Grossi Florentino – Melbourne City – Saturday 8 March 2014 – Dinner

I have known about Grossi Florentino for many years. At different stages it has been on my short list. I just had not made it there and now I’ve been in Melbourne for over five years and we finally have a booking. It is finally happening, but my enthusiasm is tempered with so much press, feedback, expectation (and/or lack thereof), and history.

In the lead-up, every time I start to get excited someone remarks “I’ve seen he is bad to staff”, “I’m sure it’s still good, but it was best in the 90s”, “It’s very expensive, for Italian” and other qualifying comments. It doesn’t help that unfortunately my previous experiences downstairs on the pavement for dinner and breakfast have been nothing close to writing home about. But enough of the lead-up.

My disclaimer on my review stems entirely from an abundance of beer at Flemington Racecourse for the March long-weekend’s Super Saturday event, featuring the Group 1 Australian Cup and Newmarket Handicap. If I am patchy on detail I apologise!

It wasn’t a good start on our behalf being seated at a table of 6 that we had booked, but there only being five of us. However, the ill-health (not beer related) of our friend, did mean that once one of the settings was removed we had a really good amount of table space. Upstairs has a lot of the qualities you expect from a “fine dining” establishment – a reasonable amount of space between tables, hushed noise levels, low lighting, and good quality settings – silverware, glass/stemware and linen.

With a good selection available from the a la carte menu and a prix fixe option of four courses for $120, our appetite demanded we go all out. My food and that of my friends was on a whole top class. The tension was between how much better “fine dining” Italian can actually be, and how can you improve on rustic dishes like a homemade pasta with ragu? It is this battle that was not won with authority. Undressing this tension and just reflecting on the meal is why I believe the food was still top class. Whether the price tag associated with the food was reasonable is a completely separate story.

The antipasti (from memory) consisted of olives, bread, crustini, and arancini, before an amuse of lentils. The antipasti was fine, but the lentils were pretty boring. I’ve had beans at breakfast that were vastly more exciting. The smoked ox tongue on the other hand was a magnificent entree. All of the flavours are well tried and worked beautifully.

Ox tongue smoked

Ox tongue smoked

Duck tortellini

Lamb parpadelle

It goes without saying that an Italian restaurant lives and dies by the quality of its pasta and the lamb parpadelle was delicious. It was high class and personally I couldn’t find a fault. The duck tortellini was also fantastic.  Grossi was starting to come alive! Another hit was the main of veal cheek which was just as you would hope and expect – amazingly tender and full of flavour. Ending the meal with the Tartufo, which came in a chocolate ball filled with chocolate and hazelnut mouse with ricotta ice-cream, was my personal highlight and “wow” moment. I must go and try it again (a little more sober).

Veal cheek

Veal cheek

Tartufo

Tartufo

My friends had varying experiences but everyone enjoyed the meal. Their tuna crudo entree looked fresh, but it was too large a serving of raw tuna for the amount of accompaniments. I could see why they felt they were just eating an enormous piece of sashimi. Other than that nothing stuck in my mind other than good quality dishes, but mainly without the wow factor.

I need to mention the service. We were all very split on how we thought the night was from a service point of view. From my perspective everyone was professional and attentive. The sommelier was fine, the advice from the waitstaff was fine, and I didn’t feel uncomfortable at any point. However, for some reason they put our meals down in the wrong order every single course! I would have thought that after one occasion that it would be corrected but the whole theatre of fine dining was actually ruined by us having to correct the poor waitstaff who in majority were not responsible for taking our order. One of my friends doesn’t eat chilli too, and that request was honoured by the waitstaff, but somehow a miscommunication ended with that same friend being given chilli! Besides these instances, the floor staff were generally smooth and professional.

It’s funny because I still feel the same about Grossi as before I had been there. It is listed as #10 on the Australian Gourmet Traveller list for Melbourne and I can see why – it is great, but I can’t see how it will ever be up the top with innovators like McConnell, Ezard and Perry. One thing I will say is that it is a far better Italian experience than Rosetta (not that I disliked Perry’s place). It might be the changes that have been made (to try to be more innovative) but I also couldn’t feel the history of Grossi, one of Melbourne’s longest dining establishments.

All said, I had a terrific experience at Grossi Florentino. And I’ll be back again reasonably soon… for the Tartufo! Hold the espresso martini (this time!)

Grossi Florentino on Urbanspoon

Longrain – Melbourne City – Saturday 1 March 2014 – Dinner

I first went to Longrain at its original establishment in Sydney back in the day.  For quite a few years it has had a sister in Melbourne, which I’ve been to semi-regularly.  I’ve even been to the Balinese offshoot, Sarong, which is stunning!

Step back to, at the time, one of the coolest restaurants in Australia.  The bar (read waiting area) at this Surry Hills Thai restaurant was buzzing and we almost didn’t want to go to our table once called.  The food was brilliant, modern and amazing quality; the dining was communal (ahead of its time but now almost expected); and the temperature was hot!

Originally, I was a little disappointed with the sister in the cool back end of the city in Melbourne.  There was no buzz in the bar, the dishes were expected (still good, but not exciting), and brought nothing of the sister’s attitude or pizzazz.

These days I feel differently.  I realised late last year that it does have a wow factor for visitors.  I realised that it is far easier to get into than Chin Chin with similar quality food, but still has a certain charm and cool about it.

So my wife, Catherine and I turned to Longrain for a relatively quick meal before some RoofTop Cinema action (Wolf of Wall St).

Being a Saturday night we expected a wait but the nice thing about the bar here is that you can snack and have a pre-dinner drink.  We waited for about 20 odd minutes, enjoying some crab based betel leaves ($6 each) which were tasty but a bit on the small side, and shared some skewers that were delicious (3 for $13).

Once we were seated on one of the communal tables we quickly ordered a couple of dishes and plenty of steamed jasmine rice.  The green curry with blue eye fish is a great dish – terrific amount of spice with a nice point of difference using blue eye.  I love the richness of flavour in this curry which is nicely balanced.  The beef cheek with classic lime, chilli and mint was of equally high quality.  Done properly, beef cheek is one of my favourite meats.  It soaks up the sauce and the fattiness dissolves through the meat making it incredibly tender if patiently cooked.  There were a few times where we could have done with some more waitstaff.  However, these days the attitude is not as overpowering making it a more comfortable place to dine.

While it isn’t cheap (the curries are around $40), Longrain continues to do a great job and is part of a stable, still exciting, modern Thai movement that is now a relative institution.  Places like Gingerboy, Chin Chin and Longrain make me feel lucky to live in Melbourne.

Longrain Melbourne on Urbanspoon

Rockpool Bar – Melbourne City – 28 February 2014 – Lunch

For a long time, Rockpool Bar has been the home of my favourite burger.  From the days I was a tourist in Melbourne when it opened, to working across the road, and now as a visitor into the city (from the Inner East), I hold the burger in a very high esteem.

Much has been written about the burger, its components, the way it comes together, and whether to eat with your hands or a knife and fork.  I won’t be able to write as eloquently as Gourmet Traveller, or as humourously as many of the burger blogs, so I’ll focus on why it is my favourite burger.

For one it has integrity – structural integrity!  You can comfortably use your hands (if you are experienced and willing to sacrifice your white linen napkin) in any company.  On this occasion I was meeting up with some of my old work colleagues who are now my advisers.  Rockpool is the place you can, and should, proudly use your hands, even if you have the most exquisite knife and fork skills going around.

Each component is of the highest quality.  Everything has its little piece of uniqueness.  The burger itself is almost always cooked beautifully (medium rare).  I’m not a huge fan of having to add the tomato and lettuce (cos) but it does allow the waitperson some leeway in delivery.  I guess it also introduces the fact that you need to use your hands at least to add it.

You are dining in a really well thought out restaurant that has tasteful decor, good waitstaff, excellent drinks (Trumer Pils is the beer of my choice) and an air of something that is that little bit better.  I first breathed that air when dining at Rockpool Sydney in 2000, not realising I was sitting next to Neil Perry at the time!

All of this is important in establishing a reputation of special quality.  Unfortunately, the price follows and has got a bit rich for many. $15 to $18 to $22 to $24 currently.  With no sides, the addition of salad and chips ends up costing the diner about $30 plus a couple of beers and it is no longer an every Friday option for lunch.  Watch out for the never-ending sparkling water too if you are mainly focussed on drinking beer (from memory it is $8 a person).

It is for this reason that most of my friends no longer rate it as number 1 in Melbourne.

I am different.  Price is a factor, of course.  But price is not a leading factor.  That means if the burger is already high on my list on most factors, price is not going to bring it down much at all.  The question is how do I compare my other favourite – Huxtaburger on Smith St (specifically – not so much the other outposts) that is about $8.  The answer is that ultimately I have to take price out of the initial question because Rockpool could never win if any weight is given to this factor.

After probably 25-30 burgers, the excitement dies just that little bit each time, but I’ll be back at least another 10 times in the next few years – and it will probably still be right up there!

Rockpool Bar and Grill on Urbanspoon