I once worked with a man who was distinctly odd and very prickly. Paranoid, obsessive and angry were the first three words I’d use to describe him. I called him Voldemort because he was a little bit crazy and to add to everything, he actually loved being called Voldemort. One day we were invited to lunch by one of our suppliers and the restaurant was in a cellar. He was terrified of it whilst the rest of us loved the intimate, unique atmosphere. I decided that that was the thing that made him craziest.
So when I heard that Stefano’s flagship restaurant was housed in a cellar, I knew it would be atmospheric and romantic (hmmm, perhaps it was Voldemort’s fear of the romantic or intimate). Celebrity chef Stefano de Pieri has handed over the reins to Jim McDougall, a Mildura born chef who has worked with Shannon Bennett at Vue de Monde and who has returned to his roots back in Mildura. Jim’s food is very different from Stefano’s rustic Italian cuisine and the cookbook Nuovo Mondo (or New World) demonstrates this with Stefano’s recipes on one page and Jim’s modern interpretations on another. For dinner, there is a choice of a six or eight course dining menu, the latter being the signature experience and each can be matched to wines.
The cellar is moodily lit with exposed brick walls and plenty of tables for two. It came about as a combined vision of Stefano and his father in law Don Carrazza who owns the Grand Hotel. Until 1988, the liquor licensing laws started by the Chaffey brothers for Mildura meant that the only place that could serve or sell alcohol was the Grand Hotel. As a result, they needed a huge storage area for the bottles and they used the cellars for this along with the theatre next door. Stefano points out an absence of pubs and clubs in Mildura because of this rule.
Patrons can also ask to see the red and white wine cellars housed in labyrinthine glory past the bottle capping machine and Stefano’s favourite art works. Stefano himself is dining in the restaurant alongside some guests that accompanied him on a tour of Italy. He comes in and out between courses to talk to us.
The most sought after table in the restaurant is the “Kitchen Table” which can seat up to four people, directly near the open kitchen and it affords diners the chance to overhear any chef-speak. The chefs also bring out some of the courses themselves. We overhear things like “Delicate! No sausage fingers!” from Chef Jim and a “Oui chef!” in response.
We start with bread, a choice of three types, a rye made with malt from their brewery, a grain sourdough and a white sourdough which are served crusty and warm with a homemade whipped butter flavoured with saltbush leaves or an olive oil. The saltbush gives it an umami quality, much like Vegemite or miso paste.
White almond gazpacho, grape & pig cheek
The first tastes come out from the kitchen and the amuse bouche is a fetching set of three. The eight courses don’t take into account the many extra courses and these do the job of whetting our appetites nicely. We start with the white almond gazpacho, grape and cured guanciale (pig’s cheek), the gazpacho creamy and luscious and balanced against the fatty, paper thin guanciale.
Lotus chips and cashew puree
I adore lotus chips for their crunch and texture and these are paired with a thick, rich and creamy cashew puree. This is why you want to keep some bread and that’s for mopping up.
Caramelised pork and pickled Mildura sultana
At first, I thought they looked like slender French cakes in miniature. The soft, slow cooked pork is topped with a thin coat of caramel and a pickled local sultana.
Fig, duck ham and soy cream. Taken on a Sigma 17-50mm F2.8 EX DC OS lens