The big question is, which colour gets you shot? Crips blue, or Bloods red? It's unclear what parallels this South Yarra restaurant draws to South Central, the ganglands of LA. Best play it safe with black leather – it's definitely de rigueur here on Yarra Street, both on person, and on seat.
It would be difficult to feel further from Jefferson Park in this space: as dark and masculine as London's White Lya, with leather-clad beauties vanishing against inky banquettes. A huge glossy artwork pops on deep charcoal walls. High above, vents give it some street credentials, but it's otherwise what you might call boardroom luxe. Or Gotham chic. Backed by a mega-mix of '90s hits, nothing short of a Michael Bublé concert at Whole Foods could say thug life less.
Sth Central is brunch. It's business lunches fuelled by prime beef and local salad. It's Perrier Jouet by the glass and tarama from that fashion launch thing – Tommy Collins, boutique caterers, are co-brains behind this gaff.
And, sure, it's the kind of carefully curated restaurant, in the kind of new-build block that could feel like a Frankendiner – something born in a boardroom to fastidiously tick boxes. Truthfully, it aches a little when under capacity. But it's a warm team lead by Stokehouse-expat Lee Smith, and if the menu reads like a trend piece on modern classics (Burrat? Of course. See also smoked mussels; meats passed through an Inka charcoal oven and robust side dishes that deserve a promotion to stars), chef Tom Johnston, who's settled a kitchen that lost two early chefs, is turning them out with skill.
Foot-high squid ink rice crackers plume from a baggie like pillars of smoke. Snap and scoop through cod roe dip freshened with celery leaf. Everything, it will surprise no one, is designed to share. Here, heed that call. That tarama is a siren song for salt fiends. In-house duck prosciutto – blush ribbons with the chew of kid leather that work as well, if not better, without the complex foliage of pear twigs, endive, Parmesan and mustard crackers – delivers an intensity of flavour usually reserved for canape-size snacks.
It's rich food, best tackled with three people plus. Strength in numbers means you can graduate the nice by-the-glass-or-carafe list (Jamsheed's elegant roussanne is a nice pick and $18 is great value for that Perrier brut) to interesting local, French and Italian bottles sitting around $50-$75 for most. Make it Chalmer's 2014 greco – a hell of a food wine from Heathcote.
All the better to explore the burrata, a whole mozzarella purse atop chunky tomatoes and onion petals – roasted to make it a winter dish – and lamb ribs, before, or instead of, the main event. Those single serve meat pops, so often flabby or overdone, see you bite through snappy skins, glazed and almost a little resinous from PX sherry, lime and smoke, to find pure meat, fat rendered out, clinging to the bone just long enough to finish the mission to mouth.
In those ribette and a whole mustard-rubbed lamb shoulder – a smart Sunday proposition if you're a resident above – Johnston proves the investment in that big oven worthy. Our smoked half chicken is fine, if too past juicy to satisfy the "should I order chicken in a restaurant" index.
In vibe, this is an upscale option for locals; an undeniable corporate bolthole, and an OK place for a date. On plate it's more than you expect of such places. Roasted brussels sprouts are tender orbs frosted with horseradish and pecorino – great friends to brassica.
The botrytis waffle sandwich at dessert is a flat-out showstopper, albeit by the un-sexy name of the magical mould giving dessert wines their life. The criss-cross outlines of still-warm waffle come with a parfait that drags on the tongue – pure delicious fat – with tart dots of rhubarb and a gel of port and sauternes.
Smart stuff and almost zero risk of gang warfare. Win win.
Don't wear blue or red at Sth Central: it's more about black leather, brunch and prime smoked beef.
Vibe: It looks built for business lunches and post-blow wave dates, but it's a warmer place.
Pro Tip: Ice Cube says: rule number one, don't bring a gun. We second that. Bring pals to get the best of the menu.
Go-to Dish: Lamb ribs in PX glaze might be the city's best, and just $4 each.