Battle of the Mediterranean

Name: Merchant
Address: Rialto 495 Collins Street Melbourne 3000
Ph: 03 9614 7688
Web: merchantov.com
Owner/Chef: Guy Grossi
Hours: Mon-Sat 7am-11pm

Name: MoVida Aqui
Address: Level 1, 500 Bourke St, Melbourne. (Access via Lt Bourke St)
Ph: (03) 9663 3038
Web: www.MoVida.com.au/aqui.html
Owner/Chef: Frank Camorra
Hours: Lunch & Dinner. Mon-Fri: 12 noon until late. Saturday: 6pm until late.

Italy and Spain. They are two great nations with long, colourful histories, beautiful Mediterranean lifestyles, and powerhouse football leagues. They are also both the home of exciting food traditions. While France may be the technical master, Italy and Spain are her sexy younger sisters, full of life, passion and flavour.

The Melbourne CBD is lucky to have masters of both these cuisines running restaurants within its boundaries. Guy Grossi is a legend of Italian food in Australia, and his new restaurant Merchant at the base of the Rialto is one of the hottest openings of the season. Last year’s hottest opening was the newest outpost of Frank Camorra, the Australian doyen of Spanish cuisine, with MoVida Aqui.

Both of these additional projects from established chefs have been a factor in the ongoing revitalisation of the restaurant culture at the west end of the CBD. On one of my interludes south, and as a Christmas present to myself, it seemed fitting to try them out.

Grossi’s Merchant, named for the Merchant of Venice, specialises in Venetian food, a point made obvious by the slightly tacky gondola statue just outside, next to where we were sitting. Sitting on a terrace under a heater, the decor was hidden inside, and the wind was coming in strong.

However, any thoughts of oddly wintery weather were thrown out by the house special Bellini. This was lovely, not falling in to the potential pitfall of being way too sweet.

As with nearly every new restaurant at the moment, Merchant is about sharing plates.

To start, a few crisp breads spread with quenelles of smooth creamed salt cod and shared around the table, alongside the sweet, sharp nuttiness of preserved artichokes, and the essential range of Salumi. Unfortunately we weren’t told what the four types were, but they were all very good. One, in particular, had the melt-in-the-mouth salty porkiness that is the purpose of great cured meat.

But the highlight of the entrees was the divine Pulenta e gorgonzola. Warm and creamy, with a salty tang from the classically smooth blue cheese, it was an absolute pleasure. It was lucky it was a cool, damp day, however. It was also a rather small serve for $15.

The mains were rich and meaty. Some rabbit braised with raisins, pine nuts provided succulent rabbit meat, paired with the sweet sauce. Wonderfully comforting, but again I was glad it was not 40 degrees. The calf liver with onions and sage was a similar story. It was a wonderful irony hit that would wipe you out on a warm day.

The trio of desserts were more summery, with a trio of Venetian trifle, chocolate tart, and rice pudding. The trifle was boozy, the pudding smooth, and the tart rich, exactly as they should be. Especially good was the light freshness of the goats milk sorbet that accompanied the chocolate.

There was a solid list of Italian wine, from which we chose a Primosic Ribolla Gialla 2008, and service was efficient and friendly. However, at a little under $100 a head including wine, while not exactly expensive, it seemed a lot for what we were served. It didn’t have the feel of good value.

All the food was excellent, with great flavours and a warm, comforting feel to them. But at the same time they were all a little colourless. Presentation wise, nearly everything was somewhere on the brown to beige spectrum, and while all good, nothing was lifted to that extra level of excitement. Maybe it would better suit a mid-winters day, wrapped up against the elements.

Feeling a lot more like summer was the bright, fairly open room of MoVida Aqui. From my seat at the bar, watching the highly skilled staff work, it was clear that this was a place alive with energy. The service was all delivered with a smile, despite the group of drunken louts causing a ruckus for their Christmas party on the terrace.

I have long been a devotee of Frank Camorra’s bites of Spain, and the whispers were that Aqui approached or even bettered the Hosier Lane original. It didn’t take long to confirm this.

It is impossible to go past the Anchoa. The rich, salty Cantabrian anchovy topped with the refreshing coolness of smoked tomato sorbet knocks me out every time. Two heavenly bites on a crouton, these would be the canapés of my last supper.

Unfortunately, even my extravagance couldn’t justify a plate of Jamon Iberico, the world beating 36 month aged ham from the back legs of acorn fed black pigs, which was a little much at $50 a plate. Thankfully, the cheaper and also astounding ham from the front legs was also available at a slightly less absurd $28.50. Smooth, silken meat that melts into a soft saltiness as it touches your tongue, it is worth every penny.

The Bocadillo de calamares was one of the most talked about items in what some people referred to as Melbourne’s year of the sandwich, so it came with high expectations. This roll filled with fried calamari and mayonnaise did not let me down, hitting me with such powerful flavours that made me wish I was back traipsing the streets of Madrid.

A special of clams with ham and samphire was ordered with the expectation that it would be similar to brilliantly zingy “ham and clams” from Cal Pep in Barcelona, and while there were similarities to that dish, the strong iron flavour of the seaweed took it to another place. This powerful ingredient added an extra punch to the dish, while still balancing with the lightness of the seafood.

By this stage unable to stop, I ordered another racione, this time a dish of salt cod in saffron batter with piquillo peppers and parsley sauce. A pleasant mix of classic flavours, yet less memorable than the others.

A dessert of Sopa Inglesa, otherwise known as a trifle, made with quince, Pedro Ximenez and, in a stroke of genius, a layer of crème Catalan was exceptional. It was sweet and sticky, with a touch of citrus, just like the sherry itself, a glass of which I drank alongside.

To drink I started with a sherry flight, small glasses of three top quality sherries of different dryness, followed by a glass of Albarino from Rias Baixas. They were all excellent, and a perfect match with anything Spanish.

I can be pretty effusive in my praise of the food at MoVida Aqui. Every bite brings light and colour to the palate. It is simply exciting. Eating at any of the restaurants in the Camorra empire continues to be a must for anyone visiting Melbourne.

Both Grossi and Camorra are masters at their craft, and the teams under them deliver exceptional food. But while Grossi’s Merchant delivers comfort and a warm hug, MoVida is simply a burst of joy.

So Viva Italia, but take me back to Spain.

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About freehugstommy

Food, films and politics are my triumvirate of passions.
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