Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Dining at Café Di Stasio

31 Fitzroy Street, St Kilda -

For nearly 25 years Café Di Stasio has been discretely located in the heart of the hustle and bustle of St Kilda’s grimy Fitzroy Street. The dark venetian blinds shield diners from the sights and sounds of thirty somethings hens parties, street buskers and the squealing teenagers teetering in heels in the line up for the local hotel.

Upon entering the small restaurant, you’re struck by the drama of the shadows of the mask light fittings on the neutral walls and prominent artwork featuring a falling woman on the back wall. The lighting is dim and intimate, the room is crowded and buzzing with conversation. Celebrations, heated debates and new love fill the room.

Photo by Julia Atkinson, from Broadsheet Melbourne

White jacked waiters rush between the crowded tables, providing that touch of old fashioned glamour. One would expect Don Draper to be dining with his latest squeeze in a discrete corner hidden amongst cigarette smoke. Or perhaps Vito and Michael Corleone would visit for a plate of pasta and a banter about the latest developments of the mafia world.

After martini’s and glasses of prosecco, our group of five was ready to review the menu – and what a menu it is, it includes:

·        Carpaccio Con Rucola – Thinly sliced raw beef with lemon dressing, parmesan and rocket

·        Omelette D’Aragosta – Crayfish omelette with a bisque sauce

·        Lasagna Con Primaverile – Homemade pasta with tomato, mozzarella and basil

·        Maltagliati Di Pane Con Calamari – Bread Maltagliati with calamari and radicchio

·        Anitra Arrosta Con Gnocchetti Di Farina – Roast duckling with spatzli

·        Brasato Di Cinghale – Wild boar braised with white wine, chestnuts and radicchio

·        Saltimbocca Con Gnocchi – Pan fried escalope of baby veal with prosciutto, sage and semolina gnocchi

·        Porchetta Con Mela – Oven roasted suckling pig with baked apple
If the extensive regular menu is not sufficient, there are also a number of special dishes including a ‘Sapori Di Mare Del Giorno’ (seafood speciality of day), as well as a soup and risotto of the day. I mention this, as for entrée I had the Sapori Di Mare Del Giorno, which was Western Australian Scampi cooked in butter and garlic. The scampi came halved, and still in their shells, with half a fresh muslin-wrapped lemon to be squeezed over their chargrilled bodies. This dish was so good that I am ashamed to say that I actually picked up the scampi to ensure I had every last morsel of delicious salty butter flesh out of the shells. Another popular entrée was the soup of the day which was a delicious thick green lentil soup. Feedback in regards to the ‘Carpaccio Con Rucola’ was that the dish contained far too much rocket (a literal mountain of it obscured the beef!), but the raw beef itself was delectable.
For main, I could not go past the ‘Maltagliati Di Pane Con Calamari’, which I had been informed was a must-try dish from Café Di Stasio. ‘Maltagliati’ means literally ‘badly cut’, and traditionally maltagliati were the off cuts of other pastas, often appearing in random shapes. Some sources report that it originated in Emilia in Northern Italy. Now, maltagliati is often purposely produced and cut into miscellaneous shapes.

Again, delicious buttery flavours of the perfectly pasta accompanied by perfectly cooked calamari. The sharp flavours of the radicchio and salad onion cut perfectly through the dish. A very delicious dish indeed. I’ll be trying to replicate it using the recipe Café Di Stasio have provided to Gourmet Traveller magazine, find it here.

The lighting in Cafe Di Stasio is not great for photos!

I also highly recommend the side dish of ‘Insalata di piselli’, a salad of peas, shaved buffalo ricotta, chick pea shoots and mint. Next time I’ll order ‘Finocchi Stufati Con Grattugito’ (fennel baked with milk and toasted breadcrumbs) which sounds delicious too. In the scheme of the meal, the side dishes were really reasonably priced, all being either $9.50 or $11.50.
The dessert menu is ok, but to be honest I was not overwhelmingly excited by it. I had the special dessert of the day, which was two cigar-like cannoli. It was tasty but not especially exciting. In reality after the entrée dish and the pasta main, I really didn’t need dessert.
Overall, Café Di Stasio is impressive. It’s easy to see why in 2012 alone  it was named by The Australian as Australia’s ‘Hottest Classic’ restaurant in the Hottest 50 Restaurants, came a very respectable 31st in Gourmet Traveller’s top 100 Australian Restaurants, and maintained it’s ‘Two Hat’ status in The Age’s Good Food Guide.
All this success does come at a price, and I’ve read criticisms of Café Di Stasio as being too expensive. Perhaps this is due to the flood of casual Italian dining offerings, meaning diners unrealistically baulk at paying higher prices for pasta than they would at a casual chain restaurant down the road. However this food is worthy of the price tag, the quality of the ingredients is prevalent, as are the skills of the chef and his staff.
However I’m not as convinced by the pricing of the wine list. I feel that the high pricing does not encourage diners to try new wines, and the majority of the extensive wine list will be unknown to the normal visitor.
I’ll look forward to the renovations to Café Di Stasio which commence from this October. A new, informal bar and eating space will separate the restaurant dining room, yet be connected by narrow voids. A private dining room will also be created. Ronnie Di Stasio informed The Australian "The whole thing will be part of subtle change in the dining room, with the menu and wine list. We have become, over the years, a special occasion kind of place and it was never meant to be. I want this place to bustle.”
Here’s hoping the renovations bring back the bustle, but maintain an atmosphere Don Draper would enjoy. There is a secretive glamour and intimacy to the place that should not be lost.

What I liked: The food is very, very good (with the exception of dessert). The bustling but intimate atmosphere, the drama of the room.
What would I like to see: A little more diversity in the prices on the wine list – an average diner would not recognise most of the offerings, nor do the high prices prompt many people to try something unfamiliar.
Similar to: Assaggio, Hyde Park, Adelaide – but a much more elegant and sophisticated atmosphere

Monday, 3 September 2012

An evening at ezard

A good meal is similar to a journey – and all journeys begin with a sense of anticipation for what might lie ahead.

It was with this sense of anticipation that our evening at ezard began. After dining at ezard’s more casual sibling Gingerboy, I had some idea about what delicacies might feature on the menu. The restaurant itself is a sleek dark elongated dining space nestled under the Delphi Hotel on Flinders Lane. The room is a great mix of inner city glam and casual intimacy. Tonight ezard is buzzing with a diverse mix of Saturday night occupants, but no doubt it is also a week night playground for business types who work the Paris end of Collins Street.

At ezard, you are the master of your own dining journey and given the ability to choose from a number of different menu options. On offer are eight course tasting menus (including a diverse and thoughtful vegetarian option), an al carte menu built upon different starters and mains or a pre-theatre express tasting menu. This is impressive flexibility not often seen at fine dining restaurants.

The Husband and I opt for the eight course tasting menu, said to be carefully constructed to showcase the breadth of Teague Ezard’s talents. The menu is based upon Asian flavours of spice, sourness, sweetness and salt but whilst adopting European technique. The matching wine flight is an easy choice, as on this occasion I’m perfectly happy to let this part of the journey be chosen by another. The wine list is an impressively heavy folder, with comprehensive offerings of predominantly international wines with scatterings of Victorian and other Australian wines.

After a glass of De Sousa champagne, and a delicious morsel of ocean trout and broad beans, we’re ready to begin!

Ocean trout and the bed of broad beans

Eight course degustation
·        Japanese inspired oyster shooter – NV Ruinart blanc de blanc, Champagne, France

See the oyster lurking in the almost jelly-like

 Powerful flavours of wasabi, soy and ginger collide in one mouthful. As our wait staff says “there’s a lot going on’, and how right she was. This dish is said to be an ezard stand out, but I’m left wondering if it’s a little too crowded? Loved the tiny little nori roll on the side.

·        Sesame crusted kingfish sashimi with crème fraiche custard, black garlic, citrus and hazelnut dressing – 2010 Moniki shuzo ‘tae no hana’ junmai ginjo sake, Mie, Japan

This was one of the stand out dishes of the journey for me. The delicious salty oiliness of the kingfish was paired beautifully with the sake. Flavours were perfectly balanced and left a lovely lingering salty smoothness.

·        Steamed blue swimmer crab dumpling with Yarra Valley salmon roe, celery cress and tom kha – 2010 Framingham gewürztraminer, Marlborough, New Zealand

Simply delicious!

Another standout – a beautiful dish with tom kha poured before your eyes. The sour coconut creaminess of the silky smooth tom kha matched so well with the fluffy luscious crab. The tom kha brings out the best of the sweet meat rather than over powering it.

·        Salad of baby beetroot, asparagus and iberico jamon, parmesan custard and black truffle vinaigrette – 2008 François chidaine ‘les tuffeaux’ montiouis sur loire, Loire Valley, France

At this point the menu took a bit of a crooked turn for me – the previous two dishes were fantastically good, and this dish seemed a step backward. The salad was introduced as ‘cleansing’ flavours after the kingfish and the tom kha crab. But the truffle vinaigrette and parmesan custard were hardly cleansing, although well made and probably delicious in their own right. The poor iberico jamon was appeared to be a lonely after thought.

·        Steamed mulloway with rice noodle rolls, Japanese plum wine dressing, Asian mushroom and chilli sambal – NV Henriques & Henriques 15 yo Sercial Madeira, Portugal, France

Not convinced on the selection of a fortified wine in the middle of an eight course tasting, but it did match quite well with the clashing flavours of ginger, soy, plum, mushroom and chilli. This was a good dish, but yet again, there were many flavours going on!

·        Slow cooked Bangalow pork belly, apple pudding, fennel celeriac and calvados jus –Le pere jules cidre bouche, Normandy, France

The pork belly, a little too crispy on the top for me

Apple and pork is a proven combination which worked well in this dish. The pork belly is a little too crisp on the top for my liking, and I would have like a little more fat to have melted away. The cloudy cider chosen is a very good one, but I can’t help but wonder where this dish fits? To me, it doesn’t fit in with the Asian influence running through the menu. 

·        Chinese style roast duck, green chilli and oyster sauce dressing with coconut rice and Asian greens – 2008 Chateau mont-redon chateauneuf-de-pape, Rhone, France OR Eight score sher wagyu beef with soft polenta, braised shimeji mushroom, sticky shallot sauce and celery cress – 2008Llinnaea ‘rhizotomi’ cabernet sauvignon, Napa Valley, California, USA.

Perfectly cooked duck

The Husband had the Wagyu, and I chose the Duck. Had I not been feeling really full and slightly overcome by Pork Belly and Madeira, I think I would have appreciated the flavours more. The Husband commented that the Wagyu dish contained strong flavours that overpowered the flavour of the Wagyu.

The Wagyu dwarfed by the superstack of

·        Ezard dessert tasting plate to share – 2009 Mas amiel maury roughe, Languedoc-roussillon, France and NV Normanno zibibbo ‘vino liquoroso’ Sicily, Italy.

Beautifully presented sharing plate of very generous servings of art work-like desserts. Salted caramel popcorn, pear, pistachio, champagne jelly and chocolate delicacies bring a lovely end to the meal.

Overall, we experienced an impressive journey of Teague Ezard’s extensive culinary talents. For me, there were lovely highlights, but like many journeys, a few difficulties. A little misstep here and there makes this not quite the perfectly balanced eight course tasting menu I’d hoped for. It might be a case of trying to fit in a little too much in the menu. My stomach certainly thought so. The wine flight consisted of very generous pours indeed, so with the sake and the fortified in the middle – be warned.
Would I go back? Yes, certainly for the blue swimmer crab dumpling and the kingfish sashimi – these were really beautiful dishes which showcase how good ezard is. I’d probably choose the smaller al a carte menu where you can build your own menu. I would have been equally satisfied with a six course tasting menu with the salad and the pork belly taken out, especially in light of the generous wine flight.

What I liked: The buzzing atmosphere is quite casual for a fine dining restaurant, yet the fine dining food doesn’t suffer for it, nor does the attentive service.
What would I like to see: A little slight tinkering of the dishes that don’t really fit the Asian flavour themes or were overly rich – Beetroot salad and Pork belly, I’m looking at you!
Similar to: For a more casual dining experience visit Gingerboy, Melbourne. For a similar fine dining experience visit Jaques Reymond, Victoria. For South Australians, try the Degustation menu at Kenji’s Modern Japanese, Adelaide.