PICTURES \ DARRIAN TRAYNOR
’Tis a dark and stormy night when I first drop by Sartago restaurant in Richmond. An Antarctic gust blows me into the dining room and kindles the glass-cased Ecofires on the bar into flaming, Crown Casino-style fireballs. It’s a very dramatic welcome to this otherwise homely eatery opened a few months back by Livorno-born chef Riccardo Messora (ex Caffe e Cucina and Southbank’s Tutto Bene).
The simple, plate-glass frontage on Church Street suggests a past life as a takeaway café (you can almost picture where the bain marie used to be) but Sartago’s mood lighting, those sleek bioethanol burners and the theatrical floor staff clad in one-shoulder, toga-style aprons lend the space a distinct, eclectic personality. (There’s another dining room upstairs that would be ideal for big group bookings.)
Messora’s extensive menu is even more eclectic than his interiors. It offers a sartago, or frying pan, of Mediterranean cuisines that promises to transport the diner from Beirut to Barcelona.
Patrons can graze across the countries or confine themselves to single-origin eating. One night you might pop in for Italian – start with bianchetti fritti (fried whitebait) before spaghetti and/or a 12-hour roasted porchetta. On subsequent visits you could plump for Portuguese, go full-on French or give Greece a chance.
In less able hands such ambitions might translate to confusion in the kitchen but Messora has a decent grasp of pan-Med principles. The menu’s not without its failings but mostly his dishes are as satisfying on the plate as they sound on the card, whether we’re talking a Provençal bouillabaisse or a Valencian-style, surf-and-turf paella made to his uncle’s recipe.
Dishes are grouped under broad headings such as Palate Ticklers (bar snacks basically – nuts, olives and stuff) and Mediterranean Flights (aka entrées). From the latter comes a very cute miniature cast-iron casserole in lime green that’s filled to the brim with lightly battered whitebait. The fried fry are a touch on the soggy side but nicely seasoned and served with a saffron mayo.
Sizzled pork spare ribs are piled on an earthenware dish with fresh rosemary and glistening grill marks. I prefer rib meat to fall off the bone rather than having to gnaw at it.
An hour or two of slow roasting would have delivered the desired texture but, again, the flavours are satisfying.
Sartago’s sourdough focaccia is a lovely surprise. It’s seasoned with crunchy sea salt and rosemary leaves and then baked with a dash of olive oil. In a word, mmm.
Bunuelos de bacalao are labelled as salt cod fritters but they would be more accurately described as battered salt cod. They are whole chunks of rubbery, perhaps overcooked, cod cased in golden-fried and frilly batter. They look better than they taste.
On the other hand, lamb filo cigars taste better than they look. They’re thin and compact, more panatella than Churchill, and packed with a spiced mince of slow-roasted lamb fragrant with cumin, coriander and cinnamon. Pine nuts bring texture; toasted pastry and sesame seeds add an adult smokiness. The two cigars are presented in a white ramekin and cost $10, which is not outrageous but doesn’t seem great value either.
That said, the food menu is really reasonably priced overall, and the wine list isn’t bad either. There’s a fair choice of local and imported styles in the $40-$60 bracket but also the odd flight of fancy such as a $300-plus grand cru from St Emilion. Which seems a bit extravagant for an otherwise humble neighbourhood bistro, but I guess it’s nice to have the choice. If you prefer to drink your own top-shelf drop, you can BYO weeknights for $20 a cork/screwtop.
From the quartet of tagines we choose the veal with cauliflower and sultanas. It arrives in a smart, charcoal-and-red version of the traditional conical baking dish. Plump veal pieces are alternately tender and tougher but, combined with cauliflower, eggplant, pine nuts and sultanas – and a zesty tabouleh on the side – it’s a winning combination all up.
Messora’s spaghetti, daubed in a dense sauce of crushed walnuts and anchovies, is also a bit special. We’re served standard spaghetti rather
than the advertised bucatini but it’s cooked pleasantly firm and the nuttiness and saltiness of the sauce chimes with the parmesan grated through it. It’s so deceptively meaty and such a beautiful bolognese colour that it’s like eating I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-ragu.
Desserts are mostly pastries – Portuguese tarts, apple tart, Lebanese semolina and yoghurt cake – so we go with the flow and order churros with crema catalana. The fluted doughnut sticks are piping hot and crying out to be dipped into the small pot of sweet, sticky, sinful custard. It’s a wonderful way to finish although, like the lamb cigars, the plate seems overpriced at $15 for two dunkin’ doughnuts. But after the feast we’ve
just put away, we couldn’t have eaten another thing anyway.
460 Church Street, Richmond
Cuisine \ European
Chef \ Riccardo Messora
Hip pocket \ $45-$50 a head for food
Open \ Tuesday-Friday 10am-11pm; Saturday noon-11pm;
Highlights \ Comfort food, comforting service
Lowlights \ Some menu misses
Bookings \ Yes
Phone \ 9427 9063
We rate it 6.5 out of 10