When it comes to seasonal ingredients, it stands to reason that springtime—known for fresh blooms and new growth thanks to bountiful rain marrying with renewed sunshine—has an abundance of vibrant young produce. It’s the time of year where farmers markets start to look a little more colourfully chaotic, and enthusiastic cooks ooh and ahh over the intense magentas of rhubarb and beetroot, or the crisp green artichoke and leek that will inspire the move away from heavy stews and winter hot pots, and signal the start of fresh, crisp salads and snappy raw produce.
GRAM had a chat to Mike Baker and Daniel Mason from Henry Sugar (an inventive bar and restaurant in Carlton North) about what the changing of the gardens means for the menu. The progressive wine bar serves finely designed and thoughtfully composed food in a rustic sharing style. Although meat is on the menu, many of the dishes feature vegetarian versions of typically meaty recipes, such as a lentil parfait that mimics one made from livers. Chef and part owner, Mike Baker has worked as a chef in New Zealand and Spain, bringing an interesting blend of European and local experience to the table, whereas front of house manager and part owner Daniel Mason pilots an extensive knowledge of hospitality in Melbourne, and a commitment to supporting small producers.
They tell the story that they met playing croquet in the south of France, which is a statement that’s probably almost as enjoyable to say as to experience. “We both have different strengths”, Mike Baker tells us. “I’m more like; we gotta get all of this shit done today, and Dan will be thinking about it a bit more. We usually end up with something both finished but considered.”
With a regularly updating menu, each week at least one or two items change. “We dedicate a lot of attention to our ‘Henry Sugar Menu’,” Baker says, referring to the six course tasting. They focus on making the best of current produce or developing flavours by tweaking dishes, and are also set on ensuring that guests won’t have repeat dinners when returning to experience the tasting menu again. “That said, we have a couple of, I suppose, signature dishes that won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.” Says Baker. (Please let it be the lentil parfait, says us!)
While the food takes pride of place at Henry Sugar, the cocktails are enticing in their own right, providing delicate and singularly creative sips to savour. Try the House Spritz, which includes fermented orange, Okar, oleo saccharum and in place of a typical garnish; a morsel of creamy olive ice cream encased in white chocolate. It’s all delicious, but we’ll take ten more ‘olives’, thanks. Spring is set to bring some new drinks to the bar, such as a Daisy, Julep and Cobbler, which are all great to add a twist to Baker tells us. “We try and only use liqueurs made in house from fresh ingredients, so are looking forward to having a bit more to play with.” The team also vowed to avoid as many mainstream alcohol brands as possible, resulting in house made fermentation to develop carbonation, and creating original sodas. The liqueurs are developed by utilising in-season fruits, and relying on what’s available (which sometimes means stocking up).
With such singular tastes and creations, what comes first; the food or the beverages? “It goes both ways” Daniel Mason tells us. “Sometimes Mikey will come up with a really stunning dish first, sometimes I’ll create a really banging drink first, and each of us works with the other to create its pair. It helps bring out our creativity and give each other new ideas.”
The stereotypical vision of spring is something the Henry Sugar team aren’t particularly fond of, likening the terms “pollen, hay fever and flowers”—the latter which they avoid—to the season. They heartily avoid using superfluous blossoms and micro herbs, but will instead focus on light, delicate flavours that are; “fresh, peppery and slightly tart.” But we’re pretty excited about the fact they promise to cook with feijoas if they can find a good source (we think that’s your Kiwi showing through Mike).
The following recipe for an Elderflower Baba with toasted fennel seed ice cream, blueberries and macadamia is supplied by Mike Baker and Daniel Mason from Henry Sugar. Give it a shot at home with this season’s new produce, or potentially pay a visit to Carlton North and see how the restaurant makes it, although Baker doesn’t promise this exact version will be on the menu “This was a dish that we developed using produce that was great and available last spring. The baba was a popular format and will make a re-appearance with a variety of produce that is particularly good at the time.”