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Modern history

Grossi Florentino’s place in Melbourne’s cultural and culinary life has been reinscribed, writes Michael Harden, thanks to a sensitive overhaul.

Dealing with an icon is tricky, something the Grossi family must be aware of, having bought the Florentino back in 1999. An undisputed Melbourne restaurant landmark, it has operated since the 1920s, is heritage-listed, loved by the city's great and powerful (and their parents and grandparents before them), and is a foundation stone of local Italian food culture. So the Florentino presents such a minefield of potentially trodden-on toes and disjointed noses that maintaining the status quo and remaining solvent must require some pretty fancy footwork indeed.

This notoriously change-averse city has largely approved of Guy Grossi's tenure at the three-tiered business (the restaurant, the Grill and the Cellar Bar), despite an initial dash for the smelling salts when he added his family's own name to the restaurant's.

But recently, Grossi Florentino has appeared to be on autopilot at times. As last year's GT Restaurant Guide review put it, "The icing here… is as sweet as ever, but the cake itself needs work." It's an impression fuelled not only by Guy Grossi's media profile but also by the Grossi family's business expansion (Mirka, Merchant, Ombra, an outpost in Bangkok) in the decades since they bought the Florentino.

A perception like that stings because as well as being an icon, Grossi Florentino is also an expensive restaurant. When main courses edge towards $60, they bring with them some seriously raised expectations that a beautiful room and a stellar history can only partially meet.

So whether or not it was in response to the muttering, change arrived at Grossi Florentino early this year. The restaurant closed for nine weeks for a spruce-up and renovation, and has reopened looking gorgeous and revitalised with a new bar, a new private room and new bathrooms in the mix. The food has had a makeover too, the menu slimmed down and a modern approach (sometimes self-consciously so) apparent in the presentation and some ingredients. There's nothing radical in the changes - history and legacy have wisely been kept front and centre - but there's certainly more going on now than business as usual.

There are moments that can feel like change for change's sake. It's debatable whether the blue glass beads scattered around the Moonlight Flat oysters from Batemans Bay are anything but a major misfire presentation-wise, particularly when all the colour and movement you need are already there in the respectfully treated shellfish and the interesting and powerful verjuice, kiwifruit and fennel dipping sauce.

But then a honeycomb tripe dish arrives in a cast-iron pan on a rough-hewn slab of tree trunk (replete with bark falling off onto the linen cloth) and, incongruous as it may seem in the grand context of the wood-panelled, chandeliered, carpeted Mural Room, it seems like a perfectly acceptable part of the plan.

This could, of course, be because the dish is so good, the tripe blanched and chopped into small pieces, slow-cooked with vegetables, white wine, cannellini beans and tomato paste, topped with a breadcrumb and pecorino crust and accompanied by a refreshing, zesty mint, lemon and parsley battuto for sprinkling over the top. It's a rustic, comforting dish, which is why the rustic presentation works. But the precision in the cooking links it nicely with the opulent room.

Similarly, the "oca in onto", a beautifully conceived dish, blends thoroughly modern looks with traditional influences, from the Veneto region (from where the famiglia Grossis originally hailed). Translating a little unappetisingly as "fatty goose", the dish is a vibrant mix of confit goose meat, intense and deeply flavoured goose prosciutto, goose liver parfait sandwiched in house-made spiced bread, preserved quince, purslane leaves and some buckwheat scattered about for texture. The flavours and textures work beautifully together and it looks the goods, modern and dramatic, while being grounded by its trad culinary roots. It's the kind of dish that's completely simpático with the newly renovated restaurant, given the deft post-reno blend of traditional and modern happening at the top of the stairs.

The most notable change to the décor is that the poky rabbit-warren feel that plagued the upstairs landing has been eliminated by the presence of a new glassed-in private dining room with a glass-walled wine cellar at the back. It gives a more spacious and generous first impression of the entrance than ever before.

Over to the right of the landing, the Wynn Room has scored a smart new marble bar, partitions that screen the room from the stairs, and a pale colour scheme that, along with the large tree-level windows that flood the place with light, make this an elegantly serene and intimate space, particularly at lunchtime.

Changes to the Mural Room have, sensibly but no doubt necessarily, been kept to a minimum. The original chandeliers (removed and replaced in the 1980s) have been reinstalled and the detailed paintwork and plasterwork have been touched up so the room now has both the softly glimmering appeal of freshly polished old brass and an effortless sense of occasion. It's a backdrop that works particularly well with the more luxurious big-ticket items on the menu.

Why wouldn't you order roast partridge in this setting? The bird arrives on a pile of textured buckwheat risotto made creamy with puréed parsnip and flecked with confit partridge meat. The breast has the juiciness that results from sous-vide cooking, the skin is tan and shiny from searing, and quince purée and braised chestnuts add further dimensions. You could argue that a traditional smooth-grained risotto, rather than the more textured, rustic buckwheat version here, might have been a better fit with the delicate partridge and the surrounds, but roughing up some of the edges seems part of the Grossi plan.

You can see it in the little blocks of birch wood that sit on every table as decoration, topped with, say, a garlic bulb and a mini pumpkin or perhaps lovely purple and green baby artichokes. It's kind of hokey, like the little scraps of red and white gingham that sit under the appetisers, and the rustic bread rolls that come accompanied by butter and creamed cured lard, and the arrival of some dishes on blocks of wood or chunky earthenware, but there's something endearing about it, a signal that, despite all the luxe, this is a restaurant that has its feet in the soil.

You can applaud the attitude when dishes as good as the suckling pig arrive - gorgeous meat, glorious crackling, a wonderful apple cider sauce, and the interesting and welcome native pepperberry scattered about the plate: used with caution, it's a nice addition to the sweet and delicate meat.

More applause for the sensational duck and porcini tortellini - earthy, chewy poster children for great pasta, aided by pitch-perfect fresh, sweet notes in the form of candied pear . And put your hands together for the excellent risotto Venere, perfectly cooked rice and a winning combo of Moreton Bay bugs and parmesan sabayon bringing it home.

Not everything lives up to the promise, and that's when the window dressing comes under slightly more cynical scrutiny. The flavour of a Flinders Island wallaby fillet, beautifully cooked and coloured, gets lost under the citric onslaught of a blood-orange sauce. A great dish of roasted barramundi and pearl meat is hijacked by the puzzling addition of a pudding-like milk curd. These are exceptions rather than the rule, but the same high price tag applies.

When it comes to service, Grossi Florentino fires on all cylinders. Led by the calm and smiling Joe Durrant, the style here is both warm and efficient, and a high level of skill and experience are apparent. No tricks are missed. Some might dismiss the Grossi Florentino tradition of rinsing wine glasses with a little wine at the table before pouring a full glass as smoke and mirrors, but it's undoubtedly theatrical. And when it's done tableside on a laden tray while the server keeps up a string of interesting and amusing banter, it becomes truly impressive.

There's a generous selection of wines by the glass, too, and the wine list itself, a hefty 43-page beast is impressive, particularly the large section for half-bottles. Unsurprisingly, it's not the cheapest list in town, but there is plenty of good drinking to be had, particularly for fans of Italian wine (listed by region, covering most of the country) and for those who feel it's not a meal without a benchmark Aussie chardonnay or Burgundy on the table.

The dessert end of the meal is where Grossi pulls out all the modern stops. Millefoglie consists of crisp layers of thinly sliced, sugared, oven-dried eggplant in place of the usual pastry; they share a plate with white chocolate and milk chocolate mousses, ricotta ice-cream, eggplant marmalade, gingerbread crumbs and coffee pudding. It's a curious beast, lovely looking and interestingly flavoured, busy but ultimately successful, if only for incorporating eggplant into a dessert.

Similarly wacky and good-looking but more coherent is the "lemon, lime and bitters", served in a glass containing lemon panna cotta, tonka bean marshmallows, lime foam, Angostura bitters spray, toffee sauce and pine nut streusel crumbs. Add peppermint tea ice-cream on the side and the concoction should be a car crash, but Grossi not only manages to pull it all together, he makes it a lot of fun to eat as well.

There are probably purists who will frown at such dessert tomfoolery, thinking a classic semifreddo-like take on the sweet stuff would be more appropriate in these august surrounds. And there's probably a good argument to be made about Grossi Florentino being best served by a menu of Italian classics chock-full of luxury ingredients. Yet there's no denying that the recent changes have given the place a freshness, a spring in its step and a sense of adventure that's not been as obvious for quite some time. The weight of history will always confer icon status on Grossi Florentino, but now that Guy Grossi is mixing it up a little, he's making it an icon on his own terms too.


Grossi Florentino
80 Bourke St, Melbourne,
(03) 9662 1811,
grossiflorentino.com.
Licensed.

Open Lunch noon-2.30pm Mon-Fri; Dinner 6pm-10.30pm Mon-Sat.
Cards AE DC MC V EFT.
Prices Entrées $39; mains $56; desserts $26.
Vegetarian One pasta.
Noise Low key.
Wheelchair access No.
Plus A subtle, considered renovation and reboot.
Minus At these prices, occasional missteps hurt.

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Grossi Florentino
80 Bourke St, Melbourne,
(03) 9662 1811,
grossiflorentino.com.
Licensed.

Open Lunch noon-2.30pm Mon-Fri; Dinner 6pm-10.30pm Mon-Sat.
Cards AE DC MC V EFT.
Prices Entrées $39; mains $56; desserts $26.
Vegetarian One pasta.
Noise Low key.
Wheelchair access No.
Plus A subtle, considered renovation and reboot.
Minus At these prices, occasional missteps hurt.

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