The brick and stone building of Charcoal Lane stands proudly on Gertrude Street in Fitzroy. It's been an iconic figure of the area for decades: serving for years as home to the Victoria Aboriginal Health Service it showed the colours of the Aboriginal flag throughout the area's gentrification.
When I first tried this restaurant, years ago, I was taken aback at how easily Australian bush flavours meshed with European cuisine. I still remember the beef fillet with hibiscus flowers, the way the rich jus was punctuated by the sweet and sour flavours of the native flower.
The restaurant is a joint venture by Mission Australia, the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service, the William Angliss Institute and others. The idea is to provide a training ground for hospitality, but you don't notice it. Any of the staff would fit in at any of the higher-end restaurants that dot the city.
The mission statement sits discreetly by the door.
The recipes have changed over the years at this charitable restaurant, but the flavours have not. Bush spices still dominate the menu, giving it a note of interest. Where else can you get a grilled wallaby fillet with bush pepper and lemony notes? Where else do you get to sample the sour tang of native berries with your salad?
Deciding on this menu is difficult. Do you go for something standard or do you venture out into emu, wallaby and kangaroo? Both have interesting accompaniments: my tomato confit came with wild rocket, sharp, tart bush berries and some kind of native lemon myrtle, while my companion's emu steak was coated in a spicy pepper mix that enhanced the flavour of the meat.
Charcoal Lane has started offering $15 mid-week lunch specials, and I couldn't go past the osso bucco with spaghetti. On offer beside it were a crusted chicken breast and fish and chips, both of which were popular and seemed satisfying.
My osso bucco was a hearty dish that would probably have been more suited to a colder day. The deep, rich flavours of the beef were nicely complimented by vegetables and spaghetti.
Dessert for me was the tiramisu, light and fluffy, while my companion's chocolate fondant was so densely chocolatey that it took him half an hour to devour it.
Charcoal Lane is not the only social enterprise restaurant. It is, however, possibly the one that advertises its social enterprise the least. In a world where charity is a selling point, it's refreshing to find a place so willing to be judged on its restaurant merits.