the group were confronted by the prospect of whipped pig’s fat. Conflicted Pescatarian, in particular, was regretting not going down the pescatarian path.
Salo is typically sprinkled with copious amounts of black pepper, paprika, garlic or coriander to counter its richness; accompanied by pickles or onions for a fresh side; and washed down with a glass of horilka(Ukrainian vodka). Gray and Gray served their whipped salo alongside pickled sunchoke and dehydrated persimmon, which did the job, but also brînză – a brine-cured, sheep’s milk cheese similar to feta and used extensively in Romanian cuisine. The semi-dry, crumbly, salt-spiked brînză adequately cut through the richness of the whipped salo – apart from being very tasty in and of itself.
I believe the pescatarians received a carrot butter in place of the whipped salo. Mister Fantastic enjoyed his plant-based substitute, detecting notes of maple and brown butter.
The next dish – smoked kielbasa, pickled tripe, pork crackling and kholodetz ($23) – was similarly confronting for our offal-phobic crew (with the exception of me – plz don’t tarnish me with the same brush!). Semi-circles of chargrilled kielbasa – a type of Polish meat sausage that can range from smoked to fresh or be made with pork, beef, turkey, lamb, chicken and veal (I couldn’t actually tell you what it was made from in our case) – were topped with chewy, spongy pickled tripe (what our crew mainly had an aversion to), curls of fatty pork crackling, and cubes of kholodetz (a savoury gelatin made in Ukraine, Russia and Belarus by boiling bones and meat rich in collagen for several hours to produce a thick and fatty broth, which is mixed in with salt, pepper and other spices and solidified into a jelly).
I really enjoyed this – the pickled tripe cut through the richness of the crackling and kholodetz, while the smoky kielbasa added some earthy heft. It was a dish of many textural contrasts.
Mister Fantastic was served instead egg custard topped by asparagus, pickled green garlic, fry bread ($23).
The next dish was unanimously loved – corn mchadi stuffed with sulguni and topped with a fava bean condiment ($18). A type of skillet-fried or baked Georgian cornbread, mchadi hails from Western Georgia where it is eaten in place of bread. As Portnoy tells food writer Sofia Levin, the mchadi he makes is called chvishtari (cornbread stuffed with cheese – in this case, sulguni, a brined Georgian cheese), which makes it more like an arepa. This cheesy Georgian cornbread originates from Svaneti, a picturesque region situated along the southern slopes of the Greater Caucasus mountains.
‘I got invited to a wedding in the mountains in Svaneti. The morning after drinking we walked to this village that’s the highest elevation in Europe,’ says Portnoy. ‘Mchadi is something they sell in snack places, but here they make it with cheese. Usually mchadi is a dry thing you eat with something wet, but this was really moist and quite different.’
This bears out in Gray and Gray’s corn mchadi – almost mash-like in its texture, the sulguni-stuffed mchadi were smooth and creamy, lifted by the piquant umaminess of the fava bean condiment.
The next dish was eye-catching in its aesthetics – bay trout under a ‘fur’ coat: vegetable terrine, mayonnaise, bottarga, shaved white onion ($23). Tri-coloured strips of fleshy and moist beetroot, almost meat-like in their texture, were complemented by thin slivers of bay trout, replete with skin, and as with most of Gray and Gray’s dishes, punctuated by a burst of sharpness through the tendrils of onion. It was wonder of a dish in its synchronicity.
What I was completely ignorant about before researching this piece is that ‘herring under a fur coat’ – or shuba for short – is a famed Russian dish which is also found in Ukraine, Belarus and other former USSR countries. A shuba is a warm winter fur coat that’s been worn in Russia for hundreds of years and the idea with ‘herring under a fur coat’ is that layers of potato, carrots, beets, onions, mayonnaise and grated egg on top of the herring make it look like its covered by a bright purple fur coat (if the top layer are beets) or a white fur coat (if the top layer is mayonnaise). It often looks like a cake and is a staple at Russian New Year celebrations.
According to the Atlas Obscura, shuba had more than one meaning:
‘Herring was a favourite food of the working poor, the beets added a streak of revolutionary red, and the potatoes represented farmers. Russians started calling the dish SHUBA – an acronym for a Russian political slogan condemning chauvinism, which also happened to mean “fur coat”.’
Fascinating. In Gray and Gray’s version, the herring is of course replaced by bay trout and the fur coat is inverted, with the reddish-purple jacket on the bottom instead of the top.
I can’t remember what the next dish was called, except that it featured chunks of carrot and sweet potato cooked in a treacly reduction of vegetables with lots of dill. I found the contrast between the crunchy carrot and the pillowy sweet potato especially pleasing.
Next up was the pork mtsvadi with preserved banana peppers, sour plum tkemali, charred alliums ($31). Pork mtsvadi are grilled meat skewers – Georgia’s answer to Russia and Ukraine’s shashlik – made from well-marbled pork shoulder or pork neck tossed with raw onions and finished with freshly squeezed pomegranate juice. They can be made from either pork, mutton or veal, though pork mtsvadi is the most popular. In their country of origin, the skewers are often grilled over embers of grape vines and traditionally served with tkemali, a sour plum sauce, just as they were at Gray and Gray.
The skewered pork was incredibly tender and bursting with flavour, and shot through with the sweetness of the pomegranate juice and grilled onions as well as the acidity of the aromatic tkemali.
All manner of alliums – shallots, white onions and spring onions – had been charred and sprinkled with sunflower seeds. They were savoury and deeply rich despite their simplicity.
Mister Fantastic was very happy with his plant-based substitute – the pelmeni stuffed with potato and onion, garlic brown butter, white beetroot and horseradish cream ($28). In his words, the pelmeni was ‘off dick’. Even though I was stuffed to the gills with food, I was still envious and may or may not have stolen a little bit for a taste (my memory forsakes me).
We couldn’t visit a sister restaurant to All Are Welcome without sampling their desserts. We decided to share two between the six of us – the sticky chocolate cream, buckwheat and dry-aged baked yoghurt and a Russian honey cake, the latter of which was baked at All Are Welcome. I remember nothing about the first, other than the fact that I enjoyed it immensely, but I remember the honey cake – which I’d never ever had before – being a revelation.
Dry by design but simultaneously buttery and spongy – as Resident Photographer described it – the Russian honey cake was a highlight. It had two main components – layers of cake separated by cream cheese and whipped dulce de leche cream frosting, both of which had burnt honey which lent the cake its slight bitterness. The recipe sounds incredibly involved if you’re keen on recreating it yourself but I’m very content on getting my Russian honey cake fix from All Are Welcome and, by extension, Gray and Gray.
Despite the range of wheat and alliums ingested, my tummy remained A OK at one bloat. I really enjoyed the most thorough introduction I’ve had to Eastern European cuisine – other than at my dear friend White Russian’s house – and can’t wait to visit again and try the new menu.
Gray and Gray Bread and Wine is open Wednesday to Saturday 5pm to 11pm and on Sunday 12pm to 7.30pm.