Thursday, April 22, 2010


I've been watching Denn out of the corner of my eye for quite a few months now. It's exactly at that part of the tram journey in the evening between work and home when I look up from a novel (or from ^%$#ing emails) and think, "sigh.... almost home". I'm a committed snacker, so anywhere advertising tapas will always get a second look.

Denn is in* the Westgarth end of High Street between the organic vegie shop and the weird second-hand shop full of antique clothes and bric-brac-knick-knacks. I know that sounds like a Northcote inevitability (or parody), but I'm not kidding.

It's a sign

We had such high hopes for Denn that we were prepared to share the night with some wonderful friends who'd flown down from Canberra that morning, food untasted. I should explain we spent almost ten years in the national capital through no fault of our own, and I still get flashbacks whenever I see a roundabout, frost or rubbish 1980's architecture.

Julia was one of the first friends we made in Canberra and she did much to help us adjust quickly to the strange customs of the capital. She had already made the transition to Canberra from earlier years in Malaysia and London, so helping a couple of arts graduates from Melbourne acclimatise was a doddle for her. A decade later, after we left for Melbourne, she met Graham, her wonderful husband and obvious soul mate. Indeed, in proof that serendipity abounds, Julia was visiting us in Melbourne when Graham first called her to ask her out. We were recovering after a weekend at Earthcore (2003?) when the call came, and I still remember her smile.

Alex, Graham and his dignity Julia

Anyway, the point that they are good friends of ours is made. And like most of our High Street jaunts, although the restaurants have sometimes been great, it's the good friends that make the nights wonderful.

The food wasn't that bad...

Denn's menu looks simple but is bistro impressive with quite a few tapas dishes that look perky, interesting and modest, as well as a few simple pizzas and mains. The service was charming and prompt.

We ordered a platter of vegetarian tapas and some wedges of crisped pita. They were ok. Olives good; dolmades ok; haloumi great; pita pretty good too. Nothing great, but to quote Stephen Fry, not too mild neither. The mushrooms had a wonderful flavour, but about half of them were tough - halfway between crisp and chewy. This was not good.

Tough mushrooms and other stuff

In a fit of seafood enthusiasm, almost all the over 6's ordered paella, except Em, who with a wisdom beyond her tender years ordered the porcini risotto.

We were given a "it takes 20 minutes" warning, but it certainly didn't keep us waiting. Alas, it was not spectacular. The paella had been cooked vigorously in the pan and was quite dry. Although the flavour had the bold, caramel courage that paella needs around the edges, it was pretty uninspiring and didn't offer much of a variety of texture. And apart from the rice, there wasn't a whole lot else. The chorizo was thinly sliced and crisped (and bereft of juicy flavour); the fish was sparse; and the prawn was dry.

Emily's porcini risotto was wonderful. Like a perfect system of government, it balanced the rights of the individual (grains of rice) with the rights of the collective (the starchy, conjoined wetness) into a perfect mass of texture and democracy. The porcinis offered the correct amount of passive resistance while still yielding to a higher authority.

Emily's risotto art (with poor spelling - it was meant to be "rhombus")

We ordered dessert. The caramelized fig ice cream was spectacular, and the chocolate ice cream that went with it was as appealing and bitter as an overpaid Hollywood starlet, but with a much more luscious fullness of figure.

Saint Felicity (and child)

In summary, Denn would be a lovely place to drink a bottle of wine and eat some small bits and pieces while talking rubbish with a group of pals. The food was ok, but not particularly inspiring (except for the wonderful caramelized fig ice cream); the wine list was good and the staff were friendly and elite and crack and wonderful (and they looked good in black). The room is gorgeous without being pretentious and we could talk without having to shout, which counts for a lot.

I'd love to go to Denn with a large group - the sort of evening where I was more focused on the company than the food. Although the setting and service are among the best on High Street, the food was lackluster. Go there; have fun, but don't expect to reinvent your taste buds.

*pronounced "denizen". Ha!


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  3. I like going to Ember lounge next door, they utilise Denn's kitchen right down to the milkman's door between establishments to ferry the food and its priced very reasonably.

    $15 wood fired pizza and a pot has admittedly been an irresistible indulgence some nights walking home from work when in late, lazy mode.

  4. Damnation... Wood fired pizza and a pot sounds good. I should have ordered the pizza here - the paella wasn't wonderful. Too long in (I suspect) a pizza oven - intense but frazzled. Alack, alas..

  5. Love your blog! My experience of Denn has been really patchy - depends very much on what you order and maybe who cooks it. (The smoked salmon pizza lurches from stunning to ugly). And on what floor staff you get on the night. I have to boycott it now after this s**tty night:

  6. Thanks BelaS! Yeah, can't say we were thrilled, but your experience sounds pretty disappointing.