The Legendary Wine Bar’s Progeny
Claim to fame: A celebrated wine bar takes things up a notch
Reason to go: A cave à vin sensibility emboldening fine-dining civility
Look out for: Embla, Lesa’s parent wine bar downstairs - one of the greats
In the beginning there was Embla, a central Melbourne wine bar created by some talented expat New Zealanders with the assistance of winemaker and London natural-wine pioneer Eric Narioo. Despite (or perhaps because of) its formidable, almost rowdy conviviality, Embla came to be talked about as a place of interest not just in Australia, but back in London, in Paris, in New York, in Tokyo, and beyond. Anywhere where people gathered to open a bottle of something artisanal and seek food to pair with it, it seemed, Embla was known. Perhaps it was inevitable, then, that founding sommelier Christian McCabe and chef Dave Verheul would build on that renown. This brings us to Lesa, which might sit right on top of Embla, but is run as a separate restaurant.
Lesa is a little more genteel, offering such comforts as reservations and a noise level that permits conversation at the volume of ordinary speech. Wine-wise, there’s everything from downstairs and more. “Wine is a gift from nature, meant to bring us together for good times; it may even make you more interesting to your friends,” reads the introduction to the list, in a statement that’s typical of the tone that permeates the adventure: playful, leaning to wry. It’s broken up into chapters such as “A Few Good Wines Under $100” (the funkier end of the Loire sitting with Australian vitinauts such as Ochota Barrels and Patrick Sullivan) and “New World Grapes Beginning With S” (classic Hunter Valley Semillon). The prix fixe menu, on the other hand, is more opaque. “Heirloom beetroot, red onion, olive and salted elderberry” gives little hint of the pretty flavors and even prettier presentation of the beet terrine that follows, and that goes double for “cherries, cherries, cherries” at dessert, which translates on the plate to the fruit in pieces, jelly and a snowdrift. This is where Lesa’s other great asset comes to the fore: the witty, well-informed floor team do an admirable job filling in the blanks, shepherding guests through the four courses (or indeed the chef’s tasting) with aplomb.