The Old Crow has been on our wishlist for, well, almost as long as we've had an actual written wishlist of places to try. In spite of being open for little over a year, this Northbridge restaurant has built up an enviable reputation for delicious, crowd-pleasing American-inspired Soul Food, and has been a consistent fixture on Urbanspoon's 'Talk of the Town' list (sitting at #1 at the time of writing). With glowing reviews from friends, other bloggers and professionals alike, Alissa and I were pleased a catch up with our friends Justin and Sarah (who joined us previously for a meal at Pleased To Meet You) served as a good opportunity to see for ourselves if The Old Crow lived up to all the hype.
Located in a renovated house on Newcastle St, the restaurant has a casual and slightly kooky antique shop vibe, with a stained glass liquor cabinet above the roof tile-lined bar, various kitschy ornaments and high back wooden chairs tucked into stylish wooden tables that look straight out of an old homestead in a frontier town.
Our table in the corner was right near a fireplace that housed a speaker playing a killer soundtrack of old school Americana - classic soul, rockabilly and other styles that skewed towards the old timey. Volume levels were right on the money - loud enough to give the venue vibe, but not so loud as to kill conversation.
While deliberating the dishes to order, we decided to go for a jug of their Ginger Snaps cocktail to share. Consisting of Bourbon, apple schnapps, Absolut Lemon, King’s Ginger liqueur, fresh lemon juice, fresh grated ginger, fresh mint, and topped with lemonade and sparkling water, this tasted like a really delicious ginger beer with a pleasing bourbon kick for good measure. Along with many excellent cocktails to choose from, the wine list was no slouch either. The small list was focused and well considered, and we were able to enjoy The Alchemist's Merlot (one of the finest Merlots produced in Australia) with our meal by the glass. Those not deterred by merlot's uncoolness post-Sideways should savour this stunning wine at The Old Crow while they can.
After placing our order, a plate of bread was brought out. An obligatory extra in fine dining establishments but not always provided in casual diners, The Old Crow's bread was of a surprisingly high standard, with a nice crusty exterior while being pillowy soft in the middle. The butter served with the bread also really impressed, with what tasted like fennel seed mixed in to provide the dish was a pleasing aniseed flavour.
While the dishes could certainly be enjoyed in a three course Entree-Main-Dessert format, the hearty, casual quality of the food makes the menu very conducive to a share plate dining format. Our waiter advised two small plates and four large ones would be about right for the four of us, with the small plates served together as an entree course. We started with the Golden Fried Squid, Porky Black Beans, Lemon Aioli. The squid was perfectly cooked, with the cornmeal crumb having a nice gritty texture to contrast the soft, tenderness of the squid encased within. Black beans are fairly umami as it is, so mixing it with pork (itself a good friend of seafood) only served to heighten its savoury quality. We all agreed the seasoning was a little salty for our palates, but still within the range of acceptable saltiness.
Even better were the Lamb Sweetbreads, Quince and Ginger Jam. Justin was fairly unfamiliar with sweetbreads and was amazed by the deliciousness of this offal cut (or cuts, as there appeared to be both neck and heart sweetbreads). The classic contrast of crispy exterior against the soft chewy nuttiness of sweetbread was executed perfectly, with the quince and ginger chutney providing both sweetness and heat. The Chipotle sauce drizzled on top imparted a smoky creaminess, and the long tendrils of slaw draped over the sweetbreads gave the dish some fresh crunch. Being a firm believer in head to tail eating, I'm always glad to eat dishes that show just how delicious offal cuts can be, and this dish was most definitely a case in point.
After a short break, our four mains arrived which we decided to enjoy in courses to focus on the individual flavours of each dish. First up were the Pepper Glazed Beef Short Ribs, Spicy Roast Onion. This would be the fourth time Alissa and I ate ribs in a 10 day period, and the Old Crow's version was good enough to give our favourite ribs at Varnish on King a run for its money. Although we expected as much, we all marvelled as the meat literally fell of the bone as I tilted it vertically. This characteristic was similar to the ribs at Varnish, but from there on it was definitely its own thing. While the refined style of Varnish's Short Ribs gets its flavour from Jack Daniels reduced to a treacle, the deep smokiness of the Old Crow's Ribs and the variations on an onion theme (roasted onions, fresh spring onions and crispy fried shallots) gave it a gutsiness that was very appealing. This was an exceptional dish in its own way, and would stand out as a personal highlight.
With the ribs a hard act to follow, the Half Smoked Duck, Butter Beans, Apple & Chipotle Chutney didn't quite reach the same heady heights of its predecessor. Again, there was a really obvious smoky flavour, however where the rib meat was juicy and falling apart, the duck had lost some of its juiciness in the hot smoking process; it was still tender and flavoursome, but I wondered if perhaps cooking at a lower temperature might have resulted in a juicier final product. On the other hand, Sarah and I felt that the skin could have done with a higher temperature cook for a crispier exterior - a tough balancing act of lower overall cook and a finish at a higher heat, I know, but one that is definitely achievable. Mind you, this wasn't exactly a bad dish, its was just that of the four this felt like the least realised.
On the other hand, the Winter Barigoule, Slow Egg, Ricotta & Truffle Beignets dish that followed was quite possibly the best realised of the four, as all the elements on the plate integrated perfectly. The Barigoule sauce was rich, intensely flavoursome and creamy, and the slow cooked egg (presumably sous-vide) had a lovely, custard-like consistency that almost melded with the fluffiness of the ricotta. It was so good, that Alissa pointed out that we should have saved the bread to sop up the sauce and egg in this dish. The carrots and the fresh thinly sliced radish were nicely done and the artichokes were fine considering they would have been currently out of season, however as crispy and tasty as the Beignets were I definitely felt there could have been a lot more truffle flavour in the dish to drive the flavour home. Still, if you forget the word 'truffle' was mentioned, this was as an impressive dish; too often vegetarian dishes end up just being a concession to dietary requirements rather than serious engaging with how tasty a dish can be without meat. This was not a concession at all, and was a perfect dish for winter.
Saved for last, the BBQ Pork, Crispy Belly, Kale, Black Eyed Beans proved to be a satisfying end to the meal (or the savoury component at least) . We began by sampling the slow cooked BBQ pork, which had a marvelous fall part texture, and was positively dripping in juices and the thin salty gravy while exhibiting the restaurant's characteristic love of smokiness and spice. The crumb of the pork belly on top was at once crispy and melt in your mouth delicious, and had Justin declaring 'this is what belly's been missing all along - some crumb!'. Even though Butter Beans seemed to have been substituted in instead of the listed Black Eyed Beans, the vegetable accompaniment was liked by everyone - except Justin who said he only had eyes for the pork, and would have been more than fine with this plonked onto a wooden board. This was a great, hearty dish, with my only criticism being that it was again on the saltier side of the acceptable saltiness spectrum.
After taking a breather, we moved onto desserts. A clever twist on a pumpkin pie, the Baked Pumpkin Custard, Spiced Nut Biscuit, Cinnamon Ice Cream was my favourite of the two we ordered. The pumpkin custard was sweet and with a lovely thick consistency. It wasn't Sarah's cup of tea, but as someone who really enjoys pumpkin in dessert form (such as the incredible Pumpkin, White Chocolate, Cashel Blue & Cheddar dessert at Red Cabbage, and the newly opened St. Michael's), I relished every bite. The biscuit that sat on top gifted the dish with a lovely crunchiness and spice, and was of the perfect thickness to break through with a spoon, while the cinnamon ice cream brought it all together with cold creaminess for an à la mode Pumpkin Pie experience. Always the cinnamon fiend, Alissa wanted even more cinnamon flavour, and that would be my only criticism of an otherwise excellent dessert.
The Verdict: Excellent +
I must admit that I was a little skeptical of The Old Crow; the trendiness of Dude Food sometimes has me wondering whether popularity is based on fashion or actual quality, as not all Dude Food restaurants are created equal. It was a relief then to find that The Old Crow was the real deal, and the quality and culinary skill on display suggests its a strong enough performer to stand on its own feet once the trend crests. It certainly surpassed my expectations, and at times all of us were floored by how excellent the food was. I'd go as far as to compare it very favourably to Varnish on King, and as a repeat customer of the King St favourite that is high praise indeed. Service was attentive and informative, and while the meal was not exactly cheap, with portion sizes larger than the average you're certainly getting your money's worth for the price. Definitely worthy of repeat visits.