There's a noticeable and entirely refreshing lack of fashionability at the Town Hall Hotel. The Fitzroy pub's two dining rooms, with their red painted walls, grey carpet, functional but kindly lighting, bare timber tables and upholstered chairs, have their dials firmly and successfully locked on comfort. There's no designer posturing, the plates and bowls are white and round, the cutlery is plain and ergonomically sound, and the prices seldom venture above the $30 mark. So far, so standard hotel bistro, you might be lulled into thinking. Bring forth the chicken parma. And then the menu arrives.
Having your expectations overturned is just one of the many great things about eating at the Town Hall Hotel. Of course, if you've already clocked that chef Harry Lilai is co-owner and in charge of the kitchen here then the homely surrounds won't have fooled you. Lilai's lengthy stint working for the Bortolotto family at Cecconi's earned him many devotees, and his enthusiastic, big-flavoured take on Italian cooking at the Town Hall will undoubtedly see his fan-club numbers swell, particularly when he's cooking this well at these prices.
Lilai's approach to Italian cooking isn't doctrinaire. He doesn't focus on a particular region and isn't afraid to venture across regions and outside of Italy to other parts of the Mediterranean if it suits him. His own take on what he's doing is that it's "Melbourne food", reflecting the mixed influences of his home town, his mother's Calabrian background and his father's Albanian.
It's why you'll find a dish like crab kataifi with spiced avocado and chive butter in the mix. It may read like a survivor from decades past but it works a treat. A smooth, almost purée-like mix of blue swimmer crab meat mixed with salmon mousse, given a boost with a crab reduction, lemon and chives, is wrapped in a nicely judged amount of kataifi pastry - not too thick so you can get it in your mouth and enjoy the crunch without peppering the table with pastry shrapnel. It's teamed with diced avocado, gently spiced with a chermoula-like mix and joined with a thick, just slightly sweet chive butter sauce. There's not a lot of Italian going on but crunching through one of these morsels makes that a moot point.
Lilai's lack of boundaries is also well illustrated in another dish from the cicchetti section of the menu, a riff on devils on horseback. Fresh dates are stuffed with Taleggio, wrapped in pancetta (cured, not smoked) and then pan-fried so the meat goes crisp and lacy and the date and the cheese warm and soft. It's rich, sweet and salty and ideal company for the pre-dinner drink.
There are more cross-border raids in dishes such as fried quail teamed with halved grapes and chorizo and three well-sourced steaks that come with potato gratin, crunchy, vinegary strands of macerated onion and a choice of several accompaniments including good old garlic butter. Lilai obviously has no intention of denying the building's pub credentials and, with a menu divided into small, medium, and large plates, also encourages an inclusive, shared eating experience.
There's a similar attitude in both the service and the wine list. Luca Montebelli, who's also an owner, heads the front-of-house team and his style sits well with the "bistro punching well above its weight" feel at the Town Hall. It's a relaxed and hospitable style, chatty and personable without being intrusive, and good at the practical stuff like making sure water glasses never go dry, tables are cleared well before you start thinking about it and a wine list appears just around the time you're ready for a glass of red with your next course.
It's a tight, smart wine list, favouring Australian labels but with solid representation from the Old World (Italy, France), and it allows plenty of good drinking for those sticking to budget alongside choices for those who are there to blow one. A generous by-the-glass list also taps into the Town Hall's pub roots; the 15 or so choices will take you from southern Tasmanian riesling (Frogmore Creek) to Sicilian nero d'Avola (Normanno). It's the sort of list that can have you, even in the midst of dinner, imagining parking yourself at the bar at a future date for a quick glass and a bowl of pasta.
All points of Lilai's menu are worth exploring but there's little point in coming here without eating some pasta. It's all handmade and, if you're in luck, might include pappardelle mixed with thickly sliced, beautifully textured fresh pine mushrooms, pine nuts and a little cream. It's sensible to check out the Town Hall's gnocchi, textbook versions of the species with the right amount of slightly gluey chewiness teamed with a totally bearable lightness of being. The gnocchi is treated with respect sauce-wise, being simply tossed in a mix of butter, parmesan shavings and a dash of deeply flavoured 15-year-old balsamic vinegar.
Some of the dishes on the menu will spark memories (and perhaps Pavlov's dog-like salivating)in long-time fans. The creamed baccalà on soft polenta is worthy of its cult-like following. Lilai breaks the salt cod up but keeps it in pieces so there's texture in the creamy, oniony mix that works well with his polenta, a blend of yellow, white and buckwheat that delivers both body and texture.
There's also a take on traditional vitello tonnato where slivers of veal, poached almost to the point of falling apart, are draped over a salad of endive and parmesan that's been dressed in a noticeably caper- and anchovy-heavy tonnato sauce. All of this sits on a potato pancake, pan-fried so that it delivers both tender insides and a lovely brown crust around the edges.
In keeping with the menu's Italian sensibility, there's a good line in salads and contorni. An Italian coleslaw, all cabbage and radicchio, capers and parmesan is dressed with lemon juice and olive oil and topped with three hefty slices of buffalo mozzarella. Beautifully ripe black Russian tomatoes are teamed with pickled pink onion slices and fresh basil, while wilted chicory, nicely salty and bitter, is tossed with escarole and lemon.
The chicory dish goes particularly well with the slow-roasted capretto that takes its cues from the Calabrian side of Lilai's heritage. The kid meat is cooked with smoked paprika and a variety of chillies, some hot and red, some sweet and green, so that it takes on a gentle heat and deep vibrant flavours. Served with soft polenta, it's a dish that successfully manages to pull off one of those tricky culinary double acts: comfort food that also manages to be finessed and elegant.
The dessert list follows the lead of the rest of the menu, basing itself in Italy but perfectly happy to pull in influences from elsewhere. Dinky decorating swirls on the plates aside, the sweet stuff does a good job. There's the pavlova roulade, a sweet roll of fluffy meringue with crisp edges that's saved from sweetness overload by some tart poached pears and tangy passionfruit sorbet. An excellent take on cassata, a tri-layered symphony of creamy white and deep pinks that includes homemade vanilla ice-cream, raspberry sorbet and a layer of superb nougat filled with nuts and dried fruit macerated in brandy and Marsala, also keeps the balance right.
What really stands out at the Town Hall Hotel is how enjoyable and relaxed dining here is. The décor choices that preference comfort over designer frills certainly help, as does the chilled-out service, but mostly the enjoyment comes from the integrity of Lilai's food. There's an enthusiasm to the cooking here that's infectious. There's balance too - robust flavours might abound, but seasoning and dressing keep things interesting and the food surprisingly light on its feet. Sit back and enjoy the ride, it seems to say. It's easy to oblige.