Saturday, 25 May 2013

Il Centro - the forgotten fine diner?

When thinking of fine dining Italian restaurants in Brisbane, Il Centro is not one that readily comes to mind.  This is strange really because Il Centro is one of Brisbane's institution restaurants, it's been one of Brisbane's most popular restaurants since it opened in 1992.  Its also been one of Brisbane's most awarded restaurants throughout its history and currently has a Chefs Hat with the Australian Good Food Guide and a Chefs Hat with the prestigious Brisbane Times Good Food Guide.  So there is no denying that it's one of Brisbane's best.

So why then do I very rarely think of Il Centro?  It's in the Eagle Street precinct, which is one of the most popular dining hot spots in Brisbane.  In fact, it's just a stone's throw away from my apartment in the CBD and next to some of the most well known and awarded restaurants in Brisbane.

I had been trying to get to Il Centro for a couple of months now with one of my work buddies, but work had been so busy that we rescheduled a heap of times.  We were finally able to align our diaries this week and get a little time away from the office to reflect on what had been a huge week.  MK and I were pretty excited about heading over to Il Centro and the anticipation had been building each time we had to reschedule.

We arrived at Il Centro just a few minutes after our booked time of 12pm and were warmly greeted by the maitre d' and ushered to our table in one corner of the restaurant.  It was a great seat that afforded us a view of the kitchen, the restaurant and out to the Brisbane river.  Given it was a Friday at midday, I was surprised by how quiet it was.

Glancing over the Catherine Anders created menu we could see a really quite extensive list of options of entrees and mains.  The great thing about the menu at Il Centro is that many of the items can be ordered as an entree or a main size.  Catherine's journey to head chef at Il Centro is an interesting one, initially starting her apprenticeship in Outback Queensland, she ended up working in a Michelin starred restaurant in London, the Orrery.

After spending some time deliberating over the many delicious looking options that were available, I decided that I would take a chance on one of the specials, the seafood soup.  Il Centro is known around Brisbane for its signature dish, the sand crab lasagne in a seafood bisque.  I have had this dish before and must admit that the bisque that comes along with the lasagne is quite special and it was with this in mind that I ordered the soup.  Unfortunately, the soup was nothing like the bisque and in fact was hard to determine if there was any flavour coming from the soup at all.  The seafood that was in the soup was cooked really well and was nice, but the soup itself lacked any flavour.

MK decided not to have an entree on this day and wanted to focus on her main and dessert, but did have a side of the house chips, which were well cooked and quite nice.  For her main, MK ordered an entree sized spinach and ricotta gnocchi with roasted pine nuts, buttered tomatoes, parmesan crisp and wild rocket.  The gnocchi looked fabulous in the bowl and had some really interesting flavours and textures, with the pine nuts being a highlight for MK.  The ingredients were really fresh and the whole dish worked together quite harmoniously.  The only minor complaint was with the gnocchi itself, which was pan fried and unevenly cooked.  One side was perfect with a little caramelisation, but the other side a little under cooked.  It was a shame really as it would have been a perfect dish otherwise.

One of the things I love about the Il Centro menu is the flexibility of being able to order most of the dishes entree or main size.  I took advantage of this by ordering the pan seared scallops with roasted corn and italian sausage with peperonata dressing as a main size.  I love scallops for entree, so I wondered what could possibly go wrong?  The dish was presented beautifully with about ten expertly cooked scallops atop a bed of sweet corn and a spicy sauce.  I thought that each component on their own was really nice, the scallops were good and the spicy sauce and sweet corn was nice.  My issue is that I don't think they belonged together.  The combination of the sauce and sweetcorn very much reminded me of a Mexican salsa and was just too overpowering for the scallops.  I also thought that this dish represented poor value for the price, so maybe getting a traditional entree as a main was a mistake.

When asked by the wait staff if we had room for dessert our immediate response was 'of course' and again marvelled at the large number of options available on the dessert menu.  In a day for ordering the specials, I again ordered off the specials board.  I love souffle and really could not pass up on the opportunity to try the banana souffle (thanks MK for letting me get the souffle).  When delivered the souffle looked fabulous, with the perfect rise and just a dusting so icing sugar and a side of coffee ice cream.  I really liked the flavour of the banana souffle and love the combination of banana and coffee but I had a minor problem with the texture of the souffle.  It was ever so slightly under cooked and therefore a bit mushy inside, there was also a thick skin on the top of the souffle as well, so when I used my spoon to cut into it, the whole thing collapsed in on itself.  While this was not perfect or ideal, it was still delicious.

MK ordered the next most exciting looking item on the dessert menu.  The vanilla creme brûlée with passion fruit sorbet, mango and mint salsa was a beautiful looking dessert that tasted as great as it looked.  The brûlée had the perfect crunch when breaking through the melted sugar coating and had just the right consistency inside.  The addition of the slightly tart passion fruit sorbet and the sweet mango worked in complete harmony with the delicious creme brûlée.  The addition of an intricately designed cookie provided some different texture to the plate that was much appreciated.

After finishing up our meal we concluded that there were some hits and misses with the options we selected on the day.  Overall the meal was good, but was let down by some minor issues, and in the case of the flavourless soup, one big issue.  I often find that in restaurants with extensive menu options, it's harder to maintain the right level of control of all of the food going out of the kitchen and this appears to have been the issue on the day we went.

While the food was a bit hit and miss, the service on the day was anything but, with extremely professional and competent staff looking after our every need.  When we first arrived it was fairly quiet but by the time we were ready to leave, the place had mostly packed out and the staff dealt with the large number of customers with relative ease.

After eating at Il Centro again I was able to reflect on why I don't often think of the place when thinking of great Italian restaurants around town.  Sure, you can see the Italian influence in some of the dishes and the signature dish is Italian, but the feel is more modern Australian.  The other major factor is the location, when I think of great restaurants in the Eagle Street precinct, I am thinking of Aria and Esquire and Urbane.  Ultimately, for me,  this means that Il Centro is often the forgotten fine diner in this area and slips from my restaurant dining list.


The specials board had some interesting looking dishes & I ordered two of them
A little quiet to begin with 
MK had the chips as an entree and they were pretty good
The bread was incredibly fresh, with a beautiful crust and soft inside
There was a lot of bread!
Mostly full with one large table empty at time of photo.  Was filled shortly after
A look into the kitchen area
Lots of fresh ingredients used at Il Centro

Il Centro on UrbanspoonIl Centro Restaurant and Bar

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