26 April, 2010

Tea Rooms at Yarck

6585 Maroondah Hwy, Yarck; (03) 5773 4233

Pietro Porcu has crafted his own style of Sardinian food at Da Noi in South Yarra for over ten years. It's a style that truly celebrates the seasonal, cooking what's good there and then and eschewing the need for a rigid menu. It's more what you might expect in a hailed trattoria in an obscure Italian town; all it lacked was the isolation.

Since opening his second restaurant at Yarck (open on weekends only), Porcu has added that missing piece. Recreating the subsistence lifestyle of his childhood with his own farm near the speck-on-the-map town, Porcu has created a gorgeous outpost of authentic, field-to-plate eating.

As at Da Noi, guests are welcome to discuss their likes and dislikes with the waitstaff and have the chef prepare an impromptu meal accordingly. The chef's menu is $78, priced around four courses, although the final cost can be adjusted if you end up eating more or less. A group dining near us were overwhelmed when their main course arrived: an enormous, overflowing bowl of crab claws, beautifully presented with the terracotta shells contrasting the traditional blue, yellow and white pattern of the plate.

A brief blackboard menu of daily specials is also available: antipasti, two entrees, two primi, three secondi and a handful of desserts. The waitstaff were happy to talk through the menu in some detail: these are dedicated people on the floor, who understand Porcu's love of food and his ability to share something special with each diner.

We managed to get the best of both worlds, ordering two unmissable entrees, and one a la carte and one special main - more on that later.

Before ordering, the visit started with some fried and battered broccolini - impressively fresh after obviously just kissing the oil. Between ordering and receiving entrees, we nibbled on bread and some simple marinated capsicum.
SG's entree of rolletto di coniglio was equally tantalising to us both: rolled rabbit, stuffed with mince and speared with beans, served with a rich, syrupy drizzle of balsamic reduction. My entree was the crespelle: crepes with fontina, ham and broccoli, served straight from the oven. Broccoli can be a steamed disaster or, as in this case, it can be a sparky foil to richer companions such as the cured ham and gooey cheese.

For main, SG chose the cervo con polenta. Venison, like veal, is a meat I avoid, since it's so hard to vouch for the care and upbringing of the animal. In a restaurant like this, however, I feel differently. The venison was marinated overnight in a red wine sauce, and came to the table oozing over a polenta mush, studded with carrots so soft and sweet they tasted like poached pears.

My main is something it will take me a long time to forget. I had gone for the lasagnetta, but the waitress advised it was a bit similar to the crespelle and suggested a dish not on the menu: chestnut pasta, with a duck and orange ragu. The pasta noodles were astounding. They hardly dominated the dish, but the richer flavour and slightly grittier texture were so noticeable. And the ragu was just a dream, a wondrous blend of flavours that, while rich, demanded I make as much room as possible and just keep eating.

I was, not surprisingly, sated after those two courses, but SG ploughed on with a serve of pineapple sorbet, perfectly sweet and expertly creamed, topped with a couple of curves of candied fruit. I pushed the boat out with a serve of Mirto, a Sardinian myrtle liquor that is bang on for a mix of sweet and herby, but at $15 a glass not something I'll chuck back just anywhere.
But this was absolutely that kind of meal - where you revel in the food, the atmosphere of the place, the knowledge and skill of the chef and his staff, and the pure enjoyment of a well-prepared meal.

Also recommended near Yarck: Mansfield Traveller's Lodge. Mansfield is about 40 mins from Yarck and this motel offers fantastic value - big rooms at under $100, with tips for local places to visit, a communal kitchen and DVDs to borrow - and exceptional service (eg jump-starts and recommendations for mechanics when your car breaks down!)

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