Saturday, 8 March 2014

Casual Dining - The Villager

A long time ago, more precisely seven and a half years ago, we decided that we needed to downsize and moved from suburbia to the CBD.  I use the term suburbia loosely as generally most people consider 8 kilometres from the city as an inner city suburb, but you get what I mean.  We didn't know if we would love living in the city and thought it would be best to rent a place first, just to see if it would suit our lifestyle.  That first place we moved into was Casino Towers in George Street with beautiful views of South Bank and the river.  It's fair to say that we loved the CBD lifestyle and have never looked back.

Back when we lived in George Street, there was lots of take away places and a couple of bars, but not really any dining spots.  It was well before the explosion of eateries and Brisbane's current state of dining mecca :). There was a black spot on George Street that couldn't seem to get a venue to last too long and at the time of our residency on the Street, it was Jorge on George, a relatively funky bar.  Fast forward a few years and Jorge came and went and after the site was vacant for some time, a new crew moved in with an idea that was a little different at the time.

It had been the longtime dream of a couple of childhood friends to open up a Gastropub and Supper Club in the CBD, a place for Brisbanites to chill out in the hustle and bustle of the CBD and a place that would keep the kitchen open beyond 9pm.  Neil Shannon and Gareth Ball took a bit of a risk by opening a gastro pub in the CBD, especially in a location that had seen its fair share of failures over the years.  Completely renovating the location, their aim was to provide a New York warehouse feel with the charm of a heritage listed building and the whimsical styling that would seem different in a burgeoning Brisbane dining scene.

I'd been to the Villager a few times in those early days and found it to be an interesting concept that had suffered a little bit from inconsistency with its food and at times downright poor service.  I do remember going back a few times for a duck dish that was really quite nice, but after one too many poor experiences with crappy service, long waits and a bit of attitude, I'd given up eating there and not given it another thought.

Then one day recently after walking past the Villager on the way back from a meeting at the corporate office, I started to think that a return visit might be in order, just to see how the gastro pub was faring with so many new restaurants around Brisbane and it's surrounds.  So come dinner time, SC and I put our walking shoes on and wandered down (or up) to George Street for a long overdue return visit.

Walking into the Villager, the first thing I noticed was how quiet it was, sure it was mid week, but I'd been midweek in the past and the place had been pumping with afterwork suits drinking up a storm and people munching away on the tapas style food.  Finding a table easily, we were handed over a couple of menus and I could see straight up that it had evolved quite significantly from the early days, which had been tapas style and also quite substantial (and pricey) mains.  Now the menu seemed a bit lighter and more in line with a pub feel, which included bar snacks, light meals and mains.

We weren't super hungry and decided that a nice light starter to share would be perfect and went for the lemon peppered squid with caper mayo.  The calamari came presented in a little tin bucket and each of the little curls of squid were wonderfully cooked and very tender.  The lemon pepper dusting over the squid was really tasty and had distinct lemon flavour with a slight peppery heat that worked really well.  There was a lovely hit of salt from the caper mayo that helped balance out the lemon and pepper flavour and I was surprised by how quickly we hit the 'bottom of the bucket'.

There is a list of Brisbane's most iconic dishes (see list here) which includes a sand crab lasagne from Il Centro at Eagle Street and it was the memory of this dish that had SC ordering the Villager version.  The crab lasagne and seafood bisque with a tiger prawn sounded just like the Il Centro version but the reality was quite far removed.  It wasn't a bad dish, it just wasn't very good either, with an unpeeled tiger prawn sitting atop of the lasagne really detracting from the presentation of the dish, not to mention making it difficult to eat.  The lasagne was pretty much all pasta, with very little crab to be seen, which also detracted from the dish.  On the plus side, the seafood bisque was quite nice and had a little zing to it that went down a treat.

I'd considered the garlic spatchcock as my main but eventually decided that I'd have the wild mushroom risotto with truffle and parmesan crisps.  The risotto came out looking a little gluggy and I couldn't pick out individual rice granules, which signifies a great risotto.  While it didn't look great, it actually tasted pretty nice with a good hit of the earthy mushroom flavour and just the barest hint of truffle.  There were nice chunks of mushroom interspersed throughout the risotto but I was completely mystified by the parmesan crisps.  I understand that parmesan can be an important addition to a risotto, but the crisp were quite soggy and didn't sit well in my mouth, so I just plucked them all out of the risotto and set them aside.  

When it was time for dessert, SC opted out, so it was left to me to try something sweet from the menu with the lemon meringue pie sounding particularly appetising.  When we ordered it, the waitress brought out two plates and two spoons assuming that we were going to share.   What folly, I was never going to share the beautiful looking pie that was presented, with it's mound of lightly caramelised meringue surrounded by lashings of berries sitting in a pool of lemon curd in pastry.  It was quite delicious, with the right amount of tartness from the lemon curd and a good hit of sweetness from the meringue.  The raspberries and blueberries, which had seemed like decorations only were absolutely perfect with the pie.  My only minor issue was that the pastry was just a little bit soft and not quite as crisp as such a pie dictates, but it still tasted amazing.  I actually did relent a little and SC got to have a little taste and ate the strawberry on the side.

In my previous experiences at the Villager, I'd had almost universally poor service and was happy that there was no repeat of such crappy service on the night we visited.  Granted, it was pretty quiet and I don't know what the service would have been like on a busy night, but I can only comment on this particular visit, the team did a great job.  

The food on the night was a bit hit and miss, with more of a leaning towards the former.  I think that the lasagne would have been great if there was a better balance between pasta and crab and really, who serves an unpeeled king prawn in a dish these days.  It made it incredibly difficult to eat and it didn't look great.  We really enjoyed the starter and dessert and my risotto was more than serviceable, but definitely needed to lose the parmesan crisps.

It was interesting coming back after a few years away from the Villager, where in its early days there were crowds of people drinking and eating, there were a lot of individual diners that seemed like a mix of regulars and solo diners (assuming from interstate).  One of the original selling points of the Villager was that it would be open until 3am to serve food in it's supper club, but I have to admit to never being about at this time of the morning to check that out.  Overall, I was pleased I went back and erased some of the pain from my previous service experiences but its not really my usual dining scene.  It's probably better for people who love a beer with dinner, and then to carry on with beers after.

It was pretty quiet and there was a mix of couples and solo diners there on the night
The kitchen in action - you know you're in a pub when there is an ATM in the main area
We didn't notice the specials until after we'd ordered.  Perhaps the wait staff could point them out next time
Upstairs is the supper club, which can be booked out for events
Lots of exposed bricks and kooky stuff on the walls
Being a Gastro Bar, there is of course a lot of drinks on offer
The Villager
The Villager on UrbanspoonThe Villager Gastrobar  Supper Club

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