Osteria Ilaria – Melbourne, City – Thursday 10 August 2017 – Lunch

Pistachio semifreddo

Have you ever been reluctant to try the sister of one of your favourite restaurants? It can potentially tarnish the feelings you have of the original when you meet the family. Will the new be the focus to the detriment of the old?

The first thing to do is make sure the two are located close to each other. The second is to not copy the original but keep enough similarity that the two can be seen as complementing each other; that they have a reason to exist side by side. I believe the crew behind Tipo 00 have done this to the letter when it comes to Osteria Ilaria.

Spaghettini with clams and squid

Located right next door, the new kid on the block to the gastrotemple that is Tipo, does not look to provide more space just for the same menu. It takes some of the building blocks, in a much larger setting, and adds some modern pizzazz. If you consider Tipo the modern tick to great Italian classics, Osteria goes that one step further, appealing to an even more diverse audience.

Today is a stealth mission, with limited time to dine, and no booking, we have no idea what to expect. Gladly we get a place on the bar and we are ready to eat. What we didn’t realise is that we would not just try a main, but indulge in dessert too.

After we order our main we have some time to look around. There is a lot of bar space, and many areas for sitting comfortably in groups through the large rectangular space. The waitstaff have that authenticity you see at Tipo, but they are a bit busier with all the diners.

Goat with fregola

My spaghettini, a special on today’s menu, arrives beautifully presented, with lashings of clams and squid. It is a clear demonstration that the quality of the chefs here is the equal of next door, and I do believe they work between the kitchens. An instruction on rusticity, the goat and fregola is also one of the specials today. The slow cooked goat is delicious, and the fregola is the perfect carb, capturing the sauce and providing some texture. Unbelievably I have a little bit of menu envy for Catherine’s choice in a bit of a role reversal for the two of us.

For dessert we were back in our usual position. Me ordering the chocolate, and Catherine ordering something a little less rich. The olive oil chocolate mousse reminded me a touch of our favourite Tipomisu from next door in presentation, but it was a dessert all of its own. The biscuit was crisp, offering texture and restraint to the deep chocolate richness of the mousse, crumb, and sauce. By the end it was a bit too much, so maybe one for sharing. The pistachio semifreddo on the other hand could be finished off in a matter of a couple minutes. Distinct pistachio creaminess was elevated with the use of a generous scattering of chopped pistachios, the whole dish another winner.

Olive oil chocolate mousse

By now our casual lunch had escalated quickly. It is difficult to think of how to split future visits to this patch of Little Bourke Street that has two sibling restaurants side by side, absolutely smashing it. My take is that sitting on the bar at Tipo 00 as a couple is still my perfect place for a classic Italian three course; Osteria Ilaria is still great on the bar, but seems to be suited to a small group too, with lots of dishes designed to share, in a much larger (and perhaps more comfortable) setting. Either way I’m impressed by this restaurant on its own merits.

Osteria Ilaria Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Ten Minutes By Tractor – Red Hill, Mornington Peninsula – May 2017 – Lunch

Catherine, and her Mum, Sandra, in the garden

Is it possible to feel like a regular when your second visit to a restaurant is eight years apart? Perhaps that is a KPI for Ten Minutes By Tractor. Without any facade, the staff have you feeling completely at ease in an instant.

Looking around the room, the recent renovation has been nicely undertaken, not making a big statement but certainly leaving a very comfortable dining room to spend three hours over lunch. The seats in particular are the perfect choice, both well designed, and like your favourite couch. As you can imagine, there is plenty of emphasis in having a good view of the vines in this beautiful part of the world.

Notwithstanding first class service, and a terrific newly renovated dining room, I want to talk about one dish. Offal has never been the flavour of the month. It has been lauded for reason over a long time, but has never escalated to the heights of true popularity. Perhaps it never will be. When you look at a “balanced” restaurant menu you would ordinarily expect certain main star ingredients, some choice of secondary stars, and then something surprising. I’m afraid while beef, chicken, and fish take that staring role, offal has always been kept to the “surprise” meaning it gets a gig only on occasion.

Veal sweetbreads, mushrooms, charred baby leeks, chestnuts

While livers take the cake, sweetbreads (which actually sound like a cake) must be the second most unsexy ingredient going around. I mean they actually gave them a name that tries to confuse the customer into having a go! Ten Minutes By Tractor are serving veal sweetbreads for entree, and like a kid in a candy shop, I’m excited. To serve offal, you need to honour the flavour, but present it looking delicious (in spite of itself) and with complimentary accompaniments (more than other dishes).

Slow cooked goat, beetroot pasta, pickled beetroots, Main Ridge caprinella goats’ cheese

That is why I’m focussing on this dish. It came out on a black plate, showing off fabulous presentation skills of the chefs, but not hiding the sweetbreads, and actually highlighting them. The visual sear on the sweetbreads translates to the taste. Soft but deep gaminess, cooked in balance, and enhanced with the sauce and complimentary earthy mushrooms. I was not completely sold on the chestnuts in the dish, but this was close to perfection.

Cauliflower and mushroom, mushroom and cauliflower royal, black pearl barley

There are some choices to be made on the menu with a tasting menu, and a prix fixe option of two or three courses. We chose to have three courses ($99). It is best to not have any plans following the meal, with an amuse to begin, and a pre-dessert, making for a long and enjoyable meal. As well as having the sweetbreads, there is good diversity in the menu. Catherine’s Mum Sandra tried the roasted cauliflower to start. With a variety of mushrooms, a flavoursome theme on the menu, black pearl barley, and a “mushroom and cauliflower royal”, this is a nicely executed vegetarian dish. For her entree, Catherine opted for the slow cooked goat with beetroot pasta, pickled beetroot and goat’s cheese. Again, presentation is superb, and backed up by the taste.

Smoked breast of Great Ocean Road duck, mushrooms, celeriac, walnut crunch

Not easily put off by rich gamey dishes, next I was trying the smoked breast of Great Ocean Road duck. The duck was nicely cooked, and as I got further into the dish, the sweet walnut crunch dulled, starting to combine and balance the richer flavours of the mushrooms and celeriac. Both Catherine, and Sandra, tried the roasted hapuka which is a fish I’ve always loved. Here it is cooked with skill, and combined with both a persillade (mainly parsley) and lovage puree. The cauliflower is thinly sliced on top and it all makes for a delicious dish.

Roasted hapuka, lovage puree, heritage cauliflower, persillade

There is some serious flair here. A meal is more than a simple three courses. When the blood orange sorbet refresher comes out we know we are being spoilt. The flavours are as intense as you would like for a refreshing, but indulgent, interlude between mains and dessert. Then there is dessert itself. The colours, textures, tastes, and look of these dishes shows why it is a good idea to limit options on a menu. Make every dish exceptional and choice is not so important. Probably the only critique is the length of time it took for dessert to come out, meaning my 3.30pm conference call was a bit of a rush.

Poached pear, cashmere ice cream, candied chestnuts, slow roasted grapes

Michel Cluizel chocolate pave, cassis mousse, beetroot and creme fraiche ice cream, chocolate cake

Poached estate quince, candied ginger, sable, verjuice gel

Sandra’s came with the classic acknowledgement of a special day, but the combination was hard to beat. Quince from out the back seems healthy enough, but when combined with the sponge, crisps, gels and sorbets it is something else! My chocolate everything with cassis was its equal on the richer side. I’ve never rated food based on size, but this was a classic dish for sharing. Then there was Catherine’s poached pears which is not as popular as a few decades ago, but is a classic for a reason. Modern desserts have similar balance, texture and composition, but they don’t get much better than these.

Blood orange sorbet

I knew Ten Minutes By Tractor was a great place to dine. Though it had been several years since I’d had the experience first hand. At this stage of the day, albeit running out for a work call, I couldn’t quite believe how good today’s lunch actually was. It is still sinking in.

Ten Minutes by Tractor Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Stefano’s – Mildura – Tuesday 28 July 2015 – Dinner

Roasted goat with potatoes

Roasted goat with potatoes

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.

Parma prosciutto and house made bread

Parma prosciutto and house made bread

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.

Cheese soufflé

Cheese soufflé

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.

Pork sausage and lentils

Pork sausage and lentils

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.

Ravioli of chicken and beef with tomato

Ravioli of chicken and beef with tomato

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.

Walnut tart

Walnut tart

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.