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Biz lunch heaven

Chianti on Colin’s is a success story nonpareil. It has a host of devotees and owner Brian Greenwood is surely one of the most polished front-of-house men in the business. It is also proof positive that food isn’t everything. Deliver professional service, create a little theatre and then wrap it up in a stagey, slightly ostentatious interior and the natives will be impressed every time. Chianti is ‘classy’ dining.

The food at Chianti is highly conservative (a potato croquette garnish with main course gives you the idea). Nothing here to frighten the horses. Nothing to challenge the diner. Nothing wrong with that either. Each to their own and Chianti does this style of plain biz-bloke fare without so much as a nod and a wink to food fashion, which raises an interesting issue.

The most difficult discipline to maintain for a food writer is to not be seduced by the new and edgy just because it appears to break new ground or shift the culinary paradigm. The same can be said of just about any critic – journalism, theatre, art, etc – where the avant-garde or the simply fashionable can lure writers to denounce that which is conservative, just because something new has come along. (Not to mention critics wishing to impress their readers and fellow critics with profundity on the latest and the hippest. After all, he who first identifies the zeitgeist is, de facto, the greatest critic).

The often difficult challenge then is not to make judgements about the style of the food, but simply about the standard of the cooking, the wine list, the service and the hardware (crockery, cutlery napery, chairs, stemware, etc). Chianti fares well in most areas. The food though – its innate conservatism aside – lacks refinement and is something of a hit and miss affair.

The menu is large – broken up into pasta and specialties (10 choices), seafood (11 choices), pizza (5 choices), meat (8 choices), poultry (4 choices) and seven desserts. There are also salad and side dishes.

The garlic prawns ($13.50/$22.50) comprised four well-done prawns flamed in brandy and finished with a light, garlicky cream sauce. This is straight from the classical French-meets-1970s Australian cookbook; the kind of food one was cooking in the seventies when dishes like Steak Dianne, Coquille St Jacques and prawn cocktail were the last word in classy cooking. This version was served with a timbale of rice. The flavours were very subtle.

A linguine with green beans, pesto and scallops ($13.50/$19.50) was a disappointment. The scallop meat was barely evident. The pasta was swimming in a bland watery stock and was virtually tasteless. The pesto was good.

By comparison a duck in orange sauce ($24.50) was much better. The duck was cut in the Maryland style and oven-roasted moist and rich. The fat on the breast meat had basted the bird and it remained, unctuous and flavoursome. Although the orange sauce was too sweet, it managed to capture the tart, smoky flavours of Seville orange (the bitterest of the orange family and the base for the best marmalades). Perhaps chef used marmalade to help it along. The flavours were deep and dark. The accompanying crumbed and deep-fried potato croquette was about the size of a golf ball, and if one could read thought balloons, the one above our table would have said, “WHY?”

A roasted quail ($12.50, entrée size) was notable for the quality of the quail. It was well cooked. A floury, mushy halved tomato accompanied the bird.

A serve of vegetables ($4.50) included brussel sprouts, and was just OK.

A pudding based on a nougat-speckled semifroddo ($8.50) was the highlight of the meal. Semifroddo is basically an ice cream that

hasn’t been churned and is usually very high in milk solids and proteins – mostly from cream and eggs – to ensure it doesn’t go ‘prickly’ when frozen. This version was impeccable; light, crunchy and rich.

The wine list at Chianti is superb, but offered little of quality by the glass. Nor – and I’ve lamented this before – were there any half bottles to speak of. It seems amazing in this day and age, when the .05 laws have transformed our dining habits, that quality wines are not offered by the glass or the half bottle. If one wants a wine to match each course, the only option is to open three 750ml bottles and presumably leave most of it in the bottle when one leaves (or leave completely hammered). Notwithstanding this gripe, the wine list is a guided tour through some of the best wines available in Australia. I enjoyed a half bottle of Penfolds St Henri ($29.50).

The service is well timed and highly polished, and delivered by front of house staff who know what they’re about. Standards generally are highly consistent.

Chianti sells familiar, grown-up comfort food made for blokes who have no desire to ask, “So what’s sumac then?”. It is conservative by design, and that is at the heart of its long running success and popularity. The mining chaps and their retinue of professionals – who lunch regularly at Chianti and talk, and plan, and dream about the financial wizardry that transforms ‘NL’ into ‘.com’ – wouldn’t have it any other way.

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