The interior at Da Noi.
The first time I ate at a Sardinian restaurant I asked for white wine and the owner went berserk. “WHITE wine?!” he exploded, as if I’d questioned his wife’s fidelity. “White wine is bad for the digestion! It damages your liver, your heart!” Then he grabbed forearm in fist and gave me an obscene Italian gesture.
Despite his dodgy hospitality, the meal at Pani e Casu (Bread and Cheese, just outside the capital, Cagliari) was outstanding and kicked off a week-long eating odyssey of memorable flavours such as bitter honey, myrtle-scented suckling pig and spaghetti with sea urchin.
It was those memories that lured me to Da Noi.
Pietro Porcu’s Sardinian outpost in South Yarra is a narrow terrace of dark timber floors with twin rows of clothed tables lit by the warm glow of wall lamps. A fireplace with glowering embers cranks up the cosiness.
Remarkably for a 14-year-old restaurant, the place is packed, upstairs and down, on a Tuesday evening.
An affable Italian waiter explains house rules. There is a menu, he says, but only one copy, handwritten daily. He can fetch it or we can simply trust chef to prepare a small feast of what’s best tonight.
Pot-luck dining is standard in Sardinia but so refreshingly novel in Melbourne that virtually everyone, including us, surrenders to the chef’s whim.
I make the mistake here of asking if Pietro himself is cooking tonight. He’s not. That’s a shame, I say, but the waiter says the owner/chef is busy with his other restaurant, the Tea Rooms at Yarck, and is “never here”. (When I later call to confirm this, a staff member says Porcu “always has his hands in the restaurant” but concedes, “the majority of our cooking is left to our chefs rather than him”.)
Well, in for a penny … within minutes a plate of rose-hued kingfish carpaccio appears, glistening fresh and topped with a dollop of celery-laced olive tapenade.
It leads a prompt procession of eight small plates that include baked zucchini (grown in the garden at Yarck) in a fennel-and-cumin-scented tomato sauce, unremarkable chunks of semolina-dusted gurnard and a miniature serve of vitello tonnato, its petite veal slices pinkish and pillowy under a mild tuna mayo and baby capers. It’s definitely the pick of the antipasti.
Pasta is next. The neighbouring table of four gets pumpkin and pancetta ravioli; we get a bowl of maltagliati, the rough-cut sheets tossed with crab meat and a light shower of golden bottarga, the salted, air-dried mullet roe prized in Sardinian cuisine.
But the balance is out – an excess of fresh garlic and chilli swamps the sweet crab and eclipses the bottarga.
The meat course arrives in two acts. The first, a brace of dryish rabbit legs with fried sage and polenta, is uninspiring. The second is a showstopper.
Slender slices of venison leg from up Strathbogie way, marinated overnight in red wine then served with a sticky, groan-inducing reduction of that same wine and caramelised red onion, on celeriac puree and a medley of mushrooms (pine, wood ear, shimeji).
It’s the perfect rib-sticker plate on a cold autumn night and a glimmer of kitchen brilliance.
Courses are sensibly timed and sized so we’re not too intimidated when a platter of three desserts appears. The tiramisu and orange and ricotta cheesecake are both così così, but a cacao-flecked pannacotta gets chocolate and consistency just right.
The surprise of the plate is a scoop of pineapple gelati, a creamy ice bursting with tropical flavour. Superb, but not Sardinian in the slightest.
As for the wine, it’s wonderful – an all-star Italian list of regional highlights. I choose the 2008 Antonio Argiolas, a golden, peachy vermentino, and no one raises an eyebrow (or an elbow) at me drinking white wine.
Da Noi, 95 Toorak Road, South Yarra.
Cuisine \ Italian/Sardinian.
Chefs \ Pietro Porcu and Carlo Havelberg.
Hip pocket \ $85 a head for chef’s menu, plus wine.
Open \ Tuesday-Saturday noon-4pm; Monday-Saturday 6pm-late.
Highlights \ The venison, the veal, the wines. Plus it’s BYO at lunch and on Monday nights.
Lowlights \ The desserts.
Bookings \ Yes, definitely. 9866 5975.
We rate it 7/10