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Guest Tim

Welsh Steve At Jimmy Watson’s

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Guest Tim

WELSH STEVE AT JIMMY WATSON’S

 

Welsh-born chef Steve Szabo says the use-by date for a restaurant is usually 2 1/2 years. ‘By then the chef will have run out of ideas and should move on; or its diners’ loyalty will be about to end.’

 

Yet some restaurants like the famous Stephanies’ in Melbourne, he admits, go on forever and his latest venture might also break his rule. He now presides over the kitchen at Jimmy Watson’s, an unpretentious Melbourne wine-bar that has been serving since 1935, with an upstairs restaurant that seems destined to grow just as old - as long as its wine cellar lasts. The bistro, with its white-rendered walls and double table-cloths, is attended by pilgrims who recall "old" Jimmy, in long leather apron, a corkscrew in his belt, handing out steaks for the barbecue in the back garden where you cooked to your own taste and sipped at heavy Rutherglen reds. Now his grandsons, wearing the same battered aprons, open bottles that are just as old.

 

‘Jimmy’s’ (nobody ever identifies the establishment with more than the one name) has never had to pretend sophistication. Had its proprietor been seen without his apron there would have been mutterings that afternoon in the Law Courts and the Stock Exchange. All would not have been well. Today men who have been dining there for half a century, take their sons, grandsons and granddaughters to eat the creations of "that good English chef" and sip wines Jimmy cellared in the 1940s. The wines - and Steve Szabo’s creative dishes that match them - are a unique combination destined to upset the use-by philosophy of a chef who has to rack his brains to remember the names of some of the restaurants he has cooked in.

 

Steve’s current menu lists: Ravioli of duck confit with watercress oil and angel-hair leek, served with a taste of Chambers 1962 Cabernet, ripe sweet fruit and earthy flavours. Caramelised and stuffed pig’s trotter with a fricasse of cepe and bolet mushrooms on olive oil mash, served with a taste of Birks Wendouree 1965 Shiraz, ("a Clare Valley blackberry powerhouse.") And if there’s a special occasion to be celebrated you might choose an All Saints Rutherglen Verdhelo Madiera ‘45; or begin the dinner with a Seppelt D.P. ‘38 Show Oloroso. A bottle of Chateau Climens ‘61 (Barsac) is available and is listed at $300.

 

Until 18 months ago, the upstairs section at Watson’s was a series of private rooms. Then Steve, formerly of The Compleat Angler at Marlowe, Bucks. and the Carlton Tower in London, stepped through the door. He’d already owned two renowned restaurants in Melbourne, one of them booked out six weeks ahead. But he believed the "use-by" date was getting closer and Allan, Jimmy’s son, asked if he’d like to have a look at 333 Lygon-st. ‘I had never been in the place. I liked what I saw and I liked Allan and his sons, Simon and Nigel. They discussed the idea they had, to create a restaurant that was going to offer food to accompany very rare old wines from down in the cellar.

 

‘When I came out to Australia to join the Hyatt in 1988, the Melbourne food scene then was pretty basic, not terribly interesting. Over the last eight years it has gone ahead in leaps and bounds, so much so that I think Melbourne restaurant cuisine now leads the world. It still lacks a little; many restaurants are too cheap and their expertise lacking, or vastly over-priced for what they offer. People with no talent think it’s still easy to open a restaurant and put bums on seats. Fortunately food colleges are bringing on some great talent and the interest among young people in fine food is strong, so the mediocrity won’t last.’

 

Steve, 33, admits he is not his own motivator. ‘It’s my wife, Zorica. We met in the kitchen of a restaurant and she works with me now. We hardly ever cook at home. If we go out it is usually to a good Malaysian restaurant that serves curry laksa, a rich soupy stew of noodles, coconut milk, bean shoots, chicken and fresh mint.’

 

Allan Watson is first at the wine-bar at 6 am and he presides over the plain-food lunches of fried whiting, sausages or pie, cooked by Steve and his team and served on paper tablecloths. Simon and Nigel follow and greet the serious diners who pause at the bar before making their way upstairs. By now the old shirazs and cabernets will have been opened and allowed to breathe and Steve and Zorica are in the kitchen preparing oven-roasted quail with sage and parsley stuffing, and loin of lamb, cooked in spices.

 

‘I have a free rein here, without the headaches involved in owning my own place. The family are traditionalists who care about good food and supporting it with wine of great character. It was a brilliant idea. And Allan assures me there are still many old bottles down there in the cellar.’

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