23 December 2007

Fine Dining. A tale of two birthdays

Our wine glasses had remained empty for a while. The bottle languished on our table and unaccustomed to having to pour our own wine in a fine dining establishment we had not bothered to do so. A waitress came by and reached across us to lift the $66 bottle of Poggerino Chianti Classico. Seeing that it was not empty, she immediately put it down and walked away without a word. My beloved looked across the table at me gob-smacked.

I poured the wine.

That night our entrees had preceded the arrival of the wine. Well, in fact the wrong entrée, which was duly replaced - and its replacement - preceded the arrival of the wine. I surmised that although the owner had pulled together a decent wine list, the venue was also in need of a Sommelier.

Esposito at Toofeys received good reviews in the press, and when Mr Stickyfingers wistfully recalled a wonderful meal there in the past, we decided to visit the new incarnation for the anniversary of his birth. New owner Maurice Esposito has a good Chefing pedigree including a stint at Toofeys in the good old days when Michael Bacash was at the helm.

He has worked at some of my favourite venues over the years, including stints at Stephanie’s under Robert Castellani, at The George when I used to hang out with Jeremy Strode’s former wife, and at The Kent where I loved boozy afternoons.

Then years later I found Maurice at Otto in Sydney. I would crawl in there for a comforting Melbourne style Italian meal, after a day beginning well before dawn, supervising glucose deprived models and coke infused photographic crews, before sloping off to my enormous bed upstairs at the W. He came back to Melbourne to the Van Haandel owned Stokehouse, later leaving for the more rustically inclined Il Baccaro and Sarti – two venues which most probably suited his style best.

The dining room at Esposito at Toofeys has been given a light modern touch, but it feels very bistro, and not in keeping of the type of venue with principle plates priced at up to $40. The night we attended it was full downstairs but not upstairs, even so we appeared to have donned a cloak of invisibility.

We were given a choice of a table wedged against the stairs in a dark corner or an equally awful little table at the door. We chose the latter. But it felt more like an extra table plonked in a thoroughfare between the entry, bar, kitchen and stairway, added merely to service demand, but not deserving of the staff's attention.

Our waiter in his quaint pinafore style apron, which sadly had already suffered a tear, chose not to write down our order, but later returned to us to clarify it, and still managed to cack-hand it. For most of the night we were ignored. Empty dishes languished on the table far too long and little care was taken all round.

Without giving you a blow, by blow account of the meal, it was not a successful evening. I cite the preliminary paragraphs as an example. The over riding impression I gleaned was that we were Guinea Pigs for dishes which had neither fully been practiced nor refined. The menu read exceedingly well but the execution lacked significantly.

Take for example a very bland ravioli of scallop where the presentation featured a large bubbled foam and a generous scattering of dainty little pastel hued flowers over a row of rectangular dumplings. Mr Stickyfingers said that the sauce not only resembled the sputum that accompanies a furball from our flu-ridden cat, but that it was possibly equally as tasteless.

An abalone dish with shitake filled tortellini also lacked any particular discernable flavour and failed in execution where a hot bouillon - which had sat too long on the pass - emerged tepid from a gravy boat, failing to properly cook the pasta in the bowl. Having once had a similar dish at Circa which had been a triumph of flavours and textures, this was a failure by comparison.

After having dined at Seagrass for a small wedding function the week before, featuring excellent quality ingredients and solid technique, we also had doubts about the provenance of the ingredients at Toofeys. The Toofeys website states that Mr Esposito sources where possible, directly from farmers and fishermen, but had the ingredients been of high quality, they would have had inherent flavour and the dishes would not have been bland.

Conversely, at Geoff Lindsay’s Pearl for my birthday - in lieu of Fenix - the provenance of the produce was transparent. So much so that the suppliers are noted on the menu. The dishes are also thoughtfully and deftly executed. It reeks of a venue of skilled artisans who are well versed in their craft and are supported by experienced foot soldiers who service the front of house with knowledge and good anticipation. The décor is stylish and the vibe is abuzz with the excitement of being somewhere special.

Ok, it is a given that Esposito at Toofeys is a new venture. But here a skilled practitioner of rustic Italian fare is trying to shoe horn himself in a venue that has been renowned for its quality seafood offering. Whereas Pearl has had ample time to hit its stride as Melbourne’s most pre-eminent exponent of Fusion Cuisine alongside Ezard. Sadly Toofeys comes off a Paesano masquerading as a middle aged 'Brighton Blonde' as opposed to the slick, glamourous pan-Asian woman that is Pearl.

As a marketer I would say don’t try to be all things to all people. If rustic is your thing, don’t buy a venue that has a heritage in another discipline and try to blend it with your own style. If you do that in order to keep the goodwill of the existing clientele, you will only do them a disservice and potentially lose them and more. As a chef with an excellent reputation for Italian dishes, Maurice Esposito would have fared better by focusing his abilities on that which people have admired him for most, and tailored his own venture around this.

Geoff Lindsay has the benefit of being married to a stylist; his ventures here and in Hong Kong are infused with a designer eye that is sleek and modern without seeming to be faddish or pivoting on the pinhead of fashion. It’s a strong theme that carries through from the food, to the fit out and the staff. It is a wonderful package and the food is not only clever and slickly executed, it is sublime, well balanced and surprisingly not intimidating.

Our meals at Esposito at Toofeys and Pearl cost exactly the same, but at Toofeys I felt ripped off and miserable. At Pearl the service was professional, personable, welcoming and knowledgeable. I had fun, felt special and the food was a rollickingly adventurous ride. The detail in the presentation did not rely on flowers but there were flourishes provided by Graphic Design in the form of mats and coasters, good crusty bread to be broken and dipped in quality lemon infused olive oil and the theatre of the venue buoyed with oohs and aahs.

My favourite main course of the year was Pearl’s Sashimi grade Yellowfin tuna, seared on one side only, and draped over an Asian salad of smoked fish and greens including Vietnamese rice paddy herb, sweetly seasoned with a caramel Nam Jim dressing. Although it is something I can and have made at home, I appreciate the time consuming production required to pull together the elements and the tennis elbow inducing pounding necessary to make the dressing.

To re-iterate, the quality of the ingredients in all Pearl’s dishes were exceptional. When paying in the vicinity of $150 per head, I don’t care if the food is rustic, futuristic or traditional, as long as the thinking behind the dish is sound, the ingredients are well sourced and the technical aspects of the production are spot on. I want service that anticipates my needs and staff who are knowledgeable, unobtrusively efficient and yet, ebullient. The pace of the courses must be timed well and please, don’t bring a course out just as the amuse bouche has been served.

Is this too much to ask from fine dining venues?
What do you think?

Esposito at Toofeys
162 Elgin Street, Carlton,
Victoria. +613 9347 9838

Pearl Restaurant
631-633 Church Street, Richmond, Victoria. +613 9421 4599


Duncan | Syrup&Tang said...

Oh my! What a sorry tale at Esposito at Toofeys. I imagine we are all in sympathy with you... can't see how the restaurant could defend itself on any count. It troubles me greatly that higher-end establishments can get things so wrong, and having experienced similar elsewhere, it contributes to my reluctance to venture into the $$$ zone for fear of exactly this disappointment.

Anonymous said...

Wow, great read sticky.
You lightly touched on the reasons you like to eat out when you commented on my Rockpool post but this has fleshed it out heaps!

I am right there with you on this one. I think someone with the capabilities & talent that Esposito has would heve been better advised to open a brand new place devoid of any old expectations & perceptions. Toofeys for me was a place, albeit an excellent one, of its times & imprinted itself on our collective culinary conscientiousness, a place for simple well cooked seafood of unquestionable quality. Also its very essence was wrapped up with the personality of Michael Bacash, an un-tanglable quandry for anyone who wants to trade on the same name, that is of course unless you want to continue the seafood theme.
Also & this is just me talking out of my date as per ususal, the days of a purely chef driven & focused restaurant seem to be well over. People understandably want the whole package these days. Sure there are a few around where its obvious food is the main priority but many chefs fail to make that basic of connections that the service staff & atmos are just as integral-some would say more important, depending on the type of place of course.
I have read the rewiews of this place & I detected a willingness to 'want' to like it, perhaps just for the pedigree of places that he has worked, however they dont seem to be all that impressed.
Pearl on the other hand seems to negotiate these issues completetly & it is validating that point that Geoff & his team can remain rellevent, exciting & inspired after all these years.
You summed it up perfectly for me sticky when you said 'You were made to feel special'.
Thats what its all about I reckon.

Oh & have a Merry Xmas to you & Mr Stickfingers!

Ed Charles said...

Yes, at that price you really expect better service. I really hate it when waiters (resses) reach acros and do anything.Just read Service Not Included about the opening of Per Se in NY - the amazing thing was the level of detail on the service as well as the food.

stickyfingers said...

Thanks everyone for you comments. What a crazy time of year this has been. I hadn't intended to post but I felt I had to belt this out before it dissipated into the Christmas quagmire in my mind.

I hope everyone has a peaceful and comforting holiday.

In Advertising and Marketing everything revolves around the USP - the Unique Selling Proposition - a term coined by legendary Ad Man Bill Bernbach. The point is it's vital to cut through the crap and distill what it is that makes you/your product unique.

When I advise clients on their projects and businesses I explain that the most successful ventures use this principle to focus on their strongest selling point and to build everything around their USP to the same high standard.

The business principle is thus: The Chef concentrates on producing what they do best - take George Calombaris as a case in point. He moved too far from what he does well at Reserve, but has re-branded himself successfully by incorporating the food of his childhood at The Press Club with his love of experimentation.

Then if you are positioning yourself at a price point, you must offer standards relative to that price across the other aspects of the business. That comes by understanding your target market and their expectations. It is arrogant to presume that people willing to pay $$$ will happily swallow anything because you have a good reputation.

Lastly, just as the chef knows their stuff, you must have an opposite number on the floor with as much experience to run the front of house to a similar level. And in this day and age it doesn't hurt to have a Sommelier too. Waitstaff can't be expected to have a full knowledge of a burgeoning winelist in order to assist the customer.

The bottom line in fine dining is that it is not for the everyday. As Gobbler pointed out, when you have dug deep to spend this much it is for a special treat, and restauranteurs need to put their egos aside to recognise this.

Y said...

What a disappointing sounding evening! I don't think I've ever experienced anything as memorably bad as that, at that kind of price range. At most, the evening is forgettable. Not that it's any consolation. "Bland" is certainly not something you would expect to be using as a description of the food!

OohLookBel said...

This comment's a bit late (sorry!) but I just had to tell you that on one of my annual trips to Melbourne, I dined at Pearl. Because my name is very similar to that of a writer from Gourmet Traveller, Geoff Lindsay came out personally to say hi to me and my companion. It made my evening (together with the excellent food and service) even though he probably realised I wasn't who he thought I was!