80 Bourke St Melbourne, VIC 3000
|Opening hours||L Mon-Fri,D Mon-Sat|
|Features||Accepts bookings, Business lunch, Degustation, Events, Licensed, Lunch specials, Long lunch, Private dining, Romance-first date|
|Prices||Expensive (mains over $40)|
|Chef||Guy Grossi, Chris Rodriguez, Matteo Toffano|
|Payments||Diner's Club, eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9662 1811|
Still hitting the right notes and definitely better with age. 17/20.
Where 80 Bourke Street
Phone 9662 1811
Food Modern Italian
Cost Typical prices E $39 M $50 D $26
Wine list A big, bold 600-plus collection from Australia, Italy and France
We drank Tamellini soave (Veneto, Italy), $95
Value Expensive but worth the lash-out
Service Polished, professional
Chef Guy Grossi, Chris Rodriguez
Owners Grossi family
Vegetarian Nothing on the menu, but the kitchen can accommodate
Parking Street or paid
Hours Mon-Fri noon-3pm; Mon-Sat 6-11pm
Cards AE DC MC V Eftpos
THE waiters at Grossi Florentino can carry a high C as well as glasses, plates and dishes of high-quality Tuscan olive oil. While they might not exactly be the new Il Divo, when you hear them gather in a clutch to sing Happy Birthday twice over the course of a meal, it's reassuring to know they can hit a tricky note.
It's a neat bit of synchronicity that they were cracking out their best imitation of the Three Tenors because the song book ended a visit in honour of another birthday celebration – 30 years of The Age Good Food Guide, in which the name Florentino is one of the few permanent fixtures in the ongoing whirl of Melbourne restaurant life.
When the first guide thundered off the presses in 1980, it was known as Cafe Florentino, but its history goes back way further than that into the sometimes august, sometimes salacious mists of Melbourne's history to the institution's birth in 1928. It's far too convoluted to enter into any great detail now — but for anyone with time, it's well worth the effort to explore — so let's fast-forward to the modern era.
The thing about Florentino is it has remained such a stalwart of our dining culture, we've almost forgotten the fuss caused when Guy Grossi took over in 1999. To refresh your memory, here's what Mietta O'Donnell wrote at the time in hopeful anticipation of a relaxing of standards: "The ties can come off, the jackets can go on the back of chairs and perhaps even women will start eating in the Grill at lunch."
Consider it done on all three counts. But the point of this piece is to consider specifically the Mural Room, the rarefied bit of real estate that most people think of when the name Florentino is raised. Physically, it remains very much the same: a piece of old world, dark-panelled mise en place that makes anyone ascending those red-carpeted stairs feel rather special.
A place like this runs a very real risk of developing a touch of Charles Dickens' Miss Havisham about it. We've seen it at other city "institutions" that tried so hard to cling on to their deferential, bygone-era reputations that they eventually became parodies of themselves before heading off to some kind of restaurant heaven.
And to this day, a visit might echo the words of the fifth Good Food Guide, which described Florentino as "solidly old-style, a fixed point of civilised manners and conservative tastes in a constantly changing industry". Yet the fact of two young women making Grossi Florentino their celebration restaurant speaks volumes about its continuing attraction. This isn't theme-park dining. Ossified, it ain't. Grossi doesn't steer off the path of tried-and-true flavour combinations — you don't want to scare the captains of industry who have only just gotten their heads around wagyu — but to show that he's in touch, he has scattered his menu with some liquorice powder here and a savoury ice-cream there.
His food can be mentally filed under mod-Italian luxe. I would crawl over broken glass for the pasta and risotto. And overall, the lengthy menu is perfectly calibrated to suit its location, which is to say: high-brow but approachable.
Grossi's arrival took the stuffiness down a notch or three, but it didn't change the restaurant's status as a capitalist Valhalla. At $39, the average entree here is the price of an average main at other highly regarded restaurants. At $50 a main, we're talking serious money.
The degustation costs just shy of $200 a head, but it's a meal of mighty proportions. No carefully measured, two-bite portions here; it's like there's a nonna's spirit hanging about the room exhorting everyone to "eat!". Like the Russian lobster salad. When I hear the word lobster, I usually take out my Fairfax-supplied magnifying glass to search for it. But here, it's front and centre, all leg and tail meat, with the traditional cubed root-vegetable salad and a cracklingly airy saffron emulsion.
It's the surprises that count, too: the cleanly astringent intrusion into the mayo-dominated main action of a pickled shallot and a little orange sea urchin lurking shyly on the edge of the action that looks insignificant but adds a salty, fresh-from-the-ocean tang. Altogether, it's a retro corker. Less retro, but perhaps even better, is a sweetly buttery tail of Moreton Bay bug set atop a striking backdrop of nutty black venere risotto, while a softly melting parmesan sabayon lends a welcome saltiness.
Do you see it yet? Grossi's mastery of the middle way? The shock of the old, you could call it. These are classics that are cleverly gussied up with some modern techniques and ingredients.
Take the quail, for example. It's smoked in pine needles (notch one up for current fashion) and draped with some salty strands of jamon Iberico (ditto), with a risotto-like base of fregola and a baton of candied quince. A lovely parade of intelligently handled ingredients. Or the headline act of the dego: slow-cooked wagyu rump, pickled veal tongue and a little quenelle of salsa verde. It isn't the stuff of revelation, but it's so solid a performance it rivals the bricks and mortar of the place for that feeling of permanence.
Some elements play it too safe — the dress worn by one of the birthday girls took more risks than the dessert courses, which featured a gelato trio (although the mango version was outstanding) and a chocolate souffle with malt ice-cream. It might simply be Grossi's cross to bear in perfecting the balancing act that is his 10-year-old restaurant that lives inside an 80-year-old institution.
If the city's top restaurants can be counted on two hands, whittling that number down to those that have a cross-generational appeal will give you one hand back, with a couple of fingers for spare change. So here's a happy birthday to Karen in the dress. Happy birthday to The Age Good Food Guide. And thanks to Grossi Florentino for proving some things do get better with age.
Score: 19: Unacceptable. 1011: Just OK, some shortcomings. 12: Fair. 13:Getting there. 14: Recommended. 15: Good. 16: Really good. 17: Truly excellent. 18: Outstanding. 1920: Approaching perfection, Victoria's best.