Expectations can be cruel masters. When a restaurant has received, consistently over ten or more years, accolades at the highest level you expect something truly special, something you don’t think you’ll find anywhere else. Stefano’s is a very good restaurant that delivers everything it promises when you arrive, which is rustic Italian cooking (indeed the subtitle of the restaurant’s sign says Cucina Rustica). But it doesn’t deserve the two-hat rating it’s enjoyed for years.
Stefano di Pieri launched into the wider Australian food consciousness through his Gondola on the Murray television cooking series that premiered in the late 1990s. Championing the great produce and lifestyle of the Murray River region around his adopted home town of Mildura, his highly engaging style and love of his Italian cooking were very popular. I was a fan, and I have the cookbooks from both series and have tried a few of the recipes.
The Grand Hotel in Mildura has housed his signature restaurant for a long time, and over the years it has won numerous awards including The Age Good Food Guide’s Country Restaurant of the Year award in 2001. It is currently ranked No. 89 in this country’s Top 100 Restaurants as decided by Australian Gourmet Traveller magazine, and it has held two-hat status for years. It’s natural to expect dining here would be an exceptional experience.
First impressions are certainly grand: located underneath the hotel in a converted cellar, the long and narrow space is warmly lit and very inviting. I was seated in what I consider the best seat in the house, with a clear view of the kitchen only a few metres away. Stefano himself was at the pass personally finishing nearly every plate before it was served, and the vibe of the kitchen was quietly efficient but not in any way sombre. Service was superb, a match for any top-level restaurant. Warm without being over-friendly or too deferential, and thoroughly accommodating to the chronically late as we were – again! The drive from Gundaroo took longer than expected, and even though we floored it for the last 400 kms from Griffith we still arrived 45 minutes late. I immediately went to the restaurant and asked for another 20 minutes or so while we washed and changed for dinner, and that was not a problem. When we finally were seated we wanted to slow things down for a while to get over the travel stress, and they were only too happy to hold off on the first courses until we were ready. Top shelf stuff.
But the main reason you visit a restaurant like this is for the food, and while it was very good we were frankly underwhelmed by what was delivered over six courses. At the top end of dining I expect a level of invention and technique that makes you grin like an idiot as you marvel at the food and wonder how they can come up with such ideas. At Stefano’s on this night every dish – with the possible exception of the desserts – could attempted by any reasonably competent home cook. You probably won’t do it as good as Stefano, but you might get close. And that is the essence of our sense of disappointment: though the food was delicious and perfectly cooked, it lacked any wow factor. It was high quality country Italian cooking in it’s very original sense, but we expected a lot more.
For example, Frank Camorra of MoVida in Melbourne takes as his starting point rustic Spanish cuisine but turns it inside out. He reinvents dishes, respecting the original idea but delivering something entirely new and special, individual masterpieces of technique and flavour. I thought Stefano’s would be the same, hence our ultimate dissatisfaction with this meal. In their defence all the information given out by the restaurant makes it clear that what they offer is authentic Italian food, in fact that is precisely what we are told by our waiter at the beginning of the meal. I guess I’m really disappointed with the reputation this restaurant has, that is what caused our misplaced expectations. Stefano’s thoroughly deserves a single hat, but not two or more…
However none of the above should be interpreted as meaning this restaurant can’t give good food. Every dish was very tasty and Stefano’s is certainly worth visiting if you’re in the area. But I wouldn’t make a pilgrimage to Mildura solely to do so… There are no menus here, each meal is a degustation based on the chef’s whim and what’s in season and available at the time. I like that idea. On this night we took the matched wine option (they also have a fine wine list with a strong selection of Italian stars), and had:
Onion tart – an off-menu starter, this wedge of pastry contained a delicious light brown custard of rich onion flavour. Very smooth and light texture, slightly savoury and not at all salty. A great appetiser.
Baby calamari fritti – dusted calamari, cut into a range of shapes and sizes and deep fried. Simple but delicious, and though it is served with a piece of lemon on the side the waiter suggests you try it without lemon first so as not to smother the natural flavours.
Crab and tomato minestroni – rich and flavourful with small pieces of ridged circular pasta throughout. Almost immediately after it was served Kristen and I talked about how we both prefer pasta slightly over-cooked, and I said that perfectly cooked pasta is meant to be slightly chewy (al dente, or “to teeth”). We were far enough from the kitchen that I didn’t expect our conversation to be overheard, but clearly it was: a minute or two later a waiter came over and said that chef (Stefano) wanted to know how we were enjoying the dish “and be honest!”. We said it was very good, and soon after I noted Stefano emphatically saying (privately) that the pasta was “perfect”. I realised he must have half-heard our conversation, so I called the waiter over and explained what we were talking about in full. The pasta was perfectly al dente, and in fact by the end of it I realised that pasta is in fact better that way. The dish was tasty, but both of us found little fragments of crab shell in it which did detract from the enjoyment.
Hand-made ravioli with ricotta, spinach and sage butter – exactly like it sounds, and once again a fine dish. But also very simple and roughly cut: it could easily be made by anyone with a pasta maker.
Suckling piglet with potato and greens – extremely good, rich and pure flavours and the pig fork-meltingly soft. Also simple: the potatoes enhanced with rosemary and the greens were sauted silverbeet. Perfect execution.
Dessert – a choice of vanilla egg white panna cotta or chocolate mousse. We had them both separately, and were thoroughly satisfied (and stuffed) afterwards.
The matched wine selections were mostly good, however some of them were house-branded which was a disappointment. The standout wine was a Montepulciano served with the suckling pig.
Near the end Stefano left, and as he passed near our table he somewhat hesitantly asked how we enjoyed the meal. He seemed almost shy, very different from his larger-than-life television persona, but perhaps he was simply tired after a long day and night in the kitchen.
A short note about the Grand Hotel itself: we stayed there in a very large room, slightly older in style but with a large modern bathroom, flat screen TV and large bed. I’d booked online via wotif.com and saved 20% off the usual rate, and they still gave us a room with a large private balcony overlooking the Murray River. It’s well worth staying here if you do intend to visit Stefano’s.