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Theres lots to like about Neapoli, the latest CBD offering from Con Christopoulos, the man who introduced grateful Melbourne diners to The European, Journal Canteen and Gills Diner.
Named after his fathers village home in Greece, this wine shop-café-restaurant-bar is the final tenant to move into Nonda Katsalidiss Little Hero building. Neapoli sits back from the laneway to allow space for a terrace and a double-height wall of foundry windows that open to the outdoors. Cosy interior highlights include oak floors and a classic Italian bar/cafe layout downstairs that suits Neapolis all-day, breakfast-to-dinner character.
On the mezzanine level theres a retro-eclectic vibe to the chequerboard carpet, fire engine-red canteen seats and boardroom table with leather armchairs. Im just not sure about the go-go dancing cage.
The wine list is good, as youd expect from this sibling of Spring Streets City Wine Shop. Diners pay a $20 mark-up to drink cellar wines in-house not a bad deal when prices are reasonable, and they mostly are here. We lash out and have a $90 French chardy, a Moreau Naudet Monte de Tonnere premier cru from Chablis. According to tasting notes I googled afterwards, it has notes of oyster shell and algae and piercing aromas of citrus peel (and) struck flint. Im glad I noticed none of that nonsense as we were guzzling it down. Was it worth $90? I wouldnt have the faintest idea. Would you?
You cant argue with him when presented with a menu that lists such incongruous bedfellows as brown-rice nori rolls (yerch), spanakopita, duck curry and chili con carne. Ambitious is an understatement.
The dish we enjoy most is the one we conjure ourselves. Neapoli has a neat salad bar from which diners can choose a salad combo off the appealing menu or pimp their own plate from a list of tasty stuff like goats curd, wagyu bresaola and foraged mushrooms.
We ask for a plate of fior de latte mozzarella, jamon serrano and grated, golden bottarga (dried mullet roe). A lavish spread of glistening ingredients arrives and the quality and taste of each is exceptional. The price seems a bargain $20 for a generous plate of prime produce.
After that inspired start the other courses are hit and miss. A plate of beef mezze thin porterhouse slices, charred and griddle-striped on the outside, pink and nicely fatty inside, is adorned with a wedge of lemon. Simple and delicious.
The soft shell crab seems like great value $6.50 for two big chunks until you discover the chunks are mostly dark, overcooked batter that would taste of nothing if not for their chilli, lime and aioli seasoning.
We order a plate of green vegetables for balance. The plate arrives and, yes, there are some beans in there and four florets of broccoli and a disc or two of zucchini, but Neapolis green vegetables consist mostly of chickpeas.
Not only are chickpeas not green, they are not vegetables. I raise these quibbles with our charming waiter and he is, as youd expect, at a loss to explain the kitchens interpretation of what sounded, on the menu, like a straightforward proposition.
Chickpeas also feature in the Middle Eastern salad that comes with the lamb rack (actually just one big fat point, not a rack). The side of lamb that hasnt been overcooked is quite enjoyable.
By this stage were convinced Neapoli is trying to be all things to all people. Which, as Julia Gillard has found, is a path fraught with pitfalls. Restaurateurs are welcome to do whatever they like hell, open a Persian hookah bar staffed by clowns if you think thats a goer but diners need to understand what youre on about.
Still, Christopoulos has built an empire by anticipating what and how Melbourne likes to eat so he probably knows what hes doing.
To finish on a positive note, the strawberry, fior de latte and pistachio gelati are all eye-wateringly good.
30 Russell Place, CityCuisine International Chef Sam Kenway Hip pocket About $50 a head for a few dishes each. Open Monday-Thursday 7.30am-11pm; Friday 7.30am-1am; Saturday 8am-1am; Sunday 8am-11pm. Highlights Another potential winner from Con Christopoulos. Lowlights Its not there yet. Bookings Yes Phone 9650 5020
We rate it 6.5/10