Grown-up: The European's semi-industrial interior. Photo: Graham Tidy
The Artespresso site hasn't been an easy one to bring to life, with a series of incarnations for several years, few of which have sung. Now, Danny Tosolini has taken this space in the bottom of an apartment building opposite Silo Bakery in Kingston and given it a shake-up to pretty good effect.
The look is semi-industrial in a swish, grown-up way, with muted dark greys, greens and metallic, clean lines, Bentwood chairs and bare tables, a tiled wall, and good-looking hanging lights over each table.
The feeling is more restaurant than we had expected from Tosolini's description of a casual multi-use place that also serves as a wine bar, but there are bar stools and tables on the other side of the room that are well filled tonight with people who look to be meeting for a drink.
Grilled octopus, white anchovies, potato and green olive. Photo: Graham Tidy
So the European, as it is now called, looks good, and you get the feeling from the number of happy people here that it has found a formula that will work. In the food, there is a way to go, with some very good dishes, and some that don't come together as well. The menu is nicely focused on rustic, comfort foods, a theme that is right for the times, as well as for the look and atmosphere here.
The starters are rather arbitrarily divided into tapas and entrees, and I'm never really getting the distinction in this increasingly common way of listing stuff. Tapas, to my way of thinking, are what you eat randomly at the bar, just little snacks to keep you going.
No matter, we like the sound of the grilled octopus ($15) on the tapas list, and that's where we start, with a plate of chopped, simply presented charry octopus, nicely served as a kind of salad arrangement with little balls of potato, microgreens, sliced radish and beans, and sliced green olives. It's quite an intense medley, and likeable. I can't find the white anchovies listed among the components of the dish, but who knows? They might well have dissolved into the dressing as anchovies are wont to do. The green olives I like a lot. The octopus is happily resistant to eat, highly seasoned, teetering close to that salty precipice, but balanced just on the side of the gods.
Chocolate tart with coconut ice-cream. Photo: Graham Tidy
Veal sweetbreads ($22) are given a similar presentation, that kind of loose, scattered prettiness which has been so in vogue among ambitious chefs. Call me conservative, but I'm happier with a coherent plate, with the sweetbreads in one pile, mash in another and condiment in a third. Spots and drizzles and little things all here and there are just confusing. The sweetbreads themselves are five clean-tasting, crumbed and snacky bites, so soft and scary inside. I always get a cheap thrill from eating offal, especially sweetbreads for their crazy creaminess and the way they are so unnervingly ill-defined, so I'm never quite clear what I'm eating. So the sweetbreads are good. I like them and I like to see them on menus.
However, the accompaniments aren't right. The whole tomatoes have been smoked, but in that utterly overwhelming way to the point that they taste like a mouthful of harsh smoke from the bonfire, without subtlety. The cauliflower puree has a nice flavour, but it's in tiny blobs and is cold on the plate. There are slices of vegetable pickle, which I think might be spinach stalk, but they're eye-wateringly vinegary - again no subtlety.
We made the right choice in mains, and our success with the seven-hour-braised lamb shoulder points to where the European should keep its focus - simple, gutsy bistro food without too much fiddle-faddle. The specials board has a dry-aged steak with garlic potato ''crush'', which also holds this promise.
The lamb shoulder ($32 a person) is served for two, and comes with a plate of mash and peas, and another of salad. The lamb has a gorgeous crisp, salty, flavoursome dark skin on top, and is a big whack of lovely shreddy, fatty meat. Nicely handled.
I love the mushy peas, which retain their structure and bite, and are enlivened with mint. Fresh herbs have made a welcome appearance in other dishes tonight too. The salad would have been very good, with its sliced fennel, rocket, lettuce, tomato and slightly odd chickpeas, but for the harsh vinegar that dominates the dressing.
Tosolini is on the floor, so the service is good and attentive. The wine list is succinct, a good variety of European wines without going too far off the beaten track, and plenty of interest by the glass, although we're less than thrilled by the A. Retief Tumbarumba Chardonnay, which we leave in the glass. It tastes faded. The pours are generous, but wines are not poured at the table. Come on, people, you're a wine bar - show us the bottle!
There is a welcome kids' menu - the simple Italian favourites of spaghetti with butter and parmesan, or with tomato sauce; steak and chips; and pork and veal meatballs with tomato sugo, which is also on the entrees menu, all at $14.
In desserts, we have a hit and a miss. The tiramisu ($14) does not appeal. Served in a glass, it is dry and rather harsh. The chocolate tart ($15), however, is one of the best I've had in a local restaurant, and I have had many, say 20 a year, times, perhaps, half a dozen years, which would be a highly conservative estimate.
With thin pastry, a crisp top, warm and melty and dark inside with good chocolate, it's everything a chocolate tart should be and entirely irresistible. It is served with a thick caramel sauce and a rich coconut ice-cream, both of which I eat separately, for fear they could confuse a lovely tart.
So the European needs some finessing in the food, but it has most things right, and is the kind of place I would return to. I can imagine having a favourite corner here, a favourite dish and a regular weekly booking.
- 02 6295 1515
- Cuisine - European
- Features - Licensed, BYO, Vegetarian friendly
- Chef(s) - Joel Miller
- Owners - Danny Tosolini
- Cards accepted - AMEX, Mastercard, Visa, EFTPOS
- Opening Hours - Brunch Saturday and Sunday, 8.30am - 2.30pm, Lunch Tuesday to Friday, noon - 2.30pm, Dinner Tuesday to Saturday, from 5pm
- Seats - 84 inside, 24 on the balcony
- Author - Kirsten Lawson