I am not one to base my restaurant choices solely on the fame of the chef or the glow of what’s trendy right now. The person standing at the helm is seldom the selling point for me. Yes famous chefs are famous for a reason – they are good at what they do and they are generally consistent. But when you are seated at the dinner table, fork in hand, all the achievements and accolades of the past fall away. It simply becomes about that meal at that moment.
Despite my feelings about chef hype and fame there are those who live up to the sky-high expectations. Guy Grossi is one of them. Grossi has built an Italian dining empire. When I think about Italian in Melbourne I think of Grossi. That’s just the way it is. Grossi has enjoyed huge success with more restaurants than I can count on my hand and countless awards and recognition for his dedication to Italian food. One of Grossi’s most notable achievements is the prestigious L’insegna Del Ristorante Italiano award bestowed on Grossi in 1996 by the Italian president for his service to Italian cuisine abroad. This is one serious Italian restauranteur.
Recently, I visited Cellar Bar for a going away dinner with the girls. Cellar Bar is perhaps the most modest and accessible restaurant in Grossi’s group of eateries. Mains range from $18 to $26 and the menu is made up of simple, traditional Italian fare like fresh pastas, cotolette di vitello (crumbed veal), eggplant parmigiana and a range of seafood and fish dishes.
We started with an impressive antipasto plate to share ($20) which included goodies liked pickled vegetables, calamari, white fish, salami, fried cheese, eggplant and grilled peppers. The antipasto was served with a long crunchy breadstick, fluffy foccacia bread and olive oil.
The calamari was lovely and springy dressed with a light olive oil and parsley. It went well with the crunch of the breadstick. The girls loved the cold fleshy white fish but I couldn’t go past the thick slices of eggplant. They were chunky and doused in olive oil which was lovely mopped up with the pillowy focaccia bread.
For main, it was difficult to resist the lure of the incredible sounding pasta dishes on the Cellar Bar menu. The spaghetti vongole came out all drama with flecks of parsley, slices of chilli and lots of fresh clams snuggled in their open shells. It was an excellent dish of simple flavours. The spaghetti was generously coated with a delicate olive oil and lots of sweet garlic. The subtle flavours of the oil and garlic were the perfect accompaniment to the tiny clams which were slightly sweet, chewy and delicious.
My friend ordered the tortellini di zucca della lunigiana ($18) which is a dish of roast pumpkin tortellini with fried sage leaves. This dish was the star of the evening. The tortellini were fat with rich, smooth pumpkin that oozed out when you cut into the pasta. The woody sage added to the luxury of the dish and provided a slightly peppery flavour to the sweetness of the pumpkin. The pasta was cooked to a perfect ‘al dente’ meaning that it was firm when bitten into but not hard or even slightly raw as I have heard others suggest it should be (such a travesty)!
As the evening drew to a close we were presented with a quaint little dessert menu on a chalkboard from which we chose the crème caramel and the flourless chocolate cake.
The cake was a lot lighter and fluffier than I expected. Not at all dense or fudgy like I was hoping. It was served beautifully warm with super thick chantilly cream. The crème caramel was classic, creamy and bursting with caramel flavour just as it should be.
Cellar Bar is a great choice for a casual affair. A nice plate of pasta and a glass of prosecco goes down splendidly any day of the week. We enjoyed a delicious filling meal of simple dishes which stayed true to the authentic Italian flavours that I love. I must say that on the night we visited the service was slow and we were waiting on our food a little longer than is comfortable. I was catching up with friends and we weren’t in a rush so didn’t mind too much but I imagine if you had somewhere to be it might be a bit frustrating. All in all though an excellent meal. Grossi really is one restaurateur who lives up to the hype time and time again.