,The dining room at Mission is hung with various cocoon-like pods that curl down from the ceiling like a mad witch's spindles. It's charming and whimsical, with a sense of the natural and indigenous.
No, it's not. Just days later, the pods have gone and the room is all ochre walls hung with framed fabric photographs overstitched with blingy thread and lace. It's as if the restaurant has changed hands – and in a way it has, with exhibitions from the art gallery upstairs deliberately fed into the dining room decor, changing the look and feel from one visit to the next.
The co-owners of the NG Art Gallery and Mission Restaurant and Bar, Piera Potter and Nicky Ginsberg, seem to revel in the changing skin of their environment. So one week, it's Tracy Luff's inventive cardboard sculptures and the next, it's Patricia Casey's dreamily photographic Scented Gardens for the Blind.
The one constant pair of hands is in the kitchen, which David Lovett took on in April after cooking at Danks Street Depot and North Bondi Italian. Lovett takes a largely hand-made, mainly Italian approach, frying polenta to serve with rosemary and aioli, coating pappardelle pasta with a wild boar ragu, and steaming mussels in a spicy Sicilian broth. In an un-Italian bit of needless complexity, the menu is split into price brackets: $7-$12, $14-$18, $22-$24 and $26-$30, with dish sizes varying accordingly.
It's a lot for such a small kitchen to achieve but there are no short-cuts in a meaty, slow-cooked osso buco ($26) given gumption with a carrot-studded, tomatoey sauce; or a star dish of caramelle ($22) – fresh pasta bonbons filled with mint and ricotta, and sweetly served with a brothy mix of peas and prosciutto.
You can't, however, believe everything you read. The menu description of globe artichoke salad, shallots, rocket and lemon dressing ($15) might suggest something simple, such as tender-cooked artichoke hearts in a lemony-dressed green salad. Instead, there are two chunky battered and deep-fried shapes on a bed of heavily dressed rocket leaves mixed with a scattering of raw artichoke heart. One has a slice of artichoke heart inside, the other a slice of lemon. I'm sorry, but if chefs are going to start battering and deep-frying salad, there needs to be an appropriate health warning on the menu.
On two occasions, risotto is well-matched with ingredients (pork sausage and peas, and a saffron-yellow "a la Milanese" with the osso bucco) but twice, the rice verges on chalky from undercooking and is served with a visible ring of oil, making it heavy-going to eat.
Potter runs the floor with efficiency and ease but the room feels more cafe than restaurant – the bare tables and chairs clumsily placed, the bar's potential for gathering people compromised.
Most of the wines on the 29-strong list are available by the glass, and a lightly smoky, oaky, balanced 2005 Hirsch Hill Merlot from the Yarra Valley ($9 glass/$48 bottle) has enough gravitas to multitask over meat and pasta.
The cooking seems more together at lunch, when the menu is lightened with salads, burgers and panini. A salad of gently smoked trout, soft-boiled egg, crisp pancetta and fresh watercress with a zippy grating of fresh horseradish on top ($17) is terrific, full of companionable flavours and textures. A dish intriguingly named "tonno del Chianti" ($14) is confit, Tuscan-style, in which pork is cooked slowly in wine, then preserved in olive oil. Shredded, it looks uncannily like canned tuna, sitting happily on a bed of white beans and wilted chicory – but again, it's overdressed with oil. I blame all this richness for the fact that I haven't ever made it to dessert here, thereby missing out on rum baba ($13) or chocolate torta ($13).
It's a lovely idea to combine gallery and kitchen, art and food, and to concentrate on things made by hand for other people's pleasure, whether they be sculptures, photographs, pasta, polenta or piadina.
If I were to apply my usual intentionalist criticism – attempt to work out what these people are trying to do, then analyse how well they are doing it – I'd have to say Ginsberg and Potter clearly believe art, craft and food can be life-affirming expressions of the human condition. How well does it all come together? Not entirely successfully: the menu is too ambitious for a kitchen of this size and nature, and there are too many anomalies, such as deep-fried salad and oil-spill risotto. They may be flaws that come from trying too hard rather than too little but they interfere with the art of dining, so flaws they are.
- (02) 9318 2992
- Cuisine - Italian
- Prices - About $110 for dinner for two, plus drinks
- Opening Hours - Lunch and dinner Tues-Sat; Brunch Sat
- Author - Terry Durack