To me if a pub is going to be a good place to eat it has to have two things - good food (naturally) and personality. Gem Bar & Dining Room has both of these in spades.
First impressions of Gem Bar as somewhere to eat were a little dodgy. Looking less than salubrious from the outside its small, a little dark and as Kit Kat pointed out more reminiscent of a saloon than a fine dining hall. Lots of brown wooden furniture, a lonely looking piano, Mexican style death heads and a few pictures scattered around the walls, with a Hawaiian 1950's bead curtain visible through the door towards the back. Early on a Saturday afternoon fairly quiet too, with only a handful of other patrons.
The menu sits between the traditional and gastro pub, with steak, chicken Parma's and fish and chips, but also Waygu burgers and steak tartare with quails yoke. Given we also planned on sampling desserts two of us went for the smaller entrée style dishes, and two went for mains.
In keeping with her lean towards the vegetarian Snooze's choice was the carrot, cumin and chickpea croquettes served with a tzatziki dressing. These were good but a little more delicate than she would have preferred, and personally I like cumin when it gives a real 'punch' to a dish.
Kit Kat (on her return after a long absence) went for the lamb kofta and grilled pita, also served with tzatziki. These looked very much the part and Kit Kat confirmed that the kofta were nicely cooked and juicy. However, consistent with Snoozes croquettes she felt they could have done with a little more kick to the flavour.
Ruby Grapefruit seemed a little disappointed that the fish taco she'd noticed on a previous visit wasn't available but went with the (15 hour) roast pulled pork sandwich with coleslaw and fries. Served in a nice crispy bun the pork was reportedly moist and tender and I can confirm the shoe string fries were delicious if a little salty.
My choice was the Brazilian fish stew with yoghurt, peanuts and rice. I think this was possibly the dish of the day, with the yogurt, peanuts and coriander giving an interesting flavour to the firm white flesh of the fish. My major concern was that the stew could have been overcooked and the fish would disintegrate but not such problems in what was a fairly decent sized serve.
The range of desserts was limited to a couple of specials on the board behind the bar but it enabled us to choose to share a sticky date pudding with apple and ice cream, and a mud cake with chocolate 'soil' and ice cream (not the exact descriptions but I neglected to note them down). Unlike the mains which straddled the gastro and pub divide I thought these were definitely more on the gastro side of the line.
Unlike many sticky date puddings, which can be a bit dense and gluggy, this was light and fluffy and infused with pieces of date. The other star was the delicious butterscotch sauce. While the ice cream and poached apple and sultana were good Snooze felt the sauce and pudding were the best she'd tried.
Contrasting the light date pudding, the mud cake and accompanying sauce was appropriately rich and dense, to the extent that Ruby Grapefruit wasn't a whole hearted fan. But I think that's probably more a reflection of her individual preference for something a little lighter than any issue with the cake, which was more my sort of thing. The use of the chocolate soil was also a pretty fancy addition for somewhere that gives the first impressions that the Gem does.
A classic case of not judging a book by its cover, the Gem Bar is a bit of a gem. The food is interesting and good, the décor definitely grew on me and the music was an interesting mix of rockabilly (I think) and Diamond Dog era David Bowie. If the front bar area doesn't appeal there is also a dining room towards the back complete with enormous deer's head, although this is apparently only used for large groups or when the front room was full. As a place to eat and chat I suspect it might get a bit noisy at night though, with offerings like Johnny Cash karaoke nights. It won't be for everyone, but we thought the Gem was great.
Food - 8
Ambience - 8
Service - 7
Price - 7
289 Wellington Street
Collingwood VIC 3066
Tel: (03) 9419 5170