Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Café Di Stasio - Underbelly St Kilda

I can certainly attest to the fact that if you want to see some "characters" in Melbourne, all you have to do is head to Fitzroy Street in St Kilda once the sun goes down on a Friday night. The stretch of Fitzroy Street from Acland Street to Grey Street/Canterbury Road can be described as colourful, hectic and trashy which is certainly frequented by some eclectic characters. It is a bit like a human zoo and fortunately the hungry and thirsty can retreat into the oasis that is known as Café Di Stasio which is located near the Prince of Wales. A two-hatted restaurant as per the latest Age  Good Food Guide (2012-13) that is squeezed in between backpacker hostels, takeaway shops (that have picture menus on their window) and of course the local franchise of the cheap and sometimes not-so-cheerful La Prochetta.

Recently I had the pleasure of dining at Café Di Stasio as my learned friend and counsel resurfaced and made himself available for a dining experience. He owed me a proper dinner as the result of me picking up the tab when we recently visited PM24 (which I was not able to write about because I became too intoxicated and didn't clearly remember the wonderment provided in the last hour) and he suggested Café Di Stasio as we were meeting at The George Basement to catch up early in the evening.

The restaurant was happy to take an ad-hoc booking on this Friday night and they were seemingly pleased to accommodate us at 9:30 PM. When I opened the front door, which has bronze handles in the shape of the owners hands, Ronnie Di Stasio, which are both welcoming and ominous at the same time, the sheer volume of noise from the restaurant nearly pushed me back onto Fitzroy Street. Once I released the cold bronze however the welcoming gaze from the front of house beckoned us in. Being both hungry and thirsty, we were not thwarted and were led through the vortex of clambering guests into the back corner. Above us was a large Bill Henson photograph called Untitled #125, according to my later browsing of the Roslyn Oxley 9 gallery online. You may recall (as I do as I lived in Sydney at the time) that in May 2008, during the opening night of Bill Henson's 2007-08 exhibition at the aforementioned gallery in Paddington, Sydney, the exhibition was cancelled after complaints were made to NSW Police regarding concerns about an email invitation from the Gallery to a "Private View" that depicted photographs of a nude 13-year old girl. Regardless, this photograph was the focal point of the dining room and certainly kick-started the conversation. The photograph was from his 2000-2003 exhibition and had nothing to do with the controversy that was caused when Bill Henson visited St Kilda Primary School in 2007 to pick out potential models for his work. Interesting trivia to say the least.

Despite the loud buzz, the very interesting fit-out which included light beaming from faces from the wall and being approached by waiters in white jackets, I was amused if anything. The small design nuances were interesting to both search out and discuss, much like if you walk though the CBD and take the time to look up at the old architecture, you find curious things that you would usually not notice because you need to beware of trams and certain death. The super-efficient server in the white jacket was quick to take our drink orders and discuss the more enigmatic aspects to the menu. I opted for a simple yet perfectly made Negroni. I am so used to being put off by what potentially could be a wonderful apéritif because bar-staff tend to use excessive amounts of Campari, which overwhelms the gin and vermouth rosso. This was not the case here and I happily drank every last drop quickly and greedily.

As it was nearing 10:00 PM we were advised that we should place our orders as the kitchen was going to close. Fair enough. Moscardini Affogati (baby octopus slow cooked in red wine and chillies) ($29) was my first dish and considering the menu, it took some time to make this choice as there were so many dishes that seemed appealing. The octopus was unlike any other octopus that I have ever had the pleasure of having. Soft yet tender with a texture completely unlike what you would expect, if you have enjoyed octopus before. With the red wine sauce and the hint of chilli, this made for a magnificent first course. My learned friend opted for a bottle of 2010 Grosset Gaia (blend of 85% cabernet savignon and 15% cabernet franc) from a single site of the Clare Valley's highest altitude vineyard. It probably wasn't the best match for the beautiful octopus but went well with the sauce, however this choice was not the fault of the house and instead my highly ambitious and omniscient (sic) learned friend.

Considering the strengths of the wine, I opted for a main course of Spaghetti Salati (spaghetti with pork and beef ragout) ($36) and retired outside with my learned friend to discuss the meal, but also so he could enjoy a cigarette. It wasn't until he was nearly finished sucking back his third stick when the waiter appeared outside to advise us that our mains were on the table. I thought this was not only apt but professional. Why keep the dish under a hot light when it should be consumed as soon as it is plated up and presented. The spaghetti was just as amazing and beautiful as the octopus and this time the wine match worked well.

My biggest regret is not attending Café Di Stasio for the fabled long lunch and it will be a destination the next time that I have business to discuss and deals to secure. An oasis located in a sea of detritus makes attending this restaurant (strangely called a café so you get the feeling that they are over-delivering on all sensory fronts) which is considered a "Melbourne institution" for 25 years and counting not only a culinary adventure but a clash of art and subtle design nuances juxtaposed with the wild and wanton human zoo kept at bay only by the sheer strength of Robbie's bronze hands and of course the stern front of house. An adventure that I would happily undertake again.

Cafe Di Stasio, St Kilda, Melbourne

Café Di Stasio
31 Fitzroy St  St Kilda VIC 3182
(03) 9525 3999
My Rating: 16.25/20
Service: 3.75/5
Ambiance: 3.75/5
Quality: 4.5/5
Value For Money: 4.25/5

Twitter: @epicurean3006
e-mail: epicureanofsouthbank (at) gmail (dot) com

At the time of this post, 73% of the reviewers on Urbanspoon like Café Di Stasio.

Café Di Stasio on Urbanspoon

Monday, 11 March 2013

Man Tong Kitchen Crown Casino - Lego House

After a recent excursion to see Hate at the Malthouse Theatre, I was challenged to nominate a restaurant that would be open and still happy to provide service on a Monday evening at 9:30 PM in or around Southbank. I immediately thought of the usual suspects at Crown Casino but then remembered that Man Tong Kitchen recently opened, which is next to Jimbo & Rex at the old location of the dodgy pub on Level 1. This would turn out to be my first time dining in Man Tong Kitchen, but knowing that it is the sister to HuTong Dumpling Bar on Market Lane, which I am quite a fan of, I had high expectations when I presented myself with one other at the late hour.

We were welcomed by a phalanx of smiling faces and shown to a table in the dining room which is bold and bright, bordered by private areas to dine, wine cases, glass to awkwardly observe eager punters feeding the pokies in the adjoining casino floor and a very symmetrical clean fit-out that Chairman Mao would be impressed with.

As it was a Monday evening and I was missing Q&A I didn't think it was appropriate to get stuck into the wine, so I opted for bottles of beer to match the various dishes. The menu is a bit of a design for a lego house where icons such as chef hats, chilies and wine glasses with various numbers are used to denote various specialities of the house, heat factor and what sort of wine the dish would appropriately match with. Traditional Chinese food at times is enigmatic when it comes to proper matching so I thought the guide was insightful and amusing at the same time because I am surprised that other Chinese-inspired restaurants haven't made the process so straight-forward.

I couldn't resist ordering the Signature’s Xiao Long Bao (4 pieces for $8.80) to start which had two chefs hats next to the entry on the menu. When the soft steamed dumplings arrived, I eagerly and deftly used my chopsticks to toss one into my salivating mouth being quite famished considering the late hour and the fact that I actually exercised earlier in the day. There was nearly an accident as once the contents of the dumplings exploded into my mouth, I had to exert the most control I could over my body not to expel the piping hot soup. As my mouth was filled to capacity, I could not cool it down with Heineken and instead suffered through the most horrible yet self-inflicted pain that I have experienced in some time. With a scorched mouth, I enjoyed the dumpling however was much more careful with the second one and will forever be cautious with these little sacks of mystery in the future. I guess I should have known better.

After cooling my mouth down with another bottle of Heineken ($9.80) I went to work on my share of Szechuan Pork Wontons with Hot Chilli Sauce (8 pieces for $15.80) which also were denoted with two chef hats but also a warning that they were spicy with the cute but ominous chilli icon on the menu. I am certainly not afraid of a little spice, and although I was expecting a numbing sensation which was not delivered, the tastes in general were good and did not disappoint. The chilli sauce was spicy and hot as you would suspect and I couldn't get enough of it. 

Shredded Chicken with Chilli Oil Szechuan Style ($15) and yet another one chefs hat special followed. This is an intentionally cold dish and seemed awkward as it crossed my palate. Perhaps because my palate was confused because the chicken seemed to have a slimy texture - not like the type you would find leftover in your refrigerator after a roast. Of course this is the intention of the kitchen, but it is still an odd taste. The chilli oil certainly provides the required heat and taste and once again my mouth did not end up numb thanks to the Szechuan seasoning.

Moving to more traditional fare, we opted for the Braised Fish Head Soup in Hot Pot (For 2 Persons at $18.80) and this proved to be a tedious yet wonderful dish. Tedious in the fact that you had to be careful not to eat the bones that litered the soup, including the jaw bone and teeth of the fish but the hot pot was worth the sacrifice of time to sort through the bones. It was creamy and pleasant and provided a delicate and delightful resting place for the fish. The restaurant also provides many options from their Live Seafood menu, the most intriguing being Shanghai Style Braised Sea Cucumber with Spring Onion ($58) and Fo Tiao Qiang (Steamed Abalone with Shark Fins and Fish Maw) ($98 per person) along with the morally confronting Shark Fin soup which has fallen off many restaurant menus in recent times.

Avoiding my desire to have Peking Duck since I have mastered the dish at home (I can make a whole Peking Duck for $20 whereas the cost at this restaurant is $85) knowing that I would be a bit frustrated on the value for money front, we opted to conclude the meal with Deep Fried Boneless Chicken with Dry Chilli ($29.80) which was another spicy and recommended dish and it was a great way to end the meal. Simple but traditional Southwestern Chinese (ChongQing) food and rounded out the menu choices.

Service, although attentive when you went out of your way to catch their stare whilst they languished on the boundary of the restaurant were never really too proactive however they were very efficient once you got them interested. Considering the convenience, exciting fit-out and the massive amount of food and beverage options, I will certainly be returning and also consider one of the private rooms the next time I need to host a function or a large group of friends. After all, "Man Tong" is translated as "Full House" which is what I would expect if I planned a meal out with friends and acquaintances.

Man Tong Kitchen, Crown Casino, Melbourne

Man Tong Kitchen
Crown Casino, Level 1 West End
8 Whiteman Street, Southbank VIC 3006
(03) 9686 9888
My Rating: 14.25/20
Service: 3.25/5
Ambiance: 4/5
Quality: 3.75/5
Value For Money: 3.25/5

Twitter: @epicurean3006
e-mail: epicureanofsouthbank (at) gmail (dot) com

At the time of this post, 62% of the reviewers on Urbanspoon like Man Tong Kitchen, however there are only 59 votes so the sample pool is quite small.

Man Tong Kitchen on Urbanspoon