01 December, 2008


77 Upper Heidelberg Rd, Ivanhoe; 03 9499 9907

It means 'neighbourhood' in Spanish, and Ivanhoe's Barrio has chosen a local landmark - the old firestation - in which to establish an eatery that fits the bill as 'local' and delivers quality Mediterranean fare. Opened in June this year, the restaurant's owners bring plenty of cred - one is former front-of-house at Bottega - to this outer-northeast venture.

Its dinner menu may throw out a challenge to some diners: mains clock in at around $30 (plus or minus a couple of dollars), which immediately places great expectations on the chef and his produce. Two or three diners could be satisfied for a light meal with a few entrees, priced between $15 and $18.

We were seated in a recessed room off the main restuarant floor, with a smattering of decoration and a simple balance of light wood floors and dark wood, undressed tables. Service was enthusiastic, though at times slightly scatty, as different staff appeared at intervals of 5-10 minutes to welcome us (but leave the wine menu behind!).

The wine menu deserves special mention. It's approachable, with lots of the best of Australian varietals and extremely well priced. Many bottles are priced under $35, including Pizzini Sangiovese Shiraz at $33.50.

The entree bruschetta sounds busy - roasted tomato, shallot, beetroot, capsicum, marinated goats cheese and rocket salad - prompting us to think the menu was missing some divisive semi-colons scattered amongst the inclusive commas. In fact, all those ingredients were piled atop two very compliant pieces of bread. It was, overall, a pleasing combination, but at the same time a good argument for less is more: no one flavour was able to dominate so the salty goats cheese lost out to the sweet tomato and the sharp shallot to the earthy beetroot. Our suggestion: a subset of the same ingredients on each piece of bread.

Festive seared scallops with cauliflower puree, grape and caper dressing arrive doing an impersonation of holly and ivy. Plump, but a little too fishy, the scallops are allowed to star, assisted but subtly by their accompaniment. Prawns with potatoes, beans and pancetta, or a succinct mixed antipasto plate are other entree options.

The star main was roast half duckling with seasonal greens, semolina and duck jus (duck also features, with porcini mushrooms, in a risotto as a main). Wonderfully crispy skin lifted easily from tender, moreish, well-seasoned meat. There was plenty of meat at the table: lamb two ways (roasted rump, and slow-cooked shoulder in pastry) as well as scotch fillet. All had been well handled, although the steak did come to the table pre-cut. Why so much meat? Well, we do like it, but there also isn't a vegetarian option among the larger mains.

The fourth main came from the pasta and risotto side: spaghettini with crab, lemon, chilli, garlic and parsley (only edging out pappardelle with rabbit, speck, porcini and truffle because I was still relishing a very similar meal from Enzo in Adelaide). Here was the first of two big differences between Italian Melbourne-chic style, and Italian as the Italians do it. After the taste-bud teasing bruschetta, I went for entree size and, for once, it was actually entree sized! It was just enough though, to be honest. The spaghettini swam happily in cooking juices and the crab was obviously fairly recenty still happily swimming itself.

The second difference comes with bread. Why, in Australia, do restaurants serve up a piece of bread, pre meal, then shut down the bakery? Pre meal, I eat an entree. With meal, I want bread, for mopping of crab juice, or duck jus or steak sauce.

Barrio offers pleasing, well-spaced surroundings, welcoming staff, and, as long as you're feeling effusive and up for more than focaccia and coffee, the opportunity to indulge with a plate of meat and a bottle of wine, or nibble at a modest pasta and a small glass. Just what every neighbourhood needs.

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