A taste of Venice: Guy Grossi’s new venture, Merchant, is a vibrant wine bar serving the flavours of northern Italy.
There’s a nice symmetry to the arrival of Guy Grossi’s Merchant at the Rialto. Aside from the fact that Grossi and his partners, the Grollos, have ties to north-eastern Italy, Rialto was Venice’s first harbour, home to a bustling market beside the Grand Canal in the 11th century. So an ancient centre of commerce is referenced in a modern centre of commerce, half a world and a thousand years away.
A replica gondola in the Rialto forecourt signposts Grossi’s bright, casual osteria – a relaxed wine bar serving typical northern-Italian dishes. A raised deck offers al fresco dining but most diners head inside to where Grossi has re-created a little corner of the Veneto at the business end of Collins Street.
Apple fritters with cinnamon ice-cream
Display cases by the entrance show off salumi, chocolates and plump wheels of cheese. The colourful mosaics, Brazilian slate floors, fire-red Bentwoods and exposed brick bar in the long dining room create an instantly appealing backdrop. The showpiece mosaic is a noble winged lion that my Catholic lunchmate explains is a representation of St Mark – namesake of Venice’s legendary square. All four evangelists have winged avatars, the Catholic continues: Matthew is a winged human; Luke is a winged ox; and John a less far-fetched eagle. Lunch can be such a learning experience.
Staff attend promptly to guests and bustle about the space with pep and purpose. The girls are dressed in belted indigo frocks by Leona Edmiston teamed with gleaming white pumps – the sort of gay outfit a young lass might wear in spring, in Rome, on the back of a Vespa, while clutching George Clooney. The boys are all business up top – white shirts and waistcoats – and party down below in jeans and sneakers. The combination of the staff’s exotic accents (French, Italian, um, English) with the vivacious décor makes the Merchant feel a little like a film set. A frisson of excitement runs through the place.
It’s either over-excitement or force of habit in our share-plate-obsessed city that leads us to order eight dishes. If we’d stuck to cicchetti, those bite-sized Italian bar snacks that run to arancini, paté and sardines here, we’d have been fine. But our binge extends to polenta, risotto and steak, along with calamari, oysters, tuna and pasta. Ouf. And we gobble down dessert, too.
Given the banquet before us, there should be something that leaps out and leaves an impression, but we find the flavours oddly subdued.
A tuna carpaccio from the menu’s raw and cured section is nicely seared at the edges and hemmed with a basil-heavy herb paste, but the fish is too sinewy and not enjoyable.
Chargrilled Hopkins River scotch fillet
The comprehensive menu offers a choice of five risotti ranging from squid ink and porcini to our choice, zucchini flowers and asiago cheese. The rice is cooked faultlessly, riddled with diced zucchini and asiago and topped with deep-fried zucchini flowers. It tastes like – well, not much; faintly cheesy rice with crispy battered bits. We try the bigoli – like fat, rough spaghetti – made with unbleached flour so it has a wholemeal tinge that looks attractive against the braised radicchio and generous clods of white crab meat. It needs salt to coax out the crab, but even with extra seasoning it is unremarkable. Fried calamari, served with a cumin-spiced mayo, suffers from a similar lack of personality. And a promising-looking skillet of golden polenta studded with crumbled gorgonzola also fails to inspire. I couldn’t help thinking the guys at Giuseppe, Arnaldo and Sons do this dish so much better. (Their taragna, a seething pot of buckwheat polenta and gorgonzola, is a favourite comfort food.)
A scotch fillet from Hopkins River is nicely charred from the grill, rewardingly juicy and seasoned with a spoonful of salsa verde. It is good steak but, again, it got me thinking of one I had recently that was better (the gutsy tagliata on dressed wild rocket at Becco).
Our final instalment, lightly battered and chunky apple fritters dusted with icing sugar and served with an intensely cinnamon ice-cream, saves the day. If they sold that ice-cream by the tub, I’d buy two on the spot.
This is, at heart, a wine bar, and lovers of the grape will be transported by Merchant’s cellar list, an impressive 150-strong inventory of largely northern-Italian wines, from flighty pinot grigios to fruity pinot neros. Next time, I plan to eat less, drink more and, hopefully, stumble across some more distinctive dishes.
495 Collins Street (Rialto building), city.
Cuisine \ Italian
Chefs \ Guy Grossi, Daniel Airo Farulla
Hip pocket \ Three courses about $60 a head; grazing can be less.
Open \ Mon-Sat 7am-11pm
Highlights \ Fun space and concept, bright staff.
Lowlights \ Some disappointing dishes.
Bookings \ Recommended.
Phone \ 9614 7688.
We rate it 6.5 out of 10.