347 Flinders Lane Melbourne, VIC 300003 9620 3335
|Opening hours||Sun-Thurs, 11am-11pm; Fri-Sat, 11am-1am|
|Features||Licensed, Wheelchair access, Outdoor seating, Vegetarian friendly, Gluten-free options|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||AMEX, Mastercard, Visa, eftpos|
It's known in the biz as a "famil" – a familiarisation exercise, aka a freebie jaunt in which a bunch of journalists are flown to, say, a Queensland resort, wined and dined and put up in some nice accommodation (please, don't worry about the minibar account), following which they will presumably write some nice things about what a nice place it is.
Naturally enough the practice has metastasised into the restaurant trade. Food writers and bloggers are routinely invited to pretend they need a new eatery's "concept" explained to them over a free dinner. It's difficult to imagine a restaurant so conceptual it needs a middleman to explain it – maybe if Ferran Adria decided to open a bacon bar on Mars – and sure enough it proves true with Vapiano, a 100-strong restaurant "concept" invented by a German McDonald's franchisee.
Despite declining repeated offers of a famil, I can tell you this: Melbourne's is the third Vapiano on home soil, the idea imported by an Australian businessman who planted his first flags in Queensland. Like McDonald's, which was once revolutionary in its own right, Vapiano offers the same menu whether in Berlin or Brisbane. A chip card replaces the need for waiters. You order from one of the red-bandana-wearing cooks, swipe your card, wait for the order and carry it back to your table. Expect to repeat the process at the bar, at the pizza counter (here you get a buzzer to summon you back when it's ready), antipasti counter, pasta counter etc.
It's German efficiency applied to an American concept with an Italian heart. Expect to see more of it. Sydney's Kitchen by Mike and our own Red China have shown making diners work for their meal isn't necessarily divorced from enjoyable good-quality grub, but Vapiano is to Italian food as the Ikea caff is to Swedish. Put it this way: whoever orders a caprese salad in winter deserves the insipid tomatoes that defy their vibrant-red looks to taste of precisely nothing. As ye sow, so shall ye reap.
The fitout is 21st-century canteen. The broad first-floor space is decked out with oak share tables and chairs, a distressed olive tree providing a centrepiece, the tables kitted out with pots of fresh herbs for the plucking. It's designed to drive the fresh message home, an illusion that ends with the antipasti, an impressive wooden paddle littered with foodstuffs that taste of little more than fridge.
Go to Rosa's Kitchen to see how good real Italian antipasti can be, as opposed to this depressing collection of overdone/undercooked roasted/marinated vegetables, personality-free meats, very ordinary slices of what's simply billed as "parmesan" and sun-dried tomatoes. Remember them?
The carpaccio comprises tissue-thin slices of mushy beef stuck to a fridge-cold plate. These are topped with raw slices of button mushroom and parmesan, an undressed lump of rocket and some squiggles of mildly tangy mayo.
The pasta's fresh. You can see them making it on an impressive industrial machine behind glass, and the clever induction cooktops using wok-like contraptions means it's ready in a matter of minutes. Unfortunately, garlic and onion don't cook quite as fast. Crunch, crunch. The ravioli stuffed with bolognese paste are actually quite tasty, although the tomato cream sauce inexplicably contains carrot sticks and spring onion.
The idea of topping a pizza with prosciutto, fig and honey – seasonality aside – quite appealed. The crust is chewy, the base cardboard-esque, the topping – including a thin smear of tomato sugo – desultory. It's $20.90. Pause to reflect that the same money would buy a pizza at Ladro.
The service is laughable. I don't just mean my own. Empty glasses pile up in between visits to the bar for water refills or another stab at the short, unremarkable wine list. Plates are cleared once – just before the pizza buzzer goes off, which is a nuisance. Off to find some replacements while my pal minds the bags. No chance of a good bitch session when we're so busy retrieving plates, waiting for food, tag-teaming across the joint.
By our last sortie to the bar for a set cheesecake coated in a lurid yellow layer of medicinal-tasting lemon substance, it's perfectly clear Vapiano is just one big conversation interruption. In our Italian-hearted town, you can do so much better than eating here. But if eat here you must, make sure it's with people you don't like.
The best bit Fresh herbs on the tables
The worst bit Everything else
Go-to dish Ravioli bolognese, $18.90
Wine list Short, pedestrian
We drank Burchino chianti (Tuscany, Italy) $10.50/$49.50
Parking Street or paid
Bookings Only for 10 or more
How we score
Of 20 points, 10 are awarded for food, five for service, three for ambience, two for wow factor.
12 Reasonable 13 Good if not great 14 Solid and enjoyable 15 Very good 16 Capable of greatness 17 Special 18 Exceptional 19 Extraordinary 20 Perfection
Restaurants are reviewed again for The Age Good Food Guide and scores may vary.