Michael's graduation last week involved a lot of compromises, not least in choosing a post-ceremony dinner venue. After enjoying their catering at a mushrooming event this year, Michael ultimately reserved a table at The Commoner.
The Commoner prides itself on seasonal, straight-from-the-source food. At first glance the menu doesn't look veg-friendly, boasting of black pudding, ocean trout, cured meats and heritage pork. But there are a number of meat-free dishes tucked among them, and we hear good reports of their vegetarian and vegan versions of the $65-75 surprise 'Feed Me' menu. The words 'gluten-free' don't appear anywhere but the odds are good given the unprocessed foods and knowledgeable staff at hand.
Non-coeliacs all, we started out with soft, warm bread and salt-sprinkled butter.
Michael and I continued with an equally soft and salty but extra crusty leek and manchego croquette each ($4/piece).
Richard's fried and salted surprise peppers ($8) thankfully didn't ambush us with an anchovy stuffing as I feared; instead they're a lucky dip of mild and burning.
The chickpea panisse ($12) was a pair of soft, polenta-like squares countered with chewy, tangy wood smoked heirloom tomatoes and a dab of harissa.
A salad of broccolini, brown rice, almond and tahini ($9) was mercifully fry-free, though the tahini was less striking and the rice more crunchy than I might have preferred.
The sole vegetarian main was the ubiquitous gnocchi ($27). Instead of potato, these cakey dumplings were formed from ricotta and peas and seared on the side. Bittersweet nettles were a hardier accompaniment than the usual cream sauce or scattered sage.
Michael, his thesis supervisor and I finished up with a beignet each ($4/piece). Their hot airy insides reminded me more of choux pastry than a typical doughnut, though the sugar-dusted exterior was pure Dunkin' Donuts. I would have gladly skipped the sugar (which promised but didn't deliver lavender notes) and just focused on the sourer rhubarb and cream.
The Commoner has a cosy look and comfy food, though sadly it's too loud and echo-y for a really intimate meal. Our group of seven bellowed it out well enough against two neighbouring parties. (Could the function rooms upstairs be a little more sedate?) The staff were just attentive enough, and very warm. The gnocchi cost seemed a little inflated, but paying $36 each for the entire meal felt reasonable. This was really lovely food made with care but not fuss.
We had breakfast at The Commoner back in 2008. Last year their 'Feed Me' menu received a rave review on Vegan.
The restaurant has received overwhelmingly positive reviews on omnivorous blogs, see doublecooked, Minutes of the Posh Dinner Society (twice), TOT: HOT OR NOT, Where Adles Eats, Dining Nirvana, The Meatologist, whereiatelastnight, 15,000kms of Food!, foodie about town, Melbourne Food Files, "... it pleases us", Northside Food Blogger, MSG: The Melbourne Social Guide, half-eaten, slicing almonds and zesting lemons, odd sundays and Totally Addicted To Taste. Only Breakies Worth Getting Up For is ambivalent and Absolutely Famished is negative.
The Commoner has run a lot of special events, which have been praised on The Chronicles of Ms I-Hua, Kitchen Wench (comped), off the spork (comped their first time), The Very Very Hungry Caterpillar, half-eaten (comped), Gourmet Chick (probably comped), Let Me Feed You Melbourne, Anh's Food Blog (comped), The Very Very Hungry Caterpillar (comped), MEL: HOT OR NOT (comped) and I'm So Hungree (comped).
122 Johnston St, Fitzroy
veg dishes $4-27
Accessibility: The Commoner has several steps on entry and is relatively cramped inside. There's full table service. One of our companions reported that the passage to the toilets is uneven and poorly lit, the toilets themselves are small, though they are unisex at least.