Does new vegan-friendly restaurant Amphora beat a meat pie?


Amphora and Friends of Fire have dual menus: an omnivorous one and a vegan version by Smith & Daughters chef Shannon Martinez.

Dani Valent

12.5/20

Contemporary$$

I love eating pies at the footy. Whether it’s a day or night game, I always get one for Dad and me. Of course, I’m glad if my team wins, but I’m almost as happy if I manage to squirt sauce onto said pie without tomatoey blobs ending up on my pants.

After we’ve eaten and brushed crumbs from our jumpers, it’s time for the review. “That was a good pie,” Dad might say, drop-punting the conversation my way. “Really nice and hot,” I’ll probably respond, handballing it back.

Even though I’m not in that coterie of supporters that’s been waiting for elevated dining options at events, I heartily approve of efforts to offer them, especially at Melbourne’s Marvel Stadium. The 53,343-seat facility at Docklands is on the edge of the city grid, surrounded by offices and apartments. It makes absolute sense to think of the place as a resource to be drawn on to cater to as many people as possible as often as possible – not just when there’s a game or concert on.

The AFL, which owns the facility, clearly agrees and tendered for hospitality operators to populate the new Stadium Square precinct on the Spencer Street side. The successful bidders were Greg Kahan, owner of The George on Collins restaurant and the previous proprietor of Strike Bowling; Peter Filipovic, ex-CEO of Carlton United Breweries; and Peter Sidwell, a businessman with interests in racing and wineries. The trio just opened three venues.

At ground level, there’s the 250-seat Friends of Fire, which feels like an upmarket pub with an open kitchen. Upstairs, there’s The Wine Room, a moody, 50-seat bar and, next to that, Amphora, a 200-seat fine-dining restaurant with a faux skylight that sends pretend sunbeams onto a fancy bar, plush booths under a floral mural, and a huge screen that works for match-day viewing and corporate presentations.

There’s a vegan menu as well as an omnivorous one … my hunch is the massive focus on veg is out of whack with the audience.

My first visit to Amphora was during a footy game that drew 45,000 people. Only three of them were in the restaurant at half-time: there was an unbridgeable schism between the energy of the match and the dining room’s cosseted quiet. I came back to the venue to watch the Anzac Day match between Collingwood and Essendon. It was being played at a sold-out MCG, but there were only about 20 people watching it here on TV.

An afternoon cocktail sounded enticing. Rum-based Amphora Express ($25) is built in a glass goblet with cold drip coffee, chocolate bitters and a frothy head of vegan almond foam. It’s bold and bitter, as balanced as a ruckrover on the tear.

Amphora Express cocktail.
Amphora Express cocktail.Bonnie Savage

Just after quarter-time, the staff announced the kitchen was closing, so we ordered hurriedly and what arrived was pretty good. A soft pretzel ($14) plays nicely with mustard butter dip, while a mini burger ($12) is layered with mortadella and provolone cheese. The mortadella – a fat-studded deli meat – is grilled to a light crisp: you get sausage and sizzle, which I love.

Grilled king prawns ($42 for five) soak up delicious fermented chilli butter. Wood-fired broccoli florets are daubed with seaweed butter, but two chunky florets for $28 seems ambitious.

Mini burger with mortadella and provolone cheese.
Mini burger with mortadella and provolone cheese.Bonnie Savage

Amphora and Friends of Fire have dual menus: an omnivorous one by George on Collins chef Aaron Rodrigues and a vegan version by plant-based specialist Shannon Martinez, who runs the brilliant Smith & Daughters and is one of the most creative chefs in the country. It’s nice to cater to non-meat eaters, but my hunch is that the massive focus on veg is out of whack with the audience.

Also, having chefs design menus that they aren’t here to cook can create problems with execution. I ate Martinez’s watermelon ceviche ($18) at Friends of Fire. Her version is a clever sub for tuna, but the “charred” corn it came with had not a touch of colour, and the cracker the dish was piled on was so soggy the contents fell onto the doily underneath.

Watermelon ceviche.
Watermelon ceviche.Bonnie Savage

In general, there’s a clunkiness to the experience, particularly at Amphora. On game days, you need a spectator’s ticket to enter, but on days when the ground’s closed, you’re greeted downstairs by a staff member and escorted through the odd hush of the empty stadium. Many dishes are repeated at the two venues; I don’t understand why.

Amphora fell victim to Empty Restaurant Syndrome, that unfortunate condition whereby the fewer diners there are, the harder it is for them to be noticed by staff. The Stadium Square project has potential, but there’s work to do to integrate these restaurants into the life of the city that’s on their doorstep.

The low-down

Vibe: Cocooned, corporate plushness

Go-to drink: Amphora Express ($25)

Drinks: Amphora’s bar is its centrepiece. There’s a lavish array of spirits (14 types of tequila!) and a wine list designed to impress. If you want to celebrate a win with an $800 bottle of Krug, it’s waiting for you to pop the cork.

Cost: About $190 for two, excluding drinks

This review was originally published in Good Weekend magazine

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