Boris Portnoy of the All Are Welcome bakery and cafe in Northcote, Melbourne, was coveting the law office next to his popular bakery for a long time, wanting to expand. Eventually, he decided to open a second location in the neighbouring suburb of Thornbury. "As soon as we signed the lease, next door to the bakery became available," he says. Luckily, he had a plan.
Together with winemaker Mitch Sokolin, they opened a wine bar with a menu dedicated to the cuisine of Georgia and other Black Sea countries like Russia. "Mitch and I both grew up in New York and his parents are Russian Jews like my parents. We connect to that region easily. Growing up in the Soviet Union, Georgia was the land of plenty," recalls Portnoy.
"I've been going to Georgia for quite a long time, about 10 years. I always think about ways to stay longer and put roots down there so I bought a little vineyard, about 1,000 vines," he says. In 2018, Portnoy and Sokolin made wine together with the dream of opening up a venue where they could serve it.
Cue March 2021 and the old offices of Gray & Gray Barristers and Solicitors is now Gray and Gray Bread and Wine. The original gold leaf sign, vertical blinds and shades of seafoam green and blue remain, but the desks have made space for a kitchen and tables.
The majority of dishes at Gray and Gray are Georgian, but Portnoy also borrows from other surrounding countries. There are no steadfast rules. “I want to do what I want to do and I don't want to do what I don't want to do. We don't have everything at the bakery and the wine bar will be the same, we'll do stuff that we like," he says.
The set menu starts off strongly with a "selection of breads with various fats," like preserved corn butter and whipped lard sprinkled with adjika (a hot red pepper condiment) salt.
"You get to give people the experience you want to give them."
Dishes like the blue mackerel selyodka sing thanks to the addition of preserved blood limes and fish sauce made in-house. Underripe fig jam, pickled green tomatoes and tkemali (sour plum sauce) are some of the other punchy preserves that Portnoy has been working on during the last year.
His take on khashi, which took some time to perfect, is made with fresh beans, tripe, a soft-boiled egg and broth. "You'd usually eat this at 5am in the morning after a big night," says Portnoy of the traditional version, which is an offal soup.
Being next to All Are Welcome has its advantages since the chef can easily make light puff pastry for the salmon coulibiac. The bakery's famous medovik cake, with its 10 layers of honey biscuit and buttercream, also travels next door to conclude the set menu.
Gray and Gray will probably have an à la carte menu as well in the future, but Portnoy has been enjoying the set menu: "It's nice to control the narrative. You get to give people the experience you want to give them. Especially because the food we're serving is not as well known as western European cuisine, it's nice to introduce it to customers that way."
The wine made by Portnoy and Sokolin is not on the chalkboard just yet (though there are a few Georgian wines to try among the Australian and European bottles). They're waiting on a shipment to arrive by boat, which will probably happen around September. It will no doubt feel special to match the food with the wine that inspired it. But you shouldn't wait until then to visit.
Gray and Gray Bread and Wine
88 High St, Northcote, Victoria