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 Peters 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 Peters has now restyled itself as a relaxed regional Italian trattoria that just happens to share its predecessors commitment to sustainable produce. And thats 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; Maurices 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.
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. Its 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 davola 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 goats curd parceled inside each tortellina. Sprinkle it with parmesan and youve got one delicious brothy bowl.
Balmain bug spaghettini comes with a sprinkling of poor mans 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 Peters 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.
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. Its 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. Its 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 theres also a tiramisu special. It comes in a large dish, from which the waiter scoops a generous slab onto our plate. Its 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.
Theres plenty to like about St Peters 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 Verdict 7/10