Sofia Levin reviews: Big Esso — ‘there’s a lot to love’
In a sentence: native Australian cuisine in the middle of Fed Square
The damage: smalls $14-25; share dishes $30-45
Top tip: taste the house hot sauces, then buy your favourite on the way out
#EatCuriously: Neptune’s beard? Breadfruit? Wild boar? You’re guaranteed to taste something new here
Quench your thirst: creative cocktails and all-Australian spirits, wines and beers
If you like this: try Mabu Mabu cafe in Yarraville
There’s a lot to love about Big Esso. Let’s start with the fact that it’s the only place you can eat an emu steak and drink green ant martinis. But if you’re visiting for novelty value, you’re here for the wrong reason.
Big Esso is the second eatery from Torres Strait Island-born Nornie Bero, who also has Mabu Mabu cafe in Yarraville. She takes native Australian ingredients and heroes them in a way that’s fun, approachable and affordable. Usually native ingredients have a degustation price tag at fine-dining restaurants like Attica and Vue de Monde. At Mabu Mabu, Nornie adds them to brunch, while Big Esso would rivals other restaurants regardless of its Indigenous roots. As Nornie has told me multiple times, she wants to put her heritage on a plate because it’s awesome, not because it’s kitsch.
Big Esso means “the biggest thank you” in Nornie’s local language on Mer Island, which is likely the opposite of what she was thinking when Melbourne was locked down in August, less than a week after she opened. Big Esso set up a snack bar selling emu kabana and wallaby salami, but the great reopening brought with it the celebratory, Island vibes that Big Esso initially set out to create.
There’s modern Indigenous artwork on the walls and indoor tables, neon signs, staff in bright pink tees and someone constantly mixing cocktails at the bar. On a sunny day, there are plenty of tables out the front in the middle of Fed Square that take in all the action.
Back to the food. When I visited most recently with friends, I was tasked with ordering, as usual. It meant I was able to tell a couple of fussy eaters that the fried chicken they just inhaled was actually saltbush and pepperberry fried crocodile. We also shared kangaroo tartare with smoked oyster aioli and giant, woody taro crisps; a tender lemon aspen charred octopus tentacle served with nam jim made with desert lime; elongated razor clams drizzled with pale yellow, umami-fied sea urchin bisque; and saltbush damper, wrapped in the banana leaf in which it’s cooked.
I’ve also had the char-grilled prawns a few times now. They’re fat, juicy and I can’t help but suck on their heads to the horror of my dining buddies. They come with sea succulents and the full range of house hot sauces. The emu fillet is also a winner. It’s not as gamey as one might expect and sits somewhere between steak and ‘roo. Served medium rare, it comes with a piquant saltbush chimichurri and sticks of fried sugar cane on top (chewing encouraged).
The drinks menu is brilliant – fully Australian, sustainable and socially driven. You might recognise wine producers such as Vasse Felix, Tarrawarra Estate and UNICO Zelo, but make space for interesting spirits behind the bar and a great range of non-alcoholic drinks, such as Sobah’s lemon aspen pilsner and pepperberry IPA. As for the cocktails, a green ant-ini is a must. It’s made with Seven Seasons Gin (from former AFL player Daniel Motlop) and garnished with a few ants. There’s also a pepperberry bloody mary that features house sriracha, pickled karkalla (pig face plant) and Seven Seasons Native Yam Vodka, and an Island Spiked Tea that you can order in a jug (wild hibiscus, strawberry gum leaf, lemon and cinnamon myrtle, Axel vodka, strawberries and river mint).
Big Esso is the latest project for Nornie, who has been in hospitality for some 20 years. She only started cooking with native ingredients when she opened the deli version of Mabu Mabu in South Melbourne Market back in 2018. Within a year, it had moved to Yarraville as a cafe, and she’s been hot in demand for masterclasses, catering, new venues and an upcoming cookbook ever since. Her enthusiasm and social conscious are contagious, her food innovative but familiar. Big Esso indeed.
Federation Square, Melbourne