2 November 2010
Merchant @ Rialto 495 Collins Street Melbourne 3000
Guy Grossi is a Melbourne icon who requires no introduction. Since Grossi took the reins in 1999, The Florentino has blossomed into one of Melbourne's premier fine dining institutions. Indeed, it is regarded as one of the best Italian restaurants in the country and, in this reviewer's opinion, is second only to the venerable Buon Ricordo in Sydney. As a result, the opening of Grossi's new restaurant, Merchant, at the foot of the Intercontinental Hotel adjacent to the Rialto was keenly anticipated by not only the multitude of office workers in the Rialto but by the fine dining market generally.
Merchant occupies a surprisingly cavernous space on the ground floor of the Intercontinental Hotel with a relaxed, albeit somewhat cold, atmosphere. The dining room is furnished with an eclectic collection of metal and wooden furniture with seating arrangements comprising an odd mixture of countertops and stools and traditional tables and chairs.
Service during our visit was friendly and efficient but the dishes did take over 40 minutes to arrive - understandable given that we visited on their second day of opening. Thankfully, any teething problems in the kitchen seem to have been ironed out as dishes were very promptly delivered on subsequent visits.
We ordered three dishes to share - a decent amount of food for two people and, for under $60, fairly reasonable value. The first of our dishes was a squid ink risotto that was, as expected from a Grossi restaurant, superbly executed. The rice in the risotto was puffy and al-dente and, coupled with generous amounts of tender squid pieces and a jet black squid ink broth, had a wonderful depth of flavour. Unlike other squid ink risottos I've had, Merchant's version does not contain an underlying unpleasant fishy note but instead hints of fresh seafood with a robust undercurrent of what I suspect is a deft grating of parmesan. The risotto was clearly the highlight of our lunch. The other two items were also enjoyable. The char grilled pork sausages had the unmistakable char grilled aroma but were also succulent and rich. The gnocchi with spiced veal ragu was a simple dish, let down perhaps by gnocchi that was a touch soft for my liking, but had an interesting aniseed note in the tart tomato based ragu.
Unfortunately, an otherwise pleasant experience was somewhat soured by waitstaff who, during our visit, offered their house aperitif, a Bellini consisting of sparkling wine and peach puree, for us to "try". We incorrectly assumed that these drinks were complimentary, as had a number of other diners, and so we were naturally surprised when we were charged $15 for each drink. In my view, a restaurant should leave no ambiguity when it comes to the amount that it charges diners for its food and drink and this is particularly the case when a restaurant is new and is attempting to win favour with potential regulars. On this occasion, the tactics employed by Merchant are, at best, discourteous and, at worst, deceptive and dishonest. Of course, a customer can always inquire as to the cost of an offering, but, this often comes at the expense of appearing miserly.
Overall, our first lunch at Merchant was a favourable experience. Merchant is a place that I will return to for its reasonably priced quality food. I will, however, be a little more circumspect next time I'm offered anything to "try" at Merchant.