211 Gertrude St, Fitzroy
Ph: 9419 0818
Open: Mon-Thurs 2pm until late; Fri-Sun noon until late. Kitchen is open every day from 6-10.30pm and on Fri-Sun, noon-3pm
ALL I can remember about my last visit to Fitzroy's Builders Arms is the grungy dance floor out the back with a DJ playing a damn fine selection of 80s tunes.
When I returned this week the dance floor had been replaced with a funky dining room and the front bar was more groove than grunge. It seems the Builders got refurbished about two years back and it's now known for its kitsch interior and Moroccan-inspired menu rather than its late-night dancing. I didn't know that until I walked through the door but I had no issues with the transformation.
The occasion was a long-overdue catch-up with schoolmates and for pub grub we quickly discovered Builders is up there. Our initial impression of the snazzy dining room with standout red furniture was that the menu was likely to be out of our mid-week budget but we needn't have worried. Prices were around $18- $27 for mains and the options were so impressive it was hard to narrow down to one.
But we managed. One mate went with the chicken bistayeea, a Moroccan chicken, almond and egg pie with a shredded cabbage salad ($24) and another went with the duck breast special served on hummus with olive oil and jus.
Me, I went with the lamb and quince tagine with buttered cous cous and hung yoghurt ($25). I've had a few tagines lately - it seems the Middle Eastern-style casserole is the unofficial dish of the year - and this one was up there. The hung yoghurt was the Builders’ version of a common Lebanese yoghurt usually called labna. I' m a fan of labna and this one provided a brilliant contrast to the earthy tagine.
Chef Kurt Sampson trained under Melbourne's Middle Eastern kitchen king, Greg Malouf, and it shows. He makes a point of changing the menu at least every fortnight and thinks nothing of pulling an item off the menu if the required quality of the ingredients isn't available. That's why the goat, raisin and fried almond tagine isn't on the menu all the time but when it is, I've heard it's worth crossing town for.
Entrees were within the $12-$18.50 mark and if the pennies are tight the bar menu included dishes such as meatballs with fetta sauce and a bowl of dahl with bread with prices ranging from $8-$16.
While we didn't have time for dessert, options included an apple and persimmon polenta crumble with quince and vanilla ice cream ($10) and chocolate and banana Turkish crepes with pistachio cream and lime syrup ($11).
It's always nice to find an eatery that provides a menu, setting and service a level or two above the prices. And under the watchful eye of co-owner Tracey Lester (she's also the woman behind Yelza, The Windsor Castle and The Carlton), The Builders Arms does just that. I'm currently in the process of rounding up another crew to visit on a Wednesday when they have a $25 set tagine menu with shared entrée and dessert. After this experience, I have high hopes and I’ve got a sneaking suspicion they may be met.