If this is hell, I want to move right in. The distinctive canary coloured door is the gateway to “Hell”, the affectionate nickname of Hell of the North in Fitzroy. Situated just off the main restaurant drag on Smith Street, its Greeves Street location is rather unassuming – unless you’re looking for it you’d never know it was a restaurant.
Hell of the North shares its name with the infamous Paris-Roubaix bike race held once a year in northern France – famous for its hellish rough terrain and cobblestones. While building the interior, co-owner Adam Ferrante often says it was such hard work that hell sprung to mind. And perhaps the comparisons stop there.
Beyond the yellow door, lies a cosy French bistro restaurant. It has a cavernous like atmosphere cleverly carved from its historic bluestone walls to create a handful of interior rooms, each boasting their own character and personality. Wood accents, brass fixtures and blackened steel dominate in the bar and restaurant, evoking a sense of the French bistro of old.
The food is often described as classic Bistro, but it is not just strictly French.The menu largely focuses on Euro-bistro grazing with an emphasis on seasonal and local produce. There’s pork and gruyere doughnuts, a classical French onion soup and a rather delectable beef tartare. For the indecisive, the ‘let us feed you’ menu for $65 per head is a tempting choice, encompassing a five to six course selection of the chef’s favourite courses. We were hungry and wanted to keep procrastination minimal so opted for the latter option, which catered accordingly to our dietary requirements.
The tasting menu gets off to a nice start with a platter of half a dozen Tasmanian oysters. Freshly shucked, the oysters are nicely presented, each one resting on a heaped bed of sea salt. The oyster flesh is juicy and plump and served natural letting the oyster shine in its purest form.
A generous pot of chicken liver parfait is served in a shallow cast iron dish paired with triangles of brioche. The parfait has a beautiful silky finish making me want to dive right in with a tablespoon and scoop up every last bit. The liver has a delicate yet full-bodied flavour which is nicely complemented by a golden layer of madeira jelly, providinf the parfait with an added flavour punch and hint of sweetness from the golden sultanas.
A steaming pan of mussels are bathed in a rich brooding broth of sofrito and oloroso giving it a beautifully fragrant aroma. While a hapuka fillet is nicely pan-fried (perhaps a touch over cooked) with a nice crispy golden skin. The fish is paired with a fluorescent broad bean puree and a grenbloise sauce of browned butter, capers, parsley and lemon which lifts the dish to another level.
An old-timer on the menu, the gnocchi Parisienne, is a standout, quickly halting my question if the French can in fact do gnocchi. Unconventionally made with choux pastry, the moreish morsels were an absolute delight on the taste buds, teamed with buttery mushrooms and pumpkin. A splash of vin jaune cut through the creaminess of the dish beautifully.
The let down of the evening was the grass-fed beef with marrow butter and sauce, served ‘two ways’. The beef cheek was lovely, delicate and gelatinous – falling part with the slightest nudge of my fork, but not enough to save the flank steak which was overcooked and stringy.
Although not a huge fan of cheese platters after a large meal, the aged comté with amantillado jelly did not disappoint. Comte is a popular French cheese produced in the Massif region of Eastern France, characterised by its pale yellow interior. A small serve of the jelly was the perfect companion to sweeten the cheese ever so slightly.
For dessert, there’s a sumptuous creme brulee which does not disappoint. Presented in a no fuss manner in a ramekin, the brulee achieved a beautiful golden sheen from being torched – the caramelised top layer cracking like glass with a small poke of a spoon, revealing a sumptuous velvety custard underneath which oozed unapologetically through the caramel.
Meanwhile a chocolate fondant, dusted with a fine sprinkling of icing sugar was enough to tease my inner chocolate lover. It’s one of my simple pleasures to reveal its oozing chocolate underbelly which ripples unapologetically on to the plate. The pistachio icecream was a nice accompaniment to the dish, providing a nice nutty texture without overpowering the fondant with sweetness. The tuille and crumb were welcome textural contrasts, making it easier to mop up the warm undercurrent of warm chocolate.
The final verdict…
Hell of the North has a strong focus towards casual dining and drinking, so if you’re expecting French fine dining and fussy presentation you will be likely to come away disappointed. The friendly laid back atmosphere makes you immediately feel at home. Despite coming away with a very full belly, the chef’s choice option didn’t seem to be any cheaper than ordering the dishes stand alone Next time I would prefer to order dishes separately from the a la carte menu. But as far as ‘hell’ goes I would well and truly welcome it as my new local.
Value for money: 7/10