The Age, Melbourne
IF THE Gem had racing silks they might be sequinned, circa white-jumpsuit Elvis. Owner Tonino Cordisco is a rabid fan: the King is inked on his arm, paraphernalia adorns the hotel, and he commemorates Elvis's death with an impersonator, tribute band and Elvis-related foods.
But the Gem is no theme park; it's way too cool for that, and Cordisco too down-to-earth. Originally from Fremantle, he worked as a cook on a pearl farm in Broome before taking over the Curry's Family Hotel and re-naming it the Gem a few years back.
The front bar is a stripped-back, bare-boards sort of place, homely though, with an old piano, cowboy boot collection, and second-hand kitsch placed artfully here and there. If you've been to Texas, it might remind you of a good ole honkytonk.
If you prefer your food tunes-free, head through the slinky bamboo curtain. To the left is the bistro (loosely styled as a "game room" with calf hides and antlers). Upstairs, two rooms are great for groups: the nautical-themed eight-seater, and the cowboy-ish (horses and bulls) larger room.
With new chef Craig McShane at the helm, the menu has undergone a shake-up. Initially, he went for a complete revamp but regulars protested, so a few rusted-on favourites remain, including the Brazilian fish stew, an almost Thai-style curry of trevally (a few bits of extra fish would be good) topped with peanuts.
McShane is classically trained, with a vaguely French background (he was working at France-Soir before this), and is having a ball creating above-standard pub food.
There's a ripper little Roquefort salad with pungent chunks of blue, crunchy apple, watercress, frisee and sheer rounds of red radish, simply dressed with good olive oil, lemon juice and sea salt.
He picked up the cooking method for the salt-and-pepper calamari from “the old Greek ladies” during a working summer in Greece. The calamari is soaked for a day in milk with a bay leaf, lightly battered, then flash-fried; served with a sparky summer slaw, it's a winner.
The Gem's steak sanger takes inspiration from the classic Philadelphia cheese steak. Here, grilled Turkish bread is smeared with aioli, then layered with rocket, tomato, a meaty mix of tender scotch fillet and red peppers, topped with a layer of blistered mozzarella.
The parma, too, is thick with cheese, the free-range breast panko-crumbed and with a great napoli sauce. If you go the jalepeno upgrade (add 50 cents), you get an entire layer of the green chilli, so there's heat in every bite.
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