Joseph Vargetto seems to have hit one of those stars-aligning moments and found himself in the right place at the right time. Not that he's failed to distinguish himself before now - his cooking at places such as Langton's, Number 8 and Oyster Little Bourke (now Mezzo, which he owns) has never been short of attention and praise. And it's not as if he's suddenly taken a radical about-turn with his approach. But at his most recent venture, Mister Bianco in Kew, Vargetto is cooking with the confidence and verve of a man who's found his sweet spot, and if there's something that attracts a crowd to a restaurant, it's confidence and verve.
The simplest explanation for the fire in the belly would be that the chef has returned to his Sicilian roots (both his parents were born in Sicily) and if you took a brief glance at the menu you might get the impression that's been the case.
How else would you read a dish of incredibly good wagyu meatballs with hints of chilli and paprika that are roasted before being steeped in a robust, terracotta-coloured sugo and served with couscous tossed with pine nuts, sultanas, orange rind and saffron? Or his outrageously brilliant octopus, slow-poached in olive oil mixed with olive brine, served with vinegary, salty Sicilian anchovies and topped with shreds of crunchy deep-fried leek? Or the way he makes his baccalà and potato croquettes, with the salted cod - painstakingly rinsed over three days before being cooked in milk - left in satisfying chunks that make a nice textural difference from the smooth, paste-like potato? These croquettes, crumbed and fried, are served with salmoriglio, a chilli- and garlic-flecked citrus and herb slurry that's like a Sicilian chimichurri and adds further weight to the "Vargetto finds his roots" theory.
But look a little closer and it soon becomes plain that the menu at Mister Bianco is no trad-Sicilian manifesto. Micro fennel, tomato dust, beetroot chips, salted shiitake and green apple custard point more readily to Vargetto's classical restaurant training.
What's really happening at Mister Bianco (which is named after a municipality in Sicily, by the way) is that Vargetto is amalgamating all of his accumulated experience and cooking the way he wants to. His food here is not traditional Sicilian but a modern interpretation of Sicilian cooking methods, flavour combinations and ingredients. There's an Australian element in the mix too, given that Vargetto's obviously not feeling bound by tradition and is happily roping in non-traditional ingredients as he sees fit.
The approach is there in an entrée that weaves together excellent burrata (sourced from Carlton cheese wizards La Latteria), roasted butternut pumpkin, crunchy little fritters made from black rice, and candied walnuts - the seemingly disparate elements combining successfully with their own slightly strange logic.
You can also see it in his dish of tuna "styled three ways". The first way is a busy combination where two discs of tuna, seared on the outside, sandwich a mix of cubed raw tuna, cucumber and tomato held together with a mild green chilli paste. Black and white sesame seeds are sprinkled on the top, a flourish that feels as if things may have been pushed a step too far.
The second component is a ceviche, traditionally a Peruvian dish but given a clever Sicilian slant here with the addition of a couple of slightly chewy candied mandarin segments that work a surprising treat with the oily, vinegary flesh. The final part is a confit of tuna, where the slow-poached fish, lightly flavoured with peppercorns, orange rind and bay leaves, is served with a scattering of halved and salted black grapes.
You certainly couldn't accuse the dish of being stingy (generosity is part of the template here) and while there may be too many flavours bouncing about on the one plate for some, there's no argument that it makes for a pretty enjoyable ride.
There's plenty to enjoy about the understated dining room too: smart linen-dressed tables, white walls sporting polite abstract art, and lighting that bathes the place in an appealing (and flattering) glow. Design frippery is kept to a minimum so the food becomes the main event, but the closeness of the tables and the good sound levels give the room its own appealing buzz: the sound of people having a good time.
The décor is helped along by the sharply decked-out staff who are well-versed in both the menu and the wine list, quick to spot a glass heading for empty and who all seem to have been employed for their easy-going nature. It's a spot-on approach for a quality suburban joint like this one.
Not surprisingly, the wine list pays most attention to Italian labels and to New World interpretations of Italian varietals, though there's plenty of Aussie chardonnay and shiraz action to be had among all the barbera, sangiovese and pinot grigio. The layout of the list is a little confusing, with the Italian wines sometimes being clumped together and at other times appearing elsewhere on the list, but the wine knowledge on the floor is excellent and so putting yourself in their hands is a safe option. There's good booze follow-through at the end of the meal too, with a decent selection of grappa and digestives alongside a couple of Italian dessert wines, including a stutter-inducing Sicilian, Lombardo Zibibbo.
Some of the best moments on the menu come when more traditional dishes are given just a slight tweak. Vargetto's risotti are particularly good, not just because he knows how to handle the rice so that it has the right amount of soft chewiness at its centre but because of the additions - that generosity again - that he makes to each dish.
A vibrant green risotto of stinging nettles, cooked in a little prosecco with some garlic and shallots, is topped with diminutive zucchini flowers filled with a mixture of lemon zest and ricotta and fried in a light beer batter. Another - this time with crushed baby peas and mint (clean and fresh but given a welcome richness with some butter and parmesan) - is given an added dimension with grilled Moreton Bay bugs, a subtle but steady background beat of a crustacean broth and a sprinkling of powerful and tangy tomato dust (from oven-dried and blitzed tomatoes).
There will usually be some crumbed veal on the menu, perhaps a cutlet resting on a peperonata made with green baby capsicum from Lombardy, or a schnitzel with a parmesan crumb that shares the plate with an excellent Caprese salad made with multicoloured heirloom tomatoes.
There's good duck too: breast cooked in a syrup of Marsala, wine, balsamic vinegar, red wine vinegar and some aromatics and finished in the oven so that it arrives with an almost Cantonese glaze. For the steak-lovers, there's a list of three different cuts that will usually include Sher wagyu and might be accompanied by either grilled baby eggplant and capsicum or the more standard roast potatoes and onions.
Vargetto has been working with pastry chef Maria Lantelme for many years now and she's responsible for the sweet stuff at Mister Bianco. If her milk chocolate mousse-filled cannoli - three rolls sitting upright on the plate like fairytale-castle turrets, each topped with a multicoloured chocolate ball and surrounded by brilliant peach compote - are on the list, order them. The Sicilian lemon mousse, sitting on a thin olive-oil sponge base sharing a plate with an excellent house-made raspberry sorbet and a citrus (blood orange, orange, lime) salad, is also a pretty and subtle winner, particularly for those not into sugar-overload at the end of a meal.
In terms of scale, Mister Bianco is a more modest restaurant than others on Vargetto's résumé. But the success of this smaller restaurant, with its palpable sense of hospitality and confidence, point to the proportions being just right. A combination of family background, wide-ranging experience and a generous and caring attitude makes Mister Bianco Joseph Vargetto's best moment yet.