For many, many years, I heard and read about Stefano Di Pieri and his eponymous restaurant. While there have been changes in recent years it did not dampen my interest in making Stefano’s a destination.
Funnily enough, the main change to have Jim McDougall become Executive Chef, with Stefano himself taking a back seat, lasted only a relatively short time for a restaurant that has been around since 1991. I have no idea about the circumstances, but I do find it intriguing given The Age awarded Stefano’s the Regional Restaurant of the Year, most recently while Jim was at the helm.
Back to its original form with Stefano back at the helm meant also a return to the ever changing five course menu instead of Jim’s six or eight course tasting menu. Housed in the cellar of Mildura’s Grand Hotel, the main dining room is a long and tight space mainly suited for tables of two. In adjoining rooms there is more space for groups or private dining.
Tonight, Catherine and I did something we have not ever done before. We asked to move tables. Coming down into the cellar with only a couple of tables already seated we were taken to a table close to the kitchen, but right outside the bar and drinks service area. Having looked around we couldn’t work out why we were not seated in the more intimate part of the cellar and gladly our waitperson accommodated us. While it is a bit cringe-worthy to change tables, restaurants need to be mindful of giving customers their best tables if they have booked early, and are amongst the first to be seated. As we left we noted the tables further down the cellar like ours had not been offered, and others were seated in the less intimate spots near the kitchen and bar.
That is where any criticisms end. We start with a glass of arneis from Mornington which is one of the few options by the glass on a list focussed on bottles. First course is simply beautiful prosciutto from Parma, and house made bread with fruity extra virgin olive oil. The arneis is a beautiful expression of a lesser known Italian grape that is growing in popularity.
Next comes one of the highlight dishes from recent meals. The cheese soufflé is something that has to be incredible to set itself apart from the many I’ve tasted over many years of dining out. This one has that perfect softness under a quickly grilled exterior, not to mention a nice disk of black truffle adorning the top. Using a modern touch, nettles are distributed through the soufflé which has several cheeses including Parmesan, and a loving béchamel sauce. Over a week on and I still want another bite.
We get serious with a bottle of 2011 Langhe Nebbiolo from Paolo Conterno. Nebbiolo is one of my favourite versatile food friendly wines from the North of Italy. It is relatively light, but has a good amount of fruit balanced with savouriness, which needs food to bring out its best. Our next course is pork sausage nestled in lentils with preserved mandarin, pickled radishes, and horse radish. The combination is great, with the preserved mandarin lifting each taste, and nicely seasoned lentils perhaps cooked in a deeply flavoured stock, provide more than a filler.
For our pasta course, we have a generous serve of chicken and beef ravioli with a tomato sauce and plenty of Parmesan. The pasta is perfectly al dente with great bite to it, but even better is the filling which has been slow cooked, giving that meaty richness that is at another level than the usual. In fact, it brought back memories of some of the ragus that my friends Nonna’s had cooked for tasting in our Italian class during high school. At that time it was explained that the meat would be cooked for many hours and I can remember being intrigued by why anyone would go to that much trouble but the taste had me. We are in the cellar of one of the amazing Ambassadors of Victoria’s slow cooking movement and it shows.
Next comes yet another dish that I want to taste again right now. Simply presented, but incredibly beautiful, the goat is dished with fat roasted potatoes and garlic, and a side of crunchy green beans with parsley. This is as good as goat can get; a meat that I search for but rarely find on restaurant menus. The tenderness and deep flavour laced with fat but not dominating the taste is an expression of goat that I can’t imagine anyone not enjoying. And the Nebbiolo shines alongside.
Having learned a lot about Stefano’s leanings towards no fuss, highly flavoursome food, simply presented, we were not surprised that dessert was no different. The walnut tart is very similar to a pecan pie, with caramel and perfectly formed pastry combining to provide a deliciously simple dessert. This is the type of dessert course that is not seen enough. No deconstruction or pizazz; just a great sweet ending to the evening.
It’s not cheap, but the bill isn’t unreasonable for the quality of food being dished out, and is far less than when Jim was Executive Chef. Service is reasonable without being at the difficult to reach heights of Stefano’s food. After many years of wanting to try Stefano’s it will probably be a couple of years of wanting to come back. One thing is for sure, there will be no trip to Mildura and surrounds, without a journey down to the cellar.