Ground Floor, Rialto
495 Collins St
Melbourne VIC 3000
+61 3 9614 7688
‘What news on the Rialto?’
Why, didn’t you hear? Guy Grossi the Magnificent – restaurateur extraordinaire, author of numerous cookbooks and celebrity chef – has just opened up yet another restaurant!
Given that Merchant serves hearty Northern Italian fare (with an emphasis on Venetian cooking) and is situated in the heart of Melbourne’s financial and legal district (The ground floor of the Rialto, to be exact), I can only say that Grossi, a modern day Lorenzo de’Medici, picked the perfect name for this osteria. I mean, if a restaurant called ‘merchant’ doesn’t make all you capitalist pigs want to go there in a hurry (hi Adam), then perhaps the whole Shakespeare thing will get the literature freaks in (if you haven’t read The Merchant of Venice, well you probably should).
Yes, that is a gondola!
Unlike the other Grossi restaurants on Bourke Street Hill, this one reads like the cooler, darker and attitudinal sibling of the family. Think sullen yet sassy Lisbeth Salander. There are no tablecloths, no suited waiters (instead, they’re wearing smart-but-decidedly-more-casual apparel in shades of navy and red coupled with sneakers), no crockery with Grossi logos and shock horror! No grissini or olives!
Instead, we’re given some warm bread (which is replenished throughout the meal), olive oil and salt.
The Napkins here looked like kitchen towels. They probably were.
While Adam chose a 500ml glass of Trumer Pils ($12, and presented in the heaviest and most awkward beer glass ever), I decided to go with a glass of wine. At Merchant, only Italian wines were available and most were from the Northern part of the boot. Based on the very engaging sommelier’s recommendation, I decided on a Lagaria pinot grigio 2009 ($9 for 150ml which is tight, bordering on Shylock) which was surprisingly packed with a handy dose of fruity flavours for a wine that is normally on the subtle and dry side.
We shared an entree of parsuto de oca (goose prosciutto, $18). I don’t think I’ve ever had goose meat, let alone goose prosciutto so I was keen to see how it would taste. Presented on a wooden board, which was covered with Grossi-branded waxed paper, little crescents of geese lay adorned with a drizzle of olive oil, shaved fennel and grated piave cheese. The goose had a chewier and fattier texture than duck and when given a make-over by the piave and the fennel, the flavours were like dynamite in your mouth. A fantastic start.
We decided to share three mains. First up, the bigoli co l’anara (bigoli with duck ragu, $20). ‘What, you ordered spag bol?!’ asked Adam incredulously as soon as the dish was placed in front of us. Haha no, darling, this pasta is bigoli, a Venetian pasta that’s made out of buckwheat (or in this case, whole wheat flour) and has a tiny hole in the centre. Not that this dish was bad – it wasn’t – but in hindsight, I should have gone for the bigoli with crab and radicchio instead. The shredded bits of slightly-dry duck meat not only came with fatty skin (which I wasn’t pleased with) but also little bits of bone. Not good. Oh, but the tomato-based ragu was lovely and the addition of mushrooms gave it a lovely earthy taste. But ugh, non-crispy duck skin. And ugh, duck bones.
Oh, bigoli co l’anara, you looked really good but I’m afraid it’s straight to the Bonfire of the Vanities for you!
The risoto moro (squid ink risotto, $20) came highly recommended by several people. Not being one to order risotto at restaurants, I ordered it with much hesitation but after one forkful I decided that those people were right and I was wrong (well, this time at least). Although it looked like an ugly mofo and screamed out, ‘Choose me and risk hazard!’ it was actually one of the best risottos I’ve ever had. The rice itself was very well-cooked, plump and perfectly al dente, with the ghastly black ink lending a lovely flavour that was salty and murky, like the waters of the Po Water.
Finally, we couldn’t leave without trying a polenta dish. Larissa Dubecki gave the pulenta e Gorgonzola (polenta with gorgonzola, $15.50) the thumbs up in The Age this week so we decided to give that a go. In hindsight, I should have gone for the one with sopressa in it. While the polenta was well-cooked (probably the nicest in Melbourne so far), I did feel that the chunks of gorgonzola were way too overpowering – perhaps if they were broken up into smaller chunks, it would have tasted better? I thought it was just me being pedantic but Adam also felt the same way about the dish…
Adam didn’t want dessert so I happily had a fritole de pomo (apple fritters with cinnamon ice cream, $14.50 all to myself. The five crunchy pieces of battered apples were fried to a level of perfection that gave new meaning to the word ‘pomodoro.’ They were carelessly dusted with icing sugar and accompanied by a lovely cinnamon ice cream that was big on both taste and texture. Loved it.
Adam, instead, ordered an espresso ($3) and I made him order some hazelnut kisses to do with it ($3, worth it for seeing the squeamish look on Adam’s face when he told the waiter that he would like “a espresso and some hazelnut … kisses”). The hazelnut kisses (snigger) were fine but the espresso was the thing that really impressed Adam – a crema that was more dark rather than golden, but still full of intensity and flavour. He loved it.
There may have been some slight misses, but the hits were certainly big enough for us to come back again. I, for one, would love to try the polenta and sopressa combination and who can resist a hearty gnocchi and veal ragu on a winter’s day? It may be the black sheep of the Grossi empire but like the father of the prodigal son, it will greet you with open warms and ‘buona seras’ if you give it a chance.