Claypots Seafood and Wine
213 Barkly St., St Kilda, 3182
The prospects of an extra-long wait at Cicciolina’s on a Saturday evening saw seven of us walking the streets of St. Kilda last night looking for a place to eat. Passing Claypots, we saw an empty table in the window, already set for seven. Amazingly, the booker had cancelled and we could take over immediately. Marvellous.
We were shown to the table and left with a couple of wine lists. After a few minutes a waitress came and explained the ordering system to us: a large blackboard in the corner had a long list of dishes, usually ordered to share we were told, and another smaller one by the door had a shorter list of claypots. Unfortunately most of us could see neither of them and we were hemmed in on a bench seat, so it was hard to get a real sense of what was on offer.
After that, it took almost half an hour to get somebody’s attention to order some wine, which was disappointing. It took even longer to order food. We eventually ordered the meze platter and a (huge) garlic prawn each for starters, which in fairness arrived fairly promptly. The small platters were beautiful: kingfish tossed with capsicum, figs sprinkled with coriander, a delicious lump of stingray which looked like it had been slow-roasted for hours, a tasty but not spicy Mexican-type onion salsa, and a small dish of green-lipped mussels. However, the sizes were not conducive to sharing amongst seven: we got the equivalent of a few teaspoonfuls each. I would have much preferred a smaller selection but larger portions to suit the number at table.
The huge prawns came out in a skillet, with plenty of Turkish bread to dip into the impossibly-garlicky oil. The waitress had impressed upon us that their prawns had been voted the best in Melbourne. One or two of our party thought them a little over-cooked, but they were fine. Not award-winning though.
When it came to ordering mains, I found the waitress quite condescending. When we attempted to order individually, she looked disapprovingly at us, and reminded us – yet again – that they prefer their customers to share dishes. “It’s all part of the experience.” Now, she may have been right, but I didn’t like the attitude much. Nor, indeed, am I a huge fan of sharing, and certainly not with such a large table. In my experience, sharing dishes amongst large groups means I get a spoonful or so of what I really want, and numerous small portions of dishes I’m not all that interested in.
In the end, we ordered three claypots: a Malay one, a Cajun one and an Anatolian (vegetarian) one for the vegie amongst us. A dish of kingfish cutlets and a whole flathead finished the ensemble.
It was all perfectly fine, with the possible exception of the Cajun claypot which was tasty enough but really not very Cajun at all. The Anatolian one had some sort of granular texture through it, that Nicola could only compare to the sand you sometimes get in mussels. Not pleasant. The Malay one got my vote, and I would perhaps come back for this dish alone (but, again, I’d like more than a couple of spoonfuls).
The flathead was lovely but, as with most of the fish served here, it was a full fish and the lighting was simply not good enough to de-bone at the table.
The kingfish cutlets, with just a few bones around the edges, were really lovely and fresh, and probably my other favourite of the evening. Again, I got to taste less than a quarter of one cutlet.
My verdict: at $50 a head, I came away feeling simultaneously full and unsatisfied. This is because I only got a tiny taste of everything that was on offer, rather than one or two decent dishes I could savour. The service was pretty poor, there was an overall feeling of pretentiousness about the place, and I couldn’t help but feel the staff didn’t think we were sufficiently in awe of them and their radical sharing system. Which we weren’t, really. I suppose we could have insisted on not sharing, but as often happens in a large group most people were being easy-going and we all just went with the flow.
The food is perfectly fine but there are better seafood restaurants in Melbourne with better service and where you don’t feel under pressure to share when it’s clearly impractical to do so. I won’t be hurrying back.