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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 Sartagos 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. (Theres another dining room upstairs that would be ideal for big group bookings.)
Messoras 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 menus not without its failings but mostly his dishes are as satisfying on the plate as they sound on the card, whether were talking a Provençal bouillabaisse or a Valencian-style, surf-and-turf paella made to his uncles recipe.
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.
Sartagos sourdough focaccia is a lovely surprise. Its 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. Theyre 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 doesnt seem great value either.
That said, the food menu is really reasonably priced overall, and the wine list isnt bad either. Theres 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 its 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 its a winning combination all up.
Messoras spaghetti, daubed in a dense sauce of crushed walnuts and anchovies, is also a bit special. Were served standard spaghetti rather
than the advertised bucatini but its cooked pleasantly firm and the nuttiness and saltiness of the sauce chimes with the parmesan grated through it. Its so deceptively meaty and such a beautiful bolognese colour that its like eating I-cant-believe-its-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. Its a wonderful way to finish although, like the lamb cigars, the plate seems overpriced at $15 for two dunkin doughnuts. But after the feast weve
just put away, we couldnt have eaten another thing anyway.
460 Church Street, RichmondCuisine European Chef Riccardo Messora Hip pocket $45-$50 a head for food Open Tuesday-Friday 10am-11pm; Saturday noon-11pm;
Sunday 10am-4pmHighlights Comfort food, comforting service Lowlights Some menu misses Bookings Yes Phone 9427 9063