Torta di cioccolato bacio & milk sorbet
This is a story of fishes, and loaves (well, focaccia), and a second coming, but it’s not the Bible. It’s the story of St Peter’s, Maurice Esposito’s second restaurant – after Esposito in Carlton – that’s now having a second go at getting things right in the city.
St Peters has a cool laneway address at Melbourne Place next door to the Kelvin Club, founded in 1927 by lawn bowlers and engineers.
Cool is one thing, discoverable is another, so when it opened in 2010 St Peters signposted its presence with a striking mural depicting the life of a fish swimming up the laneway to Saint Peter’s kitchen. It was a colourful advertisement for the first city restaurant to make a virtue of serving only sustainable fish. But it was a concept apparently too ahead of its time because St Peter’s has now restyled itself as a relaxed regional Italian trattoria that just happens to share its predecessor’s commitment to sustainable produce. And that’s to be commended.
Diners are told the John Dory is caught off the South Island of New Zealand (where laws apparently prohibit undersized catch); the eye fillet is from grass-fed Tasmanian cows; Maurice’s mum, Maria, makes the minestrone and he cures the bresaola himself. These are all good things to hear in a restaurant.
The interior is much the same as it was, a duplex rectangle with a marble-fronted bar and mid-century Scandi dining chairs downstairs, a second dining area upstairs and open space between the two. The look is dark woods, denatured mirrors, shiny bottles in shadow-box shelving and terrazzo floor. We have arguably the best seats in the house, a nook beneath the stairs with a studded bench and a cosy, intimate feel.
On the menu: Calamari ripieni di gambrel.
Service is professional in tone but can be erratic in delivery. An empty wine glass languishes on the table between courses, entrées are whisked away with one hand as another delivers the mains, and dealing with the bill takes an age. But the food mostly makes up for these lapses.
Baby calamari stuffed with prawns could more aptly be described as a fat Queensland banana prawn squeezed into a calamari tube top, coated with flour and rosemary salt and fried to golden goodness. A pair of them rests on a bed of basil-scented peperonata, or roasted capsicum strips. It’s a tasty bar snack, just not very big for $16. That said, the menu is generally well priced, with most main courses below the $30 mark.
The wine list features only Italian grapes but almost half are made locally (a Heathcote rosato from Sicilian nero d’avola grapes, for example, and a Murray Valley vermentino). Each is also available by the glass but the bar will only open three whites and three reds at a time, which is probably sensible. The bar will also happily prepare your cocktail of choice.
Our first entrée, the tortellini in brodo, is a real head-turner. The chicken stock has been triple cooked, whatever that entails, and is dense and satisfying for the extra care. It has the comforting smell of warm milk, thanks to the goat’s curd parceled inside each tortellina. Sprinkle it with parmesan and you’ve got one delicious brothy bowl.
Balmain bug spaghettini comes with a sprinkling of poor man’s parmesan – fried breadcrumbs – that offsets the richness of the sweet bugmeat and sauce of chilli, garlic and white wine. Like any good trattoria, diners are served complimentary fresh bread, but in St Peter’s case it is two squares of plain focaccia that feel a bit too 1990s for now. Some simple crusty white would be a better fit.
Three compact rock flathead fillets, nicely tanned from the pan, arrive glistening with cooking juices on a mound of farro, chopped pine mushrooms and fresh herbs. It’s quite peppery but otherwise a tame dish.
The chicken, a thigh and a drumstick from memory, is marinated for 20 hours in lemon juice, then braised and fried at the finish, according to our waiter. It’s definitely crunchy, as advertised on the menu, but you have to dig beneath the overcooked surface to find hints of how juicy and flavoursome it can be. It’s served on spinach and basil leaves with quinoa and shaved corn.
Desserts stick to the basics – affogato, a Sicilian almond and orange cake and cheeses (taleggio, gorgonzola and parmesan, $9 a hunk) – but tonight there’s also a tiramisu special. It comes in a large dish, from which the waiter scoops a generous slab onto our plate. It’s really rather good, mercifully light without skimping on the cocoa, coffee or cream cheese. The sort of tiramisu you can happily gulp down after three courses but still stand and walk upright afterwards.
There’s plenty to like about St Peter’s – its care with ingredients, some homemade goodness and that terrific chicken soup. With a little more attention to detail it can become a city bolthole everyone will want to seek out.
The dining room
Saint Peter’s, 6 Melbourne Place, City
Cuisine \ Italian
Chef \ Maurice Esposito
Hip pocket \ $70-$80 a head, with wine
Open \ Mon-Fri noon-3pm; dinner Mon-Sat from 6pm
Highlights \ The chicken broth, the prices, the wines
Lowlights \ Service lapses, focaccia
Bookings \ Recommended
Phone \ 9663 9882
The Verdict \ 7/10