The wait is over – forward-thinking restaurant and wine bar ESSA has opened in Fortitude Valley
If good things come to those who wait, then Brisbane foodies have an exceptional treat in store for them when ESSA invites diners inside its anticipated restaurant tomorrow, Friday August 27. Though the four-year journey from inception to opening is finally reaching its end point, ESSA’s fluid and progressive spin on dining means that an enlightened epicurean odyssey is only just beginning. Boasting a kitchen team with an impressive cumulative pedigree, an environmentally conscious directive and a stylishly slick interior, ESSA is shaping up to be the landmark arrival we’ve been awaiting from the outset.
Phil Marchant isn’t looking to redefine fine dining – he doesn’t even consider the fare plated up at his highly anticipated restaurant ESSA to fit within the fine-dining paradigm. He wants to cook food that eschews unnecessary flourishes in favour of a more humble kind of epicurean expression, turning towards a simpler style of cooking artistry to achieve it. That being said, Phil’s not loosening the apron strings and totally disavowing his training – with a heralded tenure at The New York Times-lauded South Brisbane restaurant Gauge, Phil boasts a considerably vast kitchen vocabulary. At ESSA (which Phil co-owns alongside Angela Scavlos – who is also on the cusp of opening The Green just down the road on James Street), Phil is applying his well-honed skills and keen culinary nous to making the most out of the bounty of ingredients found within our geographical microclimate. When most of us turned to making sourdough loaves during lockdown last year, Phil was immersing himself in innovative ideation by researching soil biology and rejuvenation, sustainable and closed-loop farming, green manures, ethical cultivation of wild game, and conscious consumption. Plunging into this rabbit hole helped give Phil the gastronomic guidance he needed to crystallise ESSA’s ethos and also the sagacity to serve better tasting food in a smarter, more supportive way. When ESSA’s doors officially open to the public on Friday August 27, guests will be treated to a menu of pared-back fare consciously and carefully wrought by an accomplished kitchen team whose sole directive is to simply bring the best out of of-the-moment ingredients, using classic and contemporary techniques to capture them right at the point of perfection.
The ESSA space – a slender and cavernous 60-seat hideaway located on Robertson Street a stone’s throw from The Calile – shares some of the same conceptual leanings that underpin the menu. Where James Street is imbued with a sense of golden-age glamour, ESSA, by comparison, prefers to keep things dark and discrete. Craig Channon of Channon Architects has worked with Angela and Phil to maximise the narrow split-level space. He has utilised existing raw elements like exposed brickwork and old structural beams to establish a sense of tactile materiality, while creating singular moments via sparing use of luxurious additions. A brass mesh screen over the entry shields the interior from onlookers, while guests can sink into the leather-lined banquettes in the lower-level seating area, bathed in natural light diffused through sheer curtains. Half way along the room sits the raw bar, a prominent perch encased in green Verde Alpi stone that is reserved for walk-in clientele. It’s here that ESSA’s chefs will plate and serve delicate snacks and small plates while the beverage crew whips up cocktails in tandem. At the rear of the venue (which was further extended during initial renovations) sits the kitchen, which comes equipped with a custom woodfire grill that casts dancing wisps of light as skilled hands tend to the flames. More seating at the back looks out upon a petite garden, which bookends the moody interior with leafy life.
In the kitchen, Phil and his culinary team (which boasts the talents of fellow Gauge alumni Cormac Bradfield and Fin Burgess) are taking an innovative and ambitious approach to ESSA’s menu formulation. When a dish becomes familiar and comfortable at ESSA it will disappear from the menu, replaced by something that challenges and reinvigorates the creative energy at play. The crew is also taking a fluid approach to its harvest, liaising with the likes of Falls Farm, Loop Growers, Neighbourhood Farm and small-scale hunters and providores to consciously source sustainable produce on a micro-seasonal scale. Only food that is at its zenith is used and it’s within these parameters that Phil and his crew work their magic. ESSA’s menu primarily features raw, pickled, smoked and woodfired dishes, transitioning from small bites to large-format plates to create a fluid and flexible procession of appetising eats. Folks popping in for a wine and a snack can graze on French-style mould-ripened cured sausage from LP’s Quality Meats and free-range acorn-fed Spanish pork shoulder that has been cured for 24 months before turning their gaze towards the raw bar specialities. Kohlrabi, which has been buried in the woodfire pit to quickly blister, is then peeled and pickled before being served with fresh curds, bay leaf, pistachio and nasturtium, while wild venison tartare is subtly seasoned with bergamot, buckwheat and hibiscus. Those lucky enough to score a table (did we mention that weekend sittings at ESSA are largely booked out for the coming weeks?) can divvy up serves of grilled spatchcock quail with brown butter, caper leaves and salt bush, hand-rolled malloreddus pasta with Fraser Island spanner crab, ‘nduja and carrot, and organic pork chop with salted plum, fermented purple mustard and aged pork fat. An ESSA experience isn’t complete without trying one of its satisfying finishers, be it Section 28 monforte and Riverine buffalo blue cheeses with pickled prunes and rye crackers or a Jerusalem artichoke cream bun, the latter being an early standout among those fortunate to have dined already. ESSA’s 130-strong wine list – the first iteration of which was curated with the assistance of Marin van der Klooster of Cuttings Wine and currently overseen by Phil Poussart (recently returned to Brisbane after a stint as sommelier at Hobart’s Fico) – is a manageable and well-rounded mixture of new- and old-world expressions. Much like the food menu, the wine list will be ever changing – every wine is selected with intention to sell and be replaced by something new and interesting, with a focus on sustainable makers from cooler climates that use less water in their production processes. A tight list of four signature cocktails (accompanied by a list of classics) offer light and bright sips that draw compositional inspiration from the kitchen’s larder.
ESSA officially opens to the public on Friday August 27. Operating hours, booking info and contact details can be found in the Stumble Guide.
The Stumble Guide is our comprehensive Brisbane dining guide with more than 2400 places to eat, drink, shop and play.