It's been years since I last visited Alio, the restaurant by brother and sister team Ashley and Tracey Hughes in Surry Hills. Mr NQN wasn't really on the dining scene then (we were dating but he refused to go to nice restaurants and would sit at home with a newspaper and a bowl of cheap pasta) . So it's with a sense of nostalgia that I look around the restaurant and chat to fellow diners at the opening night of Alio's 10 years 10 course dinner. The 10 course degustation is $80 ($110 with matching wine) and features their "Greatest Hits" or dishes. I am sitting next to Michael from Masterchef magazine, Kate Gibbs (granddaughter of Margaret Fulton and daughter of Suzanne Gibbs and cookbook author) and John Newton from the Foodies Guide to Sydney.
_2000 Alio hand made focaccia and grissini with 36 month old Reggiano Parmesan and warm
We start off with a little nibble plate with marinated green and black olives, a gorgeously crumbly aged reggiano cheese that I just cannot get enough of and a bread highlight. My theory with bread is that it can take up precious stomach space so if it's not fabulous I'll give it up. This foccacia is fantastic-soft and light but with that melt in mouth quality from a brushing of oil on top. They explain that from the very beginning of the restaurant, they have made their own bread and grissini.
2001 Stracciatella - Roman chicken broth with cheese ravioli
The stracciatella, a clear chicken broth arrives with a ball of minced chicken on the bottom and a cheese ravioli on top. The broth is sustaining and warming and the "dumpling" of minced chicken and ravioli give it body and soul. Since Alio first started serving amuse bouches in 2000, they've calculated that 20,000 litres of complimentary soup have been served.
2002 Bresaola air dried beef fillet with truffled baby green peaches and parmesan
This dish had us all intrigued. Kate and I were discussing how the words "truffled baby green peaches" don't often appear in a sentence together so we were interested in the execution of it. They tell us that truffled baby green peaches started coming into Australia in 2009 and have featured on their menu as an accompaniment to antipasti ever since. The bresaola is very thinly sliced and still soft and delicately delicious. The truffled baby green peaches come out thinly sliced, looking like sliced, stuffed green olives. They are aromatic with truffle but taste slightly tart and sweet, like I suppose green fruit would. It's a lovely combination.
_2004 Char grilled eggplant baked with buffalo mozzarella and dressed with 25 year old
We were enveloped with the aroma of balsamic vinegar in this when the staff placed it on the table. It's not bad but perhaps too subtle and in need of a bit of seasoning.
2003 Hawkesbury river calamari with fresh chilli and lemon
This dish just didn't work for me. There was a bitterness to the dish and I didn't like the texture of the calamari which was a little tough with a slight sliminess.
2005 Red wine, pancetta and radicchio risotto
We had discussed going into the kitchen and asked them which item would be the most photogenic to photograph them making. Everyone at the table chuckles when they see this risotto which in all honesty looks unappealing. Looks are deceiving though and the aroma of reggiano and pancetta however lures me in. It's rich, just the right texture for the rice and moreish. They tell us that the risottos are made to order and they really do take 20 minutes.
Kitchen action: Chef Ashley Hughes on the left
We take a quick visit into the kitchen. Ashley tells us that they can either do this in a paper bag, in which case they would probably serve it in a paper bag at the table but here due to the numbers, they do it in foil. The kitchen is quite a surprise. It's enormous and everyone is perfectly calm. There's no hot tempers or even hot temperatures perhaps owing to the large space and organisation.
2006 Barramundi baked in a bag with black mussels, thyme and vermouth on cavalo nero
The barramundi arrives at the table and it's very prettily plated. It's very moist and succulent owing to the steaming with foil and sits on a bed of perfectly cooked cavalo nero (Tuscan kale). It's delicately flavoured with thyme and a slightly viscous broth rich with garlic and the juices from the mussels and fish steaming. They tell us "This is possibly the dish for which we have most frequently been asked the recipe".
2009 Lightly beaten char grilled fillet of black Angus beef with fresh baby peas and potato al forno
Sourced from a Port Macquarie farm this grass feed beef is our last savoury dish. We saw the beef fillets resting earlier and here they slice the eye fillet in half and place it on top of a layered potato al forno (potatoes sliced and cooked with onions and garlic and balsamic vinegar). This is served with herbed smashed baby peas. The beef is perfectly cooked and it's rich and I can't help but eat every bite despite the fact that I am getting very, very full.
Tracey Hughes makes a heartfelt speech about the passing of her father just eight weeks ago and they take questions from the crowd. The first question is how do the siblings work together. They have a simple answer for this. Ashley says "She stays in that area (indicating restaurant floor) and I stay in this area (indicating restaurant kitchen)". Tracey says simply "He works with knives". Another question that they're asked is "What does Alio mean?". It's actually not a real word although it sounds Italian. "It is Alio. It's us. Alio is us". Tracey counters. And what about a cookbook? Tracey says "Aren't there enough out there? Just join our mailing list, we send out our recipes all the time".
2007 Blood orange sorbet
We're getting into the sweets here and to cleanse our palate we try a blood orange sorbet. It's smooth as butter and appears creamy but that's just from the egg whites and the churning to get it that smooth texture. It's refreshingly blissful and just the ticket before our main dessert.
2008 Panna cotta with fruit salad and mint
"Have we all done the panna cotta test?" Dave from Wasa Media asks and we do the obligatory wobble and yes it does wobble like the bosom of a voluptuous woman. The panna cotta is gorgeously creamy and light with a passionfruit jelly on top and paired with a minted fruit salad. A great ending to a very pleasing meal. Happy 10th Birthday Alio!
And I know looking at all of that food has just made you very, very hungry and eager to try it so thanks to Alio restaurant *we are giving away a 10 course degustation dinner for two at Alio! This dinner for two is valid until the 31st of December, 2010 and can be taken on any Monday to Thursday night except for Christmas or New Years Eve. You will need to be able to make your own way there and back (sorry darlings, my private jet is out of service ;) ).*
T*o be in the running to win this fabulous dinner for two,* all you have to do is tell me your favourite dish from the above dinner and why. Simply add your answer as a comment to the story. The competition ends at Midnight AEST 18th July, 2010. You can enter this once daily. This competition is open to people in Australia.
The lucky winner is: Jen S.! Congratulations!**
Best of luck!
NQN dined as a guest of Alio restaurant.
5 Baptist Street, Surry Hills, NSW
Phone 02 8394 9368.