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Raising the bar

There’s an intuitive understanding about the theatre of dining at Café Di Stasio that sets the tone for its elegant new bar, writes Michael Harden.

There's a smartly kitted-out French dude perched on a leather-upholstered stool at the white marble bar, chatting to the barman who's wearing an immaculate white jacket. The French guy's head, meticulously shaved and sporting bulky Clark Kent spectacles, keeps swivelling around, taking in the bar's black terrazzo floor, illuminated distressed walls that are sealed, museum-like, behind glass, and the absence of ornamentation aside from the bright-red scaffold-like Callum Morton installation over the front door and the sleek chrome lines of the Mirage Veloce espresso machine.

"It is very brave," he keeps saying in his enviable accent, "It is very brave to be so simple."

It's true that there's an elegant simplicity, a beautiful austerity, to Rinaldo Di Stasio's latest project - a bar next door to Café Di Stasio, launched 25 years after he set up shop on St Kilda's Fitzroy Street. And many would agree that there's a certain amount of bravery, not just in opening Bar Di Stasio but in also overhauling the restaurant's tiny kitchen (now three times its former size) and giving the original restaurant a spruce in a part of town that's become more about backpackers, fast food and Jägerbombs than serious dining.

Obviously it would have been easier and perfectly acceptable for Di Stasio and his longtime manager-muse Mallory Wall to pop a few Champagne corks and bring out the scrapbook to mark the quarter century. They have, after all, run an Italian restaurant that's been one of the city's best, most vibrant and influential since the late 1980s. Maintaining such lofty standards for this stretch of years would, you might think, invite some laurel resting.

Complacency has never been a part of the Di Stasio ethos, though. Ronnie Di Stasio is a man renowned for his passions and his patronages (art, architecture, restaurants, not suffering fools gladly) and the timing of the opening of Bar Di Stasio speaks volumes about a man who's not wired for going through the motions. So not only does the new bar represent a clarion call, the dining room of Café Di Stasio has no sense of ennui despite such length of service.

Aside from the slender opening that's been punched through the party wall connecting Café and Bar Di Stasio, there's been very little obvious change in the restaurant's dining room. The mask wall lights, the closely packed, linen-dressed tables, the Bill Henson photograph on the back wall, the fleet of waiters in white jackets, the Venetian blinds, the flattering lighting, the Di Stasio-label wine bottles above the bar are all still reassuringly present.

That the room continues to project its dramatic, romantic persona so successfully is certainly due to the Di Stasio-Wall detail-focused maintenance, but it's also a lesson in how well good, simple design (courtesy of architect Allan Powell) can resist the slings and arrows of outrageous fashion. It helps, too, that the stalwarts who use Café Di Stasio as a de facto clubhouse come from the more glamorous and artistic reaches of the social spectrum.

The menu, too, has its stalwarts. The oysters baked with a mixture of horseradish, parmesan, butter and parsley are still known as "Schofield oysters" because they were a favourite of Leo Schofield's during his Melbourne stint in the 1990s. Also present and accounted for are the scallops, lovely, small-scale members of the species sitting under a now-familiar breadcrumb, parsley, lemon and olive oil pile made crunchy under the salamander.

Then there's the hand-cut smoked salmon, the bisque-soaked lobster omelette and the classic beef carpaccio - a gorgeous, deeply coloured rocket- and parmesan-strewn version that remains a template for how to do this now-ubiquitous dish right. Or the maltagliati di pane con calamari, a beautiful balance of textures and flavours that sees diamond-shaped shreds of "badly cut" pasta made from breadcrumbs (rather than flour) tossed with tender calamari pieces, bitter wilted radicchio leaves and white wine. Or the house-made angelhair pasta tossed with crabmeat, garlic, olive oil, chilli and white wine that, simple as it may sound, is executed with such finesse that it's worth crossing town for.

Similar journeys might also be made for the double-crumbed, roasted and flat-grilled veal chop that's stuffed with prosciutto cotto, basil and Fontina, or the torta di vaniglia, a ridiculously addictive tart with a mascarpone, white chocolate, star anise, orange and roasted Sicilian pistachio filling topped with roughly chopped pistachio and white chocolate pieces and doused in a blizzard of icing sugar.

Many, if not all, of these dishes will be familiar to anybody who has eaten at Café Di Stasio in recent (and not so recent) years. But they remain fresh and exciting because head chef Steven Rofe stays true to the Italian culinary foundation of using ingredients of the highest quality and cooking them simply. You could be forgiven for thinking it's an easy motto to live by but it isn't, as any number of mediocre Italian joints scattered across the country prove.

But Café Di Stasio's appeal - and its longevity - isn't derived from the kitchen alone. Equal billing is shared by design, service and a wine list that deftly mixes the boutique and the benchmark from both Old and New Worlds with a lean towards the luxe. All this creates a beautiful balance so that the experience of eating here is sensory, dramatic, sometimes even emotional. It comes from the basic, intuitive understanding about the theatre of dining out that's shared by Di Stasio and Wall, an approach that, not surprisingly, sets the tone in the new appendix to the restaurant. Bar Di Stasio has a second name, or perhaps a subtitle: Croce Via. It translates as "crossroads" but also means a place for people from all walks of life to come together, to share experiences over good eating and drinking.

Get a load of the food and the drinks being passed over the high marble-topped bar and you can immediately check off the good eating and drinking part of that equation.

The drinks list includes a short collection of cocktails that run the gamut from Negroni through to Brandy Alexander by way of house-made lime gin with designer tonic, and drink of the moment, the Aperol Spritz. They're all expertly constructed and there's a lovely attention to presentation whether it be the (impressively sturdy) striped paper straws, the single giant ice cubes or beautiful touches such as the Mulo Romano (vodka, Ramazzotti, mint, ginger beer) served in a silver Julep cup. There's a restrained notion of glamour at play here.

The wine choices are, like the room, elegantly pared-back. A glass of Champagne (Roederer) and a glass of Barolo (Pio Cesare) mix with the latest output from the Di Stasio Vineyard (chardonnay, pinot noir, rosé) while the separate, tightly directed bottle list keeps much of its attention on Italy.

The food shows a similar sharp focus, featuring many of the fried and salty things that match just so well with a glass of Canella prosecco or a long, tall Tom Collins, and again demonstrate a measured sense of luxury. Piccolo fritto misto arrives in a paper cone with tiny, perfectly crisp calamari rings spilling out next to a wedge of lemon on a white plate. Inside the cone there's a prawn, half a soft-shell crab and a piece of rockling, all of which have been coated in a light beer and vodka batter and fried in the freshest of oils.

The spaghettone la gricia sees the thick, bronze-extruded pasta - cooked to an extreme degree of al dente that leaves it wonderfully chewy - tossed with roasted tomatoes, guanciale, pecorino and chilli. The flavours bounce from acidic to sweet to salty in a most satisfying fashion.

You can order two, three or four pieces of admirable triple-cooked duck - there's that simplicity again - which is prepared the same way it has been in the restaurant for 25 years, but sans spätzele. Or sensational garlic bread that arrives wrapped in foil with basil, anchovies, Fontina, parmesan, garlic and mayo providing a heart-stopping whack of flavour. And then there are the lamb chops, given a lemon, salt, chilli and garlic rub before being grilled and served individually with a Chianti relish.

Another bar snack destined for cult status is the pigeon and spiced cherry baby pie. It's a masterclass in understanding just how much fruit-sweetness a bird needs to shine, wrapped in the kind of expert pastry that'll having you dabbing at the crumbs with your fingers.

There's tiramisù, too, classic and not too boozy, and a pistachio ice-cream cake that's so good it may end up with its own Facebook page.

One of the great things about Bar Di Stasio is that it mixes this appealing, almost playful bar food with décor that, as the French bloke said, is brave and simple but also intelligent and smart.

Architect Robert Simeoni's design is certainly pared-back with unadorned feature walls and - up a flight of stairs and leading to a private dining room and the bathrooms - a dead-end timber-floored corridor that reads almost like sculpture. Add the architectural-dig feel from the glassed-in walls and the Morton scaffolding in the main bar and it certainly toys with the stark and austere.

But there's a warmth and generosity here, helped along by the spot-on, personable service from the team of jacketed barmen and from food and drinks lists that invite good times with good people. Croce Via indeed.


Bar Di Stasio & Café Di Stasio

31 Fitzroy St, St Kilda, (03) 9525 3999, distasio.com.au.
Licensed.
Cards AE D MC V EFT.
Open Restaurant daily noon-3pm, 6pm-11pm; bar daily 11.30am-11pm.
Prices Entrées $24-$35, mains $28-$43, desserts $16-$17.
Bar snacks $9-$26.
Vegetarian Four entrées, two mains, many snacks.
Noise Buzzy.
Wheelchair access No.
Plus Café Di Stasio adds a bar as a 25th birthday present.
Minus Having to choose: bar or restaurant?

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Bar Di Stasio & Café Di Stasio

31 Fitzroy St, St Kilda, (03) 9525 3999, distasio.com.au.
Licensed.
Cards AE D MC V EFT.
Open Restaurant daily noon-3pm, 6pm-11pm; bar daily 11.30am-11pm.
Prices Entrées $24-$35, mains $28-$43, desserts $16-$17.
Bar snacks $9-$26.
Vegetarian Four entrées, two mains, many snacks.
Noise Buzzy.
Wheelchair access No.
Plus Café Di Stasio adds a bar as a 25th birthday present.
Minus Having to choose: bar or restaurant?

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