80 Collins St Melbourne, VIC 3000
|Opening hours||Daily noon-3pm; 6-10pm|
|Features||Licensed, Accepts bookings, Bar|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9118 3352|
Whatever it is you do for a job, I bet 10 silver dollars that the past year has given you a solid kicking at some point. So it makes you pay attention when, against all odds, those who are going through career hell continue to deliver. At La Madonna, the restaurant of the Next Hotel, which is part of the multi-million dollar 80 Collins Street development, chefs Adrian Li and Danny Natoli are doing just that.
The duo have come to this project from Rina's Cucina in Armadale, where they combine their Italian and Asian heritages in some dishes like gnocco fritto with eggplant XO. Before that they were both from the Commune Group stable, working for Neptune, Saigon Sally and Tokyo Tina. An offer to steer the restaurant at the Next Hotel must have set the pair's hearts aflutter.
Within the same complex is Society, the major investment by Chris Lucas, chef Martin Benn and Vicki Wild, due to launch on Friday July 29. There are also luxury retail stores including Mulberry and Golden Goose, where Next guests are offered curated shopping experiences.
As for La Madonna, you can see the hoteliers intend to have their food and drink taken seriously by locals as well as guests. A marble staircase leads up from street level, culminating in a golden chandelier of chains. There's that big, brassy bar with its barrel room full of cask-aged negronis which they will sometimes uncork and empty down a luge like a sophisticated version of a ski resort party trick. The dining room is dark and woody, maroons and charcuterie display cabinets starring a brace of Li's Campari-lacquered ducks.
It's a playground with potential. And these are playful chefs, whose creativity melds with cooking chops. Hot, crunchy house-made focaccia comes with Japanese spice mix togarashi, here an extremely nori and sesame forward number that gives a nice umami kick to fruity oil and the bread.
There's an insanely addictive zucchini fritter. A fine ribbon, compressed to a ruffle, is captured in the finest tempura batter then hit with a zingy salt and vinegar powder and bedded on rich aioli.
The good times continue with a fat storm clam, the mollusc chopped and charred with a little bacon and returned to the shell beneath a jacket of golden crumbs – a classic of the nineties you're happy to see revived.
Our chicken wing parmigiana transpires to be exactly as you imagine: deboned except for the wing tips, they are bite-size versions of the pub classic, with built-in handles and a far more finessed version of napoli sauce.
So far, so faultless on the food front. You're also looking at an approachable wine list starring locals that champion Italian varietals like Chalmers' greco from Heathcote, friend to all foods.
But not everything has gone to plan for hotel restaurants. Where at 80 Collins other venues like Farmer's Daughters are front and centre and visible in the complex, La Madonna has been somewhat buried on the third floor of a hotel that is still being denied its intended international, interstate and office-worker guests. On Friday lunch, we're the sole diners for some time.
For the kitchen this only proves an advantage as they deliver in spades. I wish I could say that the service rose to meet it. What I can say instead is that I can empathise with why it doesn't. Staff shortages combined with a dearth of CBD business means concessions have been made in the dining room. Menus here are to be pulled up on your phone via QR codes. Ours takes several attempts to work.
And while contactless tech is part of the post-COVID world, there is almost zero communication from the under-occupied and yet still fairly unobservant staff. Unfilled glasses and storied dishes that go without explanation is a reality of a struggling industry, but it possibly isn't what Next nor the chefs had in mind for their blockbuster hit.
For hotels, more than many hospitality venues, this struggle is particularly real.
It is worth persevering for bresaola that is woven through a nicely embittered salad of radicchio, with plump green olives and a vinaigrette made from smoke-tainted pinot from last year's bushfires, gently tannic and compelling.
Or what is hands down the most expertly cooked, crisp and juicy pork chop I have seen delivered in years, made better still by a bed of purple cabbage and apple that is so caramelised it is almost candied.
A dark chocolate and Fernet Branca cannoli is a final sleight of hand. Pastry-free, a fine cigar of chocolate is filled with ice-cream that has a minty herbal taste of the digestif liquor, closed at the ends with pistachios. It's worth a nudge. The whole menu is.
And if the sterile service bugs you, well, there's a barrel-aged Manhattan for that.
Drinks: Barrel-aged cocktails meet an Aus-Italian wine list.
Pro Tip: Make time to grab a drink in the glam bar first, or post.