Thursday, January 13, 2011
I hope you had a blast welcoming the start of a new decade. Can you believe that it’s already two weeks into January?
While most of us are ushering in the new year with resolutions and refreshed ambitions – I’m not going to be smug, I have some of my own – I spent the first few off days of 2011 quietly at home, sipping coffee, feasting on leftovers from our Christmas dinner and a New Year Eve’s pot luck at work whilst preparing for the second installment of our Australian getaway series. Looking back at photos brings back fond memories etched not too long ago, at some moments I would smile stupidly to myself, longing to go back to that place where we spent possibly some of our happiest days of 2010.
On the third day of our trip to beautiful Melbourne, St Kilda beach was on the agenda. I was looking forward to three things there – sunset at the pier, the possibility of catching a glimpse of the Little Penguins (beginning of summer being the egg laying season for these cute buggers) and this place called Il Fornaio.
I first found out about Il Fornaio through my monthly issue of Gourmet Traveler. Part of the preparation for our trip was to set up a list of places we must eat at so I was dissecting my GTs like a full time researcher for a good two months before we took off. Incidentally, during this time I also started catching up with Masterchef Australia Season 2 and saw the highly regarded Philippa Sibley bringing to one of the celebrity chef challenge episodes her famous Caramel Parfait Glace with Salted Peanut Caramel and Milk Chocolate Mousse.
It was not the Snickers that attracted me – a repeating ingredient in an already mouthful name of a dessert and milk chocolate don’t really rock my boat. It was rather the description of the poached pear with a center of Heilala organic vanilla ice cream and the comely picture of the coq au vin pithivier (which was already replaced with the chicken braised leek and tarragon pithivier but let’s get to more of the unfortunate results of my below-par-quality ‘research’ as we go on) – a tall, patterned and golden puff pastry wrapping inside it a luscious meat filling, promising an orgasmic experiences which will be for once, not coming from a dessert of a big time pastry chef.
We arrived at the place around 4:30 PM after a long, slow stroll along Ackland Street and stopping at one of the many cake shops for coffee, cannoli and Turkish delights. The rustic and split-level factory look was right down our alley of preferred restaurant setting but we quickly discovered my misinformation from GT when our waiter, Luca (I’ll get to that first name basis bit as well) told us that the kitchen is closed and they will be closing shop at 5:00 PM. However he was reassuring and invited us to sit down for coffee and anything which was still available from the sweet and salty display box. Without wasting another minute I asked about the pie – they had one left.
So Vijay and I shared it, rather reluctantly after the first bite – I hogged the plate and pretended to distract him with the subject of photography – it didn’t work, the pie was heavenly. At this point I was still not registering that something was amiss since GT reviewed the coq au vin version and not the chicken leek one – and decided that we had to come back the next day for a proper meal and some sugary stuff.
A place that serves St Ali coffee and puts out perfect puff pastry was worth going back to, whether or not they served dinner – they don’t, as we found out the next morning. We hopped on a tram from out apartment at East Melbourne and arrived in time for an early brunch. After studying the (quite humorous) menu, we ordered the fried chicken wings to share. I had the surf and turf with prawn roe and chili oil while Vijay almost licked his plate of chicken and bacon sandwich with guacamole.
Dessert was a mini sticky date pudding with vanilla ice cream and a couple of raspberry macarons. Being not a fan of sticky date puddings, I polished off the plate pretty quickly. There was no overwhelming sweetness or heaviness typically associated with this pudding. The macarons were also fresh and crumbly, the raspberry filling just the right consistency and tartness.
I packed to go two evil looking Belgian chocolate brownies and we made our way to the tram stop at Fitzroy Street to return to the CBD. While waiting for the tram I told Vijay to remind me not to forget the bag of brownies – with my memory the size of a split dhal, I do that quite often – and guess what? Let’s just say I hoped for the brownies to bless a hungry soul instead of being thrown into the dumpster. We returned again for breakfast on the day we left Melbourne tentatively for our Great Ocean Road trip. This time we shared the chicken and leek pie while I had the king fish and quinoa salad, Vijay wanted to keep it light for the long drive ahead.
Luca – yes, the same waiter from our two visits before; yes, he’s good looking and admitted he’s Italian after I told him he had an ascent and yes, I ogled… just a little – finally decided to introduce himself after seeing us with our two DSLRs firing away at our food from all sorts of angles on our previous visits. He wasn’t at all bothered about what the photos are for – we got asked this question at another place I will tell you about soon – but wanted to know if cameras and lenses are cheaper in Singapore and Malaysia. Friendly wait staffs and great service adds more brownie points no?
After our meal, I contemplated the Snickers for a bit and decided to ask Luca for one. This was when I (yes, yes, finally) found out that Philippa Sibley had just left the joint the week before we arrive (only a few months after she launched the place) and therefore her desserts and some of her signature dishes are no longer available although the Snickers and a few other desserts were still on the menu. So much for my half-cooked research huh? Nevertheless, the restaurant is currently not closed (perhaps it was for a couple of days after Philippa left but we first went there on 28 November) and we would’ve gone even if we knew this beforehand.
Hence we left our emails with Luca and said goodbye to Il Fornaio with a brownie – no, I couldn’t stop thinking about the ones I left behind – and a sausage roll for the road. The sausage roll made Vijay very happy on the way to Lorne while the brownie was safely kept all the way through our journey to Philip Island – it became our supper after an awesome evening spent with my tiny, wobbly friends.
We don’t really know if Il Fornaio will still be around the next time we visit Melbourne but I personally belief that the place will survive under the helm of its two new chefs (I can’t recall their names despite Luca carefully telling me – remember that bit about my pea-sized memory? I wasn’t joking.). Despite some negative reviews around the Internet of it being overrated, poorly serviced and overpriced – which I won’t brush aside, perhaps consistency is the issue here – we all but enjoyed ourselves every time we were there.
A restaurant needs a little bit more than good food and a competent head chef to stay alive – it has to be soulful and breathe its own identity. I think Il Fornaio has that potential, even if it’s no longer slated to be known as the dessert place of a previous Masterchef celebrity.
Note: This is not a restaurant review but a post based purely on our own experiences.
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