It's difficult to know which cause has been further advanced with the opening of Melbourne's major new restaurants of the past 12 months: gastronomy or spin? Neil Perry opened Rockpool Bar & Grill to a tsunami of media events, photo opps and editorial hoopla. Somewhere in deepest, darkest Africa may be a child who doesn't know about the new Perry place at Crown… But it seems unlikely.
So what does Guy Grossi, of Grossi Florentino renown, do? He opens Mirka at Tolarno Hotel to an almost perfect storm of controversy melding art, Melbourne history, architecture, money, big-name chefs and allegations of impropriety that get the restaurant's name all over the mainstream media without so much as a mention of Russian eggs, rainbow trout almondine or bombe glacée, to choose a little selectively from a menu that wears its nostalgic 'Continental' intentions with all the subtlety of a Maserati grand tourer shattering the silence off the Mont Blanc tunnel. Inevitable exposure or well-managed hype? Or a little of both?
Whatever your conclusion, the fairytale story of the Italian restaurateur who 'bought back the farm' had all the elements of the PR campaign from heaven, even before Guy Grossi and telly-chef Iain Hewitson, the former tenant, started scrapping publicly. There was the landlord openly accusing Hewitson of removing Mirka Mora-embellished objets d'art. There was the Hewitson parry of old St Kilda charm suffering insensitive erosion at the hands of greedy landlords and zealous interior designers. And there was the Mora angle: the magical alignment of the bohemian artist regarded as a Melbourne civic treasure (who had once opened and owned the restaurant in the 60s), her old works within the place, the allegedly missing stuff, her newly commissioned pieces for the Grossi family and her sheer sense of European whimsy. And all that followed the restaurant's brilliant history: the fact that Grossi's dad Pietro had worked there as a young immigrant chef (for famed second owner Leon Massoni) and that Guy Grossi himself had worked there with his father as a strapping young apprentice, albeit briefly.
What a story. The fundamentals are these: the restaurant attached to the Tolarno Hotel, run for some 15 years by Iain Hewitson and business partner (and now ex-wife) Ruth Allen, needed refurbishment. Just how much was a bone of contention between landlord (who owns and operates the hotel) and tenant. Hewitson was cut adrift and a new tenant sought; up went Grossi's hand.
What followed was classic Guy Grossi: he likes the grand gesture, to spend, to do things properly. And as new custodian of a piece of Melbourne folklore, Grossi soon discovered just how grand the gesture was going to have to be; he needed to perform a very detailed despatch of the bathwater, while keeping the baby warm and safe. By most accounts the job has been done beautifully, with the guidance of Melbourne architect Peter Elliot.
With its new timber floors, abundant natural light filtered through screens on colourful Fitzroy Street, plush lipstick-red leather banquettes and the sheer exuberance of those Mora murals, both old (restored) and new (thematically consistent), the dining room exudes a simple, amusing energy that is part Melbourne informality, part 60s Manhattan Martini glamour.
And with effectively three restaurants in the city - the flash haute Italian Grossi Florentino upstairs, The Grill and The Cellar Bar - the company has been able to develop a talent pool to effectively fill most of the new restaurant's major positions rather than recruiting externally, thus transferring a widely respected, family-like culture.
Of course the menu raids the family's Italian pantry, but the old Melbourne via Paris and London nostalgic card gets played for all its worth, too. The result is rare bistro charm that shouldn't be compared to, but in some way reminds me, of the charming CBD stayer Becco. And that's a good thing. Most meals meander from the classically Italian to those dishes parading that 'Continental' persona fairly seamlessly.
A half-dozen proper oysters arrive pure and simple: opened to order, not flipped, shell placed on lid and lid placed on a classic hotel-style plate bearing the Grossi logo, their name and a fleur de lys. You get lemon wedges in muslin, lovely classic cutlery (also Grossi branded) and that's it.
There are antipasti with excellent house-made grissini and bread from across the road at Baker D. Chirico. Today, it's a fat, fleshy room-temperature escabeche-style sardine with saffron and onion and bay leaf; a few superb slices of poached veal in a tuna and baby caper sauce, vitello tonnato; some fleshy, fruity roasted and marinated red pepper garnished with basil; sliced and marinated pine mushroom, the texture springy, fleshy and lively; fronds of finely sliced quality prosciutto; it's another natural oyster, and pieces of baby octopus, gently pickled and dressed with olive oil, for softness. In toto, it's a warm and fuzzy way to meet, greet and eat over a glass of something as suitably vivacious as this dining room.
A fat middle section of the menu does the inevitable pasta tango; if you've got it, then why not? And Grossi, with co-head chefs Anthony D'Augello and Dominic Marzano at the St Kilda helm after years in the city, has it. But pasta seems such a safe choice when there is so much happening at Mirka that can't be had elsewhere. I fully intend to have my first lobster Newburg here soon, for example. I want to know how a rainbow trout with lobster and sauce almondine tastes. I want the pleasure of ordering my first Chateaubriand at Mirka when I can find someone who wants beef with all the trimmings the same time I do. In the meantime, I'd be happy - very happy - with Russian eggs, three hard-boiled whites filled with the most seductive mayonnaise and topped with little splodges of proper caviar, a mayo-bound cylinder of potato-based Russian salad at the centre with just a hint of vinegar to the vegetables to add some relief. And a subtle scattering of bitter curly endive. It's pure nostalgia, of course, but it's fun and it still works.
I'd be happy with a plate of dark, glossy Venetian-style calf's liver with an onion and white wine compote. Grossi's generous version - which might have used a little more time in the kitchen being trimmed - may prove to be a watershed for non-converts: the flavours are deep and long, the integrity of the meat suggesting just the right time in the pan. It comes with some great mash; it's not on the 'official' list of side dishes, but a little bowl of soft polenta is heaven with the simple wet dish.
The dessert list is a very welcome chance to indulge in nostalgia; there's a Savarin with Jamaican rum, nougat crêpes and a soufflé, of course (mocha with sherry ice-cream, which sounds rather brilliant). They also do an exemplary, igloo-shaped bombe: a light sponge base, cherry gelato at the centre, exceptional vanilla ice-cream around it and, finally, a very carefully piped outer layer of silken, dense Italian meringue for insulation. The painstakingly symmetrical nature of the star-shaped piping of meringue creates a marvellous landscape once the blow torch has been applied: pure white with an almost-floral pattern of scorched ridges. Classic pastry work.
It exemplifies the place, really. Familiar, easy to fall in love with, a little indulgent. Like the restaurant itself, an easy story to tell enthusiastically. Mirka is not the first new-ish bistro in Melbourne trading heavily on the nostalgia theme. But with its unique combination of room, style, location and personnel - not to mention easy to enjoy food - it may just be the best.