Howler has been on our radar since July, when Fitzroyalty dropped in and gave it the thumbs up. We tried to swing by for a late snack/drink one Saturday night to be confronted by a massive queue which put us off for a while. At a loose end on a Wednesday night we decided to give it another shot. Its address is Dawson Street, but the entry is tucked across a carpark off a dead-end alley. We scrabbled around for a minute trying to find somewhere to lock our bikes up before the dude on the door waved us inside and pointed to the big rack of bike hangers Howler has set up by the door. A good start.
Also impressive is the overall style of the place - it's beautifully designed. There's a huge courtyard with dramatic lighting, geometric sculptures and plenty of greenery (although on closer inspection during daylight hours we determined that most of the plants in the courtyard were made of plastic). It also has (at least in the evenings) a DJ pumping loud beats and plenty of smokers, so we wandered through to the room inside. It's just as stunning - they've really poured a lot of energy into making this place look amazing. The nighttime vibe is as much nightclub as restaurant - conversation requires a raised voice and the lighting did our photography no favours at all.
In fact, the photos were so mediocre that we decided to head back in the daytime and try again. On a sunny Sunday the vibe is much more pleasant - the music's turned down, the crowds have dispersed a bit and you can see what you're doing (yes, okay, we're old).
The menu is a single page of small dishes: spring rolls, bao, dumplings and salads ($8 each) plus a few snacks (nuts, pickles, edamame, $5), plus some brunch specials during the daytime (omelettes and wraps, $9.50 a pop). It's very veg-friendly as well - all four salads seem vegan, and they've got veggie dishes dotted throughout the rest of the menu as well.
We sampled widely, starting with the shichimi spiced vidalia onion rings with a mustard miso mayo ($8). I'm going to let the picture do the talking here - incredible.
Next up, the tofu and kim chi dumplings ($8, probably vegan) - you have the choice of steamed or fried, but we chose fried on both visits.
I quite liked them, especially dunked into the soy and chilli sauce condiments they came with. The filling is pretty unrecognisable as tofu and kim chi though - it's a kind of paste, with a fairly mild flavour. Cindy wasn't really won over by them.
Met with more universal acclaim were the bao pillows filled with crispy tofu, bean shoots, coriander, pickled ginger, beetroot relish and wasabi kewpie mayo ($8, probably not vegan - definitely not the mayo anyway).
These were a nice combo of light, fresh flavours and the fried crispy tofu chunks, all wrapped in a soft puffy dough. Maybe not quite up to those we had at East Elevation, but pretty good nonetheless.
The only thing we changed between visits was our salad of choice. On the evening trip we had the brussel sprout kim chi with basil, candied cashews and fried red onion ($8).
I really liked this - a nice mix of sweet and spicy flavours and a bit of crunch from the cashews.
On our second trip we went with the spring bean salad with sweet herbs, spring onion, snowbean tendrils and a lime and peanut dressing ($8).
This was a solid effort as well - lots of fresh, crunchy greens and a mild dressing - I'd probably up the lime a bit if I was in the kitchen, and maybe sprinkle on some chilli flakes, but I wouldn't have had the patience to make the great snow pea tendrils, so it's a a trade-off really.
Howler is a nice addition to Brunswick - the courtyard is a lovely, sunny space during the daytime and the whole venue is very stylish. The food is decent and pretty reasonably priced, there's a great array of drinks and a couple of performance spaces tucked somewhere out the back. Well worth a visit.
For all Howler's hipness, only Fitzroyalty and Melbourne Mademoiselle seem to have blogged about it so far.
7-11 Dawson Street, Brunswick (entry via the carpark)
snacks $5, dumplings/bao/salads $8, wraps $9.50
http://www.h-w-l-r.com/ (although it's useless, there's much more info on their facebook page)
Accessibility: Pretty good. There's a flat entry way into a spacious courtyard and no steps as you go through to the inside area. The toilets are on the same level and there's wheelchair accessible and unisex facilities. Ordering and payment is at the bar.