I've been meaning to post about this restaurant since last DECEMBER! I even have a photo dating from our Christmas lunch, which we celebrated here in 2005. I've mentioned I'm a bit lazy....now do you believe me?!
I love this restaurant, and it happens to be our local 'fine dining' place - literally not more than a 2 minute drive away, in Ivanhoe. Ivanhoe, despite being a nice, leafy, middle-class sort of suburb has always been lacking in dining choices. Uninspiring, to be more precise. In the past few years an excellent Indian (Cafe Saffron) and Thai resaurant (Bussaracum) have made themselves very popular, but for a 'nice' meal or a special occasion, people around here generally went across the river, or into the inner suburbs. But now we have Va Tutto, and the people of Ivanhoe are very happy. Actually, Stephen Downes of the Herald-Sun, recently named Va Tutto as 2006 "Restaurant of the Year", with a score of 19/20. Surely a little part of his reasoning has to do with the fact that he lives in Ivanhoe and has long lamented the lack of good places to eat!
I think Va Tutto's owners, Paul and Myrto Recinella, could see this culinary black hole they could fill. They both live in the area and have a long history of running a successful establishment; their previous place, Zio's, in East Melbourne was a favourite of my dad's. I wish he could sample what they're now doing close to home. You know they're serious about this current quest, because they paid an exorbitant amount to import and install a custom-designed kitchen set-up from Italy.
Each time I go past Va Tutto it seems to be full. There are 3 sections to the place; the restaurant, done out in white leather and with a sumptuous 'let's dress up for dinner feel', the more everyday bistro at the front and a casual area for coffee which includes an outdoors terrace. I think it's because they address the various needs of customers that they seem to be so successful.
So to the food. Well...in the three times I've dined here they've all been in the formal restaurant section. Well, la-di-dah to me! Yes, I'm very fortunate. Our extended family had Christmas lunch here last year, then I returned for lunch on my birthday in March, and then a dinner for my mum's birthday in July. Each time I'm spoilt for choice with the menu, which covers everything from Italian tripe to Asian seafood, but with an emphasis on European tastes. Here's a selection of photos from those 3 times I've visited.
From my birthday lunch. The spicy salt & pepper calamari; my mum's favourite choice from the entree list, and she has to fight the urge to order it each time. The calamari is the most tender we've tasted.
My entree from my birthday; octopus terrine with a radish salad. I don't know what they used to keep the terrine together, but it was very clean, and not gelatinous at all. The octopus wasn't tough, either, which pleased me. Perfect light flavours for the warm day it was.
My mum's main course from my birthday. Thai-flavoured fish cakes and fresh prawns. This is mum's favourite main course, and what she wants to order each time we return. I can understand why; the flavours are amazing. Lots of kaffir lime, coriander, citrus. Great balance of flavours. I remember my grandmother going into orgiastic raptures when she ordered this at Christmas! It's quite light though, so maybe not the best if you're a big eater...
...As I am. While mum was nibbling on her prawns, I had ordered ox cheek. "Goodness, you're adventurous!" said Myrto (who handles front-of-house) when I ordered this after my octopus. Well, no, I don't think I am, but maybe that's the case out here in the suburbs! This was an incredible dish, full of big, gutsy flavours. I get the feeling that the person who created this loves to eat winter food. For me it was perfect: sticky ox cheek, creamy mashed potatoes, bits of vegies for freshness and a rich, winey sauce. It's quite filling, though.
This is what my godmother ordered: a good veal scallopine. My godmother is a real Italian chick, and knows her Italian food. She said she'd ordered one the week before at a place in Carlton and it was so awful she wanted to improve on the experience. Luckily she wasn't disappointed. I think she said it was one of the best scallopine she'd tasted (other than her mum's of course!). I did a bit of an exchange with her, and agree this was excellent; the mushrooms and the marsala-spiked sauce were perfect. Incidentally, this was one of the cheaper dishes on the menu: about $22.
Back to Christmas day, 2005. I only took one photo - of the dish I had ordered - as I didn't want to butt into everbody's festive meals, but it was so interestingly presented I had to whip out the camera. This is their Duck Tasting Plate, for which they've become known. I don't think it will be taken off the menu any time soon. I'm a big fan of duck, so I loved this. I was a tad disappointed when it came out because it didn't look substantial enough to fill me up, but what I always forget is that rich flavours satisfy you quickly, and by the end of this I was copying the rest of the family in the festive, post-lunch groan-athon. Also on that Christmas Day menu was the most amazing steak I didn't order. Instead I kept attacking the plates of my male relatives. It had been hung and aged, and suddenly I understood what all those food writers have been going on about when they talk about aged meat. It's just incredible!
Top left is a duck spring roll with a sweet hoisin sauce, top right is sliced duck breast in master stock. Bottom left is duck leg in an incredible coconut curry and bottom right is the Euopean presence; a duck arancini with mozarella. Innovative, tasty and presented with the right amount of theatrical flair. One of their most popular dishes.
As is this dish, I believe. These dishes are from my mum's birthday dinner in July (hence the bad light!). This is their Seafood Tasting Plate. Mum and I ordered this because we were in a light, fish mood and thought it wouldn't be too heavy. With that in mind, I ordered a lobster risotto for entree (gorgeous!!!) which was fairly filling. Then THIS came out. Hell's Bells! This had everything on it from fresh oysters with lime, prawn dumpling, deep fried scallop and calamari and home-made tartare, an enormous breaded king prawn, a large piece of fish (can't remember what!) and Japanese marinated raw salmon. That would have been enough, but the centrepiece of the dish was a big bowl of really excellent Asian seafood stiry-fried noodles; wok-seared flat noodles with lots of prawns, rock ling, lime, chilli and Thai basil. It would be a very popular dish on its own.
I thought this meal was incredible, but had two reservations. One was the sheer size of it; it seemed designed to overwhelm. Certainly wasn't the light, healthy meal I had imagined! Also, some of the taste combinations on the one plate didn't complement each other very well; the creamy sauces didn't work too well with the Asian flavours in some of the other components. Also, you had to remember to eat your deep-fried things first before they got cold and yucky. But I saw lots of these going out to tables and I think it's one of their most popular dishes.
After seeing our seafood plates, my godmother had a severe case of food-envy but she was still very impressed with her seared tuna. It was served on a bed of...something I can't recall, but it looks orange. Pretty sure it wasn't polenta. I would have asked for a taste, but I was serious tackling-the-mountain-on-my-plate mode! I like the plate they used.
Back to my birthday lunch for dessert photos. This is a pandan and coconut flavoured creme brulee. Pandanus (or Screw Pine) is used extensively in South-East Asian cooking but I've only tasted it in savoury dishes before now. Its fragrant, fruity & nutty flavour was incredible. As were the sesame seed wafer and coconut sorbet accompaniments. In fact, the coconut sorbet was truly the best I've ever tasted and we all fought for spoons of it. What a way to combine East and West! This was ordered again for dessert at mum's birthday; it's so unusual and works so well I hope it stays on the menu.
My birthday dessert. Valrhona chocolate & zabaglione parfait. Apologies for getting stuck in before remembering to take a photo. Ahem! This was not overly sweet, which is a good thing in my book. But it was very rich & creamy, especially after a big bowl o' ox cheeks. In hindsight, I should have ordered something lighter (coconut sorbet springs to mind). But it came out with a birthday sparkler on it, so I was happy. :-)
Mum went for an affogatto: a shot of espresso coffe, a shot of liquer of your choice (Amaretto for her) and a bowl of icecream. You're supposed to add the coffee and liquer to the icecream and eat it up before it all melts, but mum takes the separate element approach and was still eating her dessert after we'd long finished!
Va Tutto is one of my favourite restaurants at the moment, not only for the interesting, well-prepared food, but also because it is so close to home. You don't always want to drive out for dinner; parking issues and drink driving spring to mind. But this place is close to home, so we can enjoy a pre-dinner, and even a post-dinner drink without much effort at all. I also think it's quite reasonably priced for the quality of food; most mains are around the mid to high-$20s mark. It's the wine which will bump up the cost of your meal. I haven't yet tried the more affordable bistro, but I'm hoping to get there soon. I know the owners were stunned when they were named restaurant of the year, and I hope it keeps them enthused and inspired to keep providing the people of north-eastern Melbourne a high quality dining experience!
226 Upper Heidelberg Road
Ivanhoe Victoria 3079.
(03) 9499 7769 or (03) 9499 1430
Lunch from Sunday to Friday (midday – 3pm) Dinner 7 days (6pm – late).