The Winter chapter of the Melbourne Food and Wine festival is currently in town for the next three weeks which, of course, means taking advantage of the cheap $35 two course lunches that some of Melbourne’s finest restaurants have on offer. The organisers, however, have also decided to introduce the $45 dinner menus this year which is basically the same as what they offer at lunch except more expensive, knowing that Melburnians would hardly blink at the thought of having to fork out an extra ten dollars for dinner. Because it was going to be a relatively warm Sunday, we decided that a trip down to St Kilda would be nice and so we chose to have lunch at Mirka at Tolarno on Fitzroy Street.
There is a bit of a fascinating history behind the Tolarno hotel, which is as colourful as eccentric artist Mirka Mora herself. It’s been around forever as a hotel before Mirka and her husband, Georges (both Holocaust survivors) took over in 1966 to turn it into a French bistro which thrived as a Bohemian epicentre for the arty-farty crowd for many years. Then in 2007, Guy Grossi (yes, he of Grossi Florentino fame) bought the tired-looking hotel because well, if you had that much money, why not hey? Hiring an architect by the name of Peter Elliott, he managed to revamp the hotel into something that looked more modern yet was still able to retain some of its heritage, thus old met new. In order to pay homage to Georges’ artist wife, Grossi renamed his new venture Mirka at Tolarno and decorated the main dining room wall with murals created by Mirka, herself. In a way, Grossi understands the long-established link between food and art which are both very important pursuits in Italian history and culture and both pleasures designed to celebrate life, as it should.
We rocked up to the vividly-coloured hotel for our 12pm booking and were instantly led away from the sunny dining room with all the colourful murals of birds, trees and children … and into a small, dark room which was directly adjacent to the bar . While the room itself wasn’t anything to bitch about, I would have loved to sit amongst all of Mirka Mora’s vivacious murals while eating my lunch but we were told that some old bird was having a 60th birthday celebration in the main dining room which was strictly off-limits to other diners (insert expletive here).
The menu was divided into the standard entree-main-dessert, with three options available in each course. Although Tolarno was known as a French restaurant back in the day, Grossi’s Italian roots clearly shine through with a lot of the menu taking the Tuscan route and borrowing heavily from Grossi Florentino‘s menus. While most people chose the $35 two course option, there is also an option to have three courses for $45. Because we are tight and because none of us aren’t huge dessert fans, we decided to just pick an entree and main each. In order for us to choose a dessert over an entree, the dessert list needs to be REALLY enticing but in this case, none of the desserts sounded particularly sexy. In fact, they reeked of Julie-From-Masterchef: flourless chocolate cake and vanilla ice-cream… I mean, really!
Immediately after placing our orders, we received some bread, butter, marinated olives and grissini which was exactly what we got at Grossi Florentino and Grossi Florentino – The Grill. Apart from the fact that the grissini was slightly burnt, there really isn’t much to talk about here…
Our entrees did take a while to come and for that, I blame the boisterous party of old farts in the other room. Just as well as they came when they did though, otherwise I would have finished my glass of house white (which is included in the $35 p/h cost). Anyway, that was Adam’s entree: A “timballo“, a baked pasta dish made famous in that delicious foodie movie “Big Night.”
This is what it looks like after Adam decided to go Romper Stomper all over his plate. It was simply just a really, really, really good pasta bake made with penne pasta and a rich, intense ragu of pork and tomato. Utterly delicious and surprisingly, the highlight of lunch.
Sadly, my entree paled in comparison. While I’m not saying that it was bad, it was just bland after the excitement of the timballo. Remember when Franz Ferdinand hit it big when they released “Take Me Out” in 2005? And after that, their subsequent songs never quite lived up to TMO? Yeah, it was like that. Hence, my broccoli and ricotta gnocchi soup lacked that same level of intensity, the same spark and the same zing as the timballo – oh, what am I saying?! I was just jealous that Adam got the better dish for once!
There was also a bit of a wait for the mains but strangely enough, we weren’t pissy about it. I think this was because we were actually half-full from the other filling entrees and so we were just content to sit back with our wines. On that note, I was actually surprised at how full I was because apparently this place was notorious for their apparently small servings but I guess management actually listened to their diners and hence, decided to enlarge their portion sizes.
Adam’s stufato of lamb with carrot and parsnip puree. ‘Yuck, what the heck is that?!’ was my initial reaction upon seeing the dish and indeed, it tasted as odd as it looked. A single piece of lamb rump was slowly stewed to give it that tender melt-in-your-mouth sensation which, I reckoned, was the only thing going for the dish. Tastewise, it was just too sweet for our liking … even when Adam doused the entire thing in salt and pepper. Also, the puree tasted suspiciously like pumpkin more than carrot and parsnip… FAIL.
My main, thankfully, tasted much better. Now, I’m not particularly a quail person. I never used to mind it but countless nights eating dinner with Adam’s family and having to sit through many, many plates of roast pigeon/quail no thanks to Adam’s dad have put me off the thing. Thus, I was somewhat shocked when this plate was presented to me. When I read the menu, I simply saw “polenta” and “mushrooms” without really seeing “quail” and that was what made me order it, without really thinking about it. So when I saw the bird presented to me, I realised that I would actually have to eat quail and at that point, I started gulping. Yeah, I know my thought process is pretty effed to say the least, but didn’t someone once say that geniuses often have unstable minds? Ahem. Anyway. Surprisingly, this dish was actually quite nice. I may be over Chinese-style quails but this dish reinserted my faith in the bird because it was cooked really well. It was marinated in a blend of red wine and olive oil along with a handful of fragrant herbs and spices, including a generous dosage of sage. It was accompanied by a large mushroom stuffed with a polenta mash that was infused with the slightest drop of truffle oil which gave it a nice, pleasant aroma without making it taste too contrived and synthetic which is often the result of chefs using too much truffle oil (HATE).
We were offered coffees at this point and because it was included in the $35 cost, we couldn’t say no. Adam ordered his usual short macc while I was my boring self and ordered a latte. While Adam’s coffee looked “technically perfect”, mine was probably lighter than most. Taste-wise, it wasn’t superlative (the beans were off) but it is still nevertheless miles ahead anything you can get at Maccas. Another thing that I should mention here is that there were literally no grinds at the bottom of the cup once we had drained our coffees which, according to Adam, is a hallmark of a really, really good coffee machine. Also, props for the lemon curd-filled raspberry macaroons that they gave us with our coffees. Adam reckoned that they were the best thing about this lunch and while I wasn’t sure whether he was actually being serious, they were indeed pretty delicious.
Overall, a pleasant Sunday lunch. The food was a bit of a hit-miss but surprisingly, better than our meal at Grossi Florentino – The Grill. While the service was a bit 40-in-a-60 zone at some stages, it remained very friendly and very lucid when it wanted to be courtesy of some smooth talking by the manager, Carlo Grossi (Guy Grossi’s son and coincidentally, one of my brother’s friends from high school) whose finesse and maturity puts him in a league way beyond that of other kids his age. Can definitely see myself coming here when the weather is perhaps a little bit warmer so that we can stroll down to St Kilda beach after lunch. Just don’t order the freaky lamb dish again, will you Libs…