Emporium Complex, 1000 Ann Street
Fortitude Valley QLD 4006
+61 7 3852 1500
As a frequent visitor to the Sunshine State, I’ve become accustomed to the Gold Coast dining scene (slowly, but surely) and am able to give people a few places to visit (and avoid) in Far North Queensland. However, I don’t know anything at all about the dining scene in the state’s capital, Brisbane. So when Marty agreed to take me there for the day, I wanted to use this opportunity to suss out Brisvegas’ dining scene.
Using the Queensland Good Food Guide 2012 as my source, I collated a list pretty quickly. Unfortunately, we had only planned to be there during the day as Marty was keen to drive back to the ‘Coast before it got really dark. Therefore, lunch was the only option. That didn’t leave us with many choices but luckily Fortitude Valley’s Tartufo, supposedly Brisbane’s finest Italian restaurant, was open for lunch on Saturdays. Perfect, because we were planning to spend most of the day shopping in ‘The Valley.’
Owned by Tony Percuoco, the former chef and owner of Gold Coast’s highly acclaimed Fellini restaurant, Tartufo has no shortage of fans. Tartufo not only received one chef’s hat in this year’s Queensland Good Food Guide, it is also a ‘must go to’ destination for many out-of-town visitors. Plus, the Courier Mail’s Alison Cotes once said that it served better Italian than Rome does. A big call, I thought, but certainly a claim worth sussing out.
Tartufo means truffle in Italian and like the tuber itself, the restaurant isn’t easy to spot at first. After doing a lap around the Emporium, we finally found the heavy double doors that led us to the restaurant. We arrived to a near-empty dining room for our 1pm booking and walked into a rather imposing dining room that looked more old style French bistro than Italian. Think of that scene in Inglourious Basterds where Frederick Zoller bumps into Emmanuelle Mimieux at the café. The restaurant was like that cafe, but classier. We later found out that the restaurant was once a French restaurant, La Belle Époque. That explains it.
We were seated at the back of the room, where we had ample viewing of the entire restaurant. It was a large space, yet a sense of intimacy was also achieved thanks to the cosy booths that lined the back wall. Our waiter saw that we extremely parched, so he quickly poured us water from a sleek-looking jug. He was attentive like throughout the whole meal and our water glasses were never empty. However, I did find his overall demeanour rather sullen – it was like he didn’t want to be there, which was fair enough given that it was a lovely 20 degrees outside (in the middle of June) but still.
Anyway, Marty ordered a cocktail, an Arancini Sunset ($16), No arancini balls were harmed in the making of Tartufo’s take on the classic Vodka Sunset, however the Cointreau and Aperol (used instead of Grenadine) could have been put to better use elsewhere. I found the drink too sweet, even with the generous dosage of orange juice. Marty agreed with me, saying that it was sweet, yes, and nice – but only because he was thirsty more than anything else. My 2008 Borgo alla vigne ‘grave’ Pinot Grigio ($12) from Friuli in Italy was a better choice. It was a well-balanced white that was slightly fruity.
We were asked if we wanted bread, to which we replied, ‘yes, please.’ It was excellent bread – soft, warm and just delicious – but we were surprised to find that we were charged. Now, whether you think that bread should be complimentary or not is not the issue here (FYI, I don’t believe in charging for bread), but not being told that bread was $8.50 wasn’t cool.
Tartufo’s dishes draw the most influence from Naples, but there are also nods to the regions of Umbria, Tuscany and Abruzzi. Home-made pasta dishes are apparently a must-try here though meat dishes also tempt. What I liked best about the menu, regardless of what you order, was that the restaurant aims to source ingredients from within a 200km radius. Understandably, there are just some things that you can’t get in Queensland but amazingly, the furthest place Tartufo really goes to is Tasmania.
I had the crudo di trota ($24), a masterpiece made with raw pieces of Tasmanian deep sea ocean trout and king fish. The ensemble was then topped with fried capers, lemon juice, micro herbs, chives, extra virgin olive oil and freshly milled pepper. It was beautiful. Even though they were slightly heavy-handed with the dressing, the fresh flavours of the fish still shone through. It had everything from tanginess, freshness, herby-ness and saltiness, the latter coming from the fried capers.
I did think that they used a tad too much EVOO, though. What was this, the Gulf of Mexico?
Marty had the vitello tonnato ($24). Looking very much like a Pro Hart painting, his dish was made up of old braised Gippsland veal pieces. The arrangement was then topped with tuna mayonnaise, capers, anchovies and cornichons. While it looked very impressive and while the cold slices of veal were delicious on its own, we both found the dish to be a smidgen too salty. Oh, Mr Hart! *sad face*
There was a bit of a wait for our mains. I should also mention here that Tartufo cleverly added a disclaimer on their menu, saying that because great food takes a little longer to prepare and because Tartufo’s food is so awesome, do be prepared to wait. That was fine with us; however we started to get annoyed at the 30 minute mark. The dining room wasn’t even a quarter full, for one thing. Another thing that made me frown was that the couple sitting next to us was obviously well acquainted with the restaurant staff if the amount of complimentary dishes and long chat sessions with a couple of waiters and one of the chefs was anything to go by. That itself was fine but what I didn’t like was the fact that the waiters continued chatting when it was obvious there were restless diners around the room waiting to be served. Dudes, WTF?
Luckily, our mains arrived before I got pissier. I had the ravioloni al pomodoro ($25). Several pieces of home-made ravioli were filled with a safe but delicious combination of ricotta, spinach and nutmeg and served with a ‘classic sauce’ of butter, fresh chopped tomato, parmesan cheese and basil. The dish not only looked messy and unattractive, it also didn’t make my taste buds sing. I found the dish to be way too salty – not even the tomato and basil was able to cut through all that sodium. I also would have liked the parmesan cheese to be optional. It was already cheesy enough with the ricotta filling but the liberal sprinkling of parmesan cheese was overkill.
Marty’s dish, the porchetta Contadina ($36), was slightly easier on the eye. A Kingaroy pork belly was filled with lardo di Colonnata (pork fat cooked in a marble vat to give it a smooth texture) and an intoxicating mixture of sage, rosemary and garlic. It was then served in its own juices along with some cavolo nero and hot mustard fruits. Although the horseshoe-shaped pork looked pretty, Marty was not particularly awed by it. To him, it was like a simple roast crackling pork that overstayed its welcome in the oven for the meat erred a bit on the dry side.
Although we weren’t completely full, we weren’t keen on staying for dessert. If we had enjoyed our mains, we probably would have been in the mood for some honey-infused pannacotta with honeycomb and pear jellies. However, we just couldn’t wait to get out of there so we just grabbed the bill. The total cost of $145.50 wasn’t too bad for a one-hatted restaurant, though if our meal was only a little bit more expensive I would have certainly argued that it was overpriced.
I was disappointed with our meal because I did expect a lot more from what is arguably Brisbane’s finest Italian restaurant. The building itself is impressive and I do love that the kitchen does take pride in using local ingredients. If the service was a bit better on the day and if our dishes weren’t doused in heaps of salt, we would have enjoyed our meal better. In the meantime, I’m still new to the Brisbane dining scene and there are probably another hundred or so Italian restaurants that I’d be wanting to check out bothering to come here again.