Monday, 21 April 2014

Mario at the Dining Room - it just didn't do it for me

I have a goal to get along to all 45 of the Australian Good Food Guide hatted restaurants in Brisbane this year.  I've done pretty well so far, visiting practically all of them over the last twelve months, with only the hatted restaurants in the suburbs still yet to be visited from my list.  With only five left on the list, each time we head out for dinner, we seriously consider getting to one of these remaining restaurants.  Over the Easter long weekend, I decided it would be time to check another off my list.

We felt like Italian, so that left three restaurants that fit the bill, Bar Alto in New Farm, Viale Canover in Clayfield and Mario at the Dining Room in Hendra, which was the restaurant we decided to visit.  I'd had a buddy from work mention Mario's to me last year and I'd had it in my mind to visit ever since it was mentioned to me.

Hendra is not a part of Brisbane that we spend a whole lot of time but driving down Sandgate Road on the trip out was a little nostalgic for both of us, for different reasons.  SC had spent time out that way to visit her Grandmother when she was still around and I'd spent time in the area well before we'd met, when I first moved to Queensland.  So, with our rudimentary knowledge of the area, we didn't need to use our SatNav to find Mario's and after a relatively short drive, found a park in what seemed just like an ordinary suburban street.

Approaching Mario at the Dining Room was like walking up to a typical Hendra cottage, of course it was painted white and it had large windows for us to take a sneak inside as we walked to the door.  The cottage had been converted to a bar and dining room, with most of the tables situated along a narrow, yet long space.  As we were lead to our table, I noted that there were many news clippings and copies of the accolades that Mario at the Dining Room had collected over the years.  The dining room was about half full when we arrived, but very quickly filled up shortly after we were given our menus to peruse.

Owner and head chef Mario Alfieri has put together a rather extensive and comprehensive Italian menu that that took quite some time to digest.  Our waitress had been over to check on us a couple of times before we were ready to place our orders.  Having been a chef and restauranteur for over thirty years, it seemed as if Mario had built up a strong repertoire of dishes and didn't want to drop any of them for his restaurant.

With such an extensive menu, there was a myriad of choices, especially when most of the dishes could be ordered as an entree or main size.  To start, SC ordered an entree sized fettuccine with with crab meat and prawns, which came in a tomato and wine based sauce.  A good past a dish doesn't need a lot of ingredients and when put together well, the flavours and ingredients should sing.  The perfectly al dente fettuccine was coated in an ever so slightly sweet tomato sauce which covered large chunks of crab meat and expertly cooked prawns.  The flavours worked well together and the balance of pasta to seafood was spot on, in fact this dish was by far the best of the evening.

I'd opted for the tasmanian octopus that came with various sauces including tomato, chilli and olives as well as white wine and chilli, which was the combination I chose.  I was a little surprised by the colouring of my dish, which was a deep red and visually seemed to be based around a red wine, not white.  After confirming with our waiter that I'd been given the right option, I dug in to check it out.  When cooking octopus, there are two ways, quickly cooking it or slow braising, which had been the approach at Mario's.  A bit of a danger when braising is over reducing the sauce, which seemed to have been the case here.  The octopus was lovely and soft and for the first half of the meal, really quite flavoursome and delicious but as the meal wore on, became overly salty on the palate and by the end was very salty.

We'd only just finished our entrees when a very short time later our mains were delivered, which was a bit of a surprise.

After SC's first pasta, which was very good, she was really looking forward to her main of pappardelle duck with ribbon pasta, confit duck pieces, porcini mushrooms and a truffle tapanade.  Perhaps we had high expectations from regularly eating the best duck ragout in Brisbane (see post here), but the Mario at the Dining Room version was only average.  The pasta was cooked nicely but that was about it.  There was hardly any sauce at all with the dish, there was hardly any duck and the truffle flavour was completely missing.  To make matters worse, the dish had been dried out even further with a heap of what seemed to be packaged parmesan sprinkled over the dish, and not the fresh parmesan that you'd normally expect (it reminded us of the old Pizza Hut parmesan).  This pasta dish really didn't hit the highs of SC's starter.

There were a couple of risotto options on the menu and I'd chosen to go with the Risotto Mario which came with prawns, scallops, corn and leek.  Wow, this was a disappointment.  Visually, it looked much more like a fried rice from a Chinese restaurant, it just didn't have that creamy or velvety look about it.  The best thing about the risotto was the prawns, which were perfectly cooked and quite nice.  There were a lot of things wrong with the risotto though that went much further than the visual appeal.  It really tasted very strongly of stock, overpoweringly so and it really seemed as if it hadn't been cooked out well enough.  Also, there were no scallops in the dish (that I could see or taste), which was a key component of the meal.  Given how quickly the mains had been delivered, I can only assume that my risotto was not individually cooked and was part of a larger pot and as such, I missed out on the scallops.

We had ripped through entrees and mains in about forty minutes, which considering that we'd not ordered our meals until about fifteen minutes after being seated was a bit unusual.  

It was dessert time and we opted for a couple of classic Italian desserts.  SC went for a tiramisu, which was really, really good.  It presented very well on the plate with a thick square of the layered coffee cake and had some thick chocolate oozing over the top.  There was a wonderful flavoured cream that had a dusting of chocolate powder over the top that really set the tiramisu apart and I'd kept sneaking spoonfuls of the delicious creamy dessert as I saw SC slowing down.

My classic dessert choice for the night was a vanilla panna cotta with a berry coulis, which to be honest looked large and a bit unsightly on the plate.  What it lacked in visual appeal it made up for in spades with its texture and flavour, it was nearly faultless.  It had been such a large serving that I think it needed some more of the slightly tart coulis to balance out the sweetness.

There were a lot of customers in Mario at the Dining Room that appeared to be regulars, with Mario himself out of the kitchen and mingling with the diners.  Everyone seemed to be having a great time but I'd noticed that we were not the only table where the food had been coming out at a rapid rate.  It's not too often that I'm commenting on how quickly we get through a meal, it's usually the opposite, with the meal drawing out unnecessarily.

Our wait staff on the night were superb and really knew how to work the room.  It was a good thing really, if the service had not been so spot on, it would have really been a bummer of a night.  Of the dishes we'd selected, in my opinion only one of them was up to the standard of a hatted restaurant.  I'm not sure if it was just one of those nights, or if the large number of options available on the menu was the cause.  I'm just not sure how much care can be placed on a dish when there are so many different options available, I'd much rather see a more focussed menu with each dish being spectacular.

Mario at the Dining Room is definitely a favourite for locals in the area and I'm positive that my experience will not alter the large number of people that love the restaurant.  For me though, it's too far out of my usual dining area for me to consider a return visit, there's just too many other great restaurants to try.

The restaurant was full and had quite a homey feel about it
There were lots of couples and families dining on the night we visited
The dining room had been written about a lot
Mario in his younger years
The food on the night didn't live up to hatted standard

Mario at the Dining Room on UrbanspoonMario at the Dining Room

1 comment:

  1. So, the restaurant looks pretty nice and pleasant atmosphere. Pasta is served beautifully and looks delicious as well as the desert. I would not mind to try a great piece of vanilla panna cotta!


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